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NBA Daily: The Lonzo Problem

Lonzo Ball has come off the bench in the last five games for the New Orleans Pelicans. Not starting isn’t typically a big deal – unless you’re supposed to be the point guard of the future. Drew Mays writes.

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The New Orleans Pelicans began the season as a trendy pick to sneak into the Western Conference playoffs. They acquired Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball in the Anthony Davis deal. They signed free agent J.J. Redick and traded for Derrick Favors. The always-underrated Jrue Holiday returned. The talent was there to win 40 to 45 games and make a postseason push.

Then, Zion Williamson hurt his knee and was ruled out for six to eight weeks (we’re approaching the end of that timetable – he’s expected back sometime during January). New Orleans started 0-4. Their defense is very, very bad. Now, they’re on a 12-game skid – the longest losing streak in franchise history – and per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe, teams are monitoring the availability of Holiday and Redick as we move towards the trade deadline.

New Orleans currently sits at 6-21 in a hole it can’t climb out of. And perhaps the most disappointing on-court problem for Alvin Gentry’s bunch has been the play of Lonzo Ball.

Entering his third year in the league, Lonzo is still the personification of “what if?” At 6-foot-6 with go-ahead vision we hadn’t seen in years, the eldest Ball brother was supposed to bring flash and substance back to Los Angeles. The combination of weird rosters, injury, weighty expectations and the bright LA lights made that nearly impossible. He showed bursts of potential in his first two years, but they were mere blips on the radar.

Still, the flashes were there. When Davis had his sights set on Hollywood, Lonzo was an attractive trade chip.

He needed a change of scenery. He’s only just turning 22. Let him be the primary creator, play sans-LeBron.

It all made sense.

Lonzo even changed his shot! No more catapult from the left side of his face – he centered his release. His jumper was the most popular one of the summer, leading the hype-train even over Ben Simmons.

With his new release, new opportunity and healthy body, Lonzo was ready to roll.

Well, maybe not.

Across 19 games and 12 starts, Lonzo is averaging 10.1/5.5/4.4 splits in 28.1 minutes per game. The troubling numbers are the same: He’s shooting 37.4 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from three. Cleaning the Glass tracks all of his shooting metrics as being in the 39th percentile or worse. His free-throw percentage has increased…to 59.1 — he’s still at 46.1 for his career — on a lowly 1.2 free throws per game.

And that coincides with what appears to be the biggest issue. Despite his size, quickness and ball-handling chops, he’s wholly unaggressive. Lonzo makes just 3.7 field goals every game, and 2 of those are threes. How can someone with his physical makeup hit less than two buckets inside the perimeter and less than a single free throw every game? Looking at just the numbers, it defies logic.

But it’s clear when you watch the games. He’s afraid. He’s timid. His all-world vision is limited by the scarce number of his drives and his lack of decisiveness when he does decide to attack. Everything is side to side; even when put in a pick-and-roll (where he’s been bad), Lonzo often lazily slides over the screen before swinging the ball laterally to a teammate. Whether he’s afraid to shoot free throws or happy taking threes with his new release, settling to this magnitude isn’t good enough.

This ineffectiveness has forced Alvin Gentry to send Lonzo to the bench. Speaking before the loss to Orlando yesterday, Gentry described the move as a way to “help the overall flow of the game.” He threw in the qualifier that it had more to do with a lack of playmaking in the early second-quarter lineup. However, with all due respect, futures of franchises don’t get benched for Kenrich Williams.

Again, the numbers tell an unsettling tale. The Pelicans on/off differential with Lonzo is minus-9.5. Cleaning the Glass projects their expected win differential with Lonzo, in an 82-game season, to be 21 games worse. Regardless of your feelings towards metrics, a player who leads to an extra 21 losses versus an average team is failing.

Back to the Kenrich Williams problem. New Orleans has two lineups it uses more frequently with almost 30 more possessions than any other. The most-used is Holiday, Redick, Williams, Ingram and Jaxson Hayes. They are plus-18.3 in point differential, in the 92nd percentile.

New Orleans’ second-most-popular lineup is the same, but with Lonzo in place of Williams. They are minus-7, in the 32nd percentile.

Here’s the thing: Williams is averaging 5 points on 38.4 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from three. He’s 37.5 percent on free throws. How can the Pelicans be that much better with him? Lonzo is a solid defender.

The answer is this: He’s been that bad on offense. Borderline unplayable.

The Pelicans are second-to-last in the West, with the only positive news being Zion’s impending return. Even with that, it may not get better soon. Holiday’s departure, dismissed out-of-hand in September, now seems plausible. The playoffs aren’t happening.

And Lonzo’s outlook as a future-All-Star is almost dead, his outlook as a starter is evaporating and his outlook as even a rotation player is dicey at best. However, as he continues in New Orleans, he needs to make the overhaul fast – Lonzo’s deal runs through next season.

Otherwise, that qualifying offer from David Griffin that’s supposed to come in 2021? It may not be there.

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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