Once, not long ago, Lonzo Ball was considered a ‘sure thing.’

The resume was immaculate. Ball followed his 2016 ‘California Mr. Basketball’ honors, with a unanimous All-American selection during his lone season at UCLA. He was selected second overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. A whirlwind of hype followed the soon-to-be rookie to the Las Vegas Summer League. Ball was named MVP of the annual showcase.

Four years later, the ‘sure thing’ has yielded mixed results.

Today, Ball, now with the New Orleans Pelicans, is playing on his second team after being utilized as a pawn in the blockbuster trade to acquire Anthony Davis. The Pelicans are 5-8 and losers of six of their last seven games. Meanwhile, the Lakers are defending champions.

Rumors are swirling that the Pelicans are exploring trade options for Ball. This is perhaps due to his limitations in shooting the basketball and staying healthy. The former second-pick is shooting a career worst 28.2 percent from deep on a career high 7.1 attempts per contest. Through the first three years of his career, Ball missed an average of about 25 games per season.

With an emerging All-Star in Zion Williamson and the league’s returning Most Improved Player in Brandon Ingram, New Orleans has one of the best young cores in the NBA. To properly fit in amongst those pieces, Ball must be dependable in his availability and ability as a floor spacer. So far this season, that has not been the case. His inability to do so is resulting in his diminishing value to the club’s future plans.

A Poor Fit Under Van Gundy?

After posting a career best 37.5 percent from three-point range last season, Ball’s shooting a career low 28.2 percent this season.
(Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images)

Entering the 2020-21 season, New Orleans hired Stan Van Gundy as their Head Coach. Traditionally, his teams rank among the most efficient defenses in the league and operate with one of its slowest paces on offense.

That does not bode well for Ball, a transition savant. His elite ability to initiate fast breaks derives from a knack for playing passing lanes and defensive rebounding. He remains one of the best long-distance passers in the NBA; a highlight machine with Williamson running deep for lobs like Randy Moss.

By slowing the pace, Van Gundy is playing to Ingram’s strengths as an isolation scorer and playmaker. This is probably the best course of action. Teams predicate offense around their number one scoring options all the time. Ingram is thriving with his increased role. He is currently leading the Pelicans in assists with 5.1 per game. On the flip side, Ball is averaging a career-low 4.4 assists per game.

After altering his technique to revise a debilitating tick in his shooting mechanics, Ball shot a career-best 37.5-percent from distance during the 2019-20 season. This was a revelation. An extra knock-down shooter presented all kinds of opportunities for Ingram to expand his game.

Perhaps this was an outlier. Ball’s struggles at the free-throw line are well documented, and there was a lack of an increase in shooting percentage from the charity stripe. Weird, right? This happens to be the crux of Ball’s Achilles heel. He has a total aversion to drawing fouls. Which means that he avoids driving into the paint. So if Ball is not able to knife into the paint, or space the floor, what use is he on the court?

Should the Pelicans Pull the Trigger?

During a recent three game stretch, Van Gundy supplemented second-year guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker into starting lineup for Ball, who was absent due to knee soreness. Unfortunately for Ball, Alexander-Walker asserted himself as a viable alternate option.

Against the Los Angeles Clippers, Alexander-Walker exploded for a career-high 37 points and five three-pointers. This was a diversified barrage. He ran off pin-down screens for catch-and-shoot jumpers and shot off the bounce on more than one occasion. This is the kind of deep threat that has been missing so far this season for New Orleans.

It must have felt like writing on the wall for Ball to watch Alexander-Walker, a younger player, prove himself capable in that position. Time is sneaking up on the fourth-year pro. So many questions in a contract year no less.

Ball’s upcoming restricted free agency is among the most fascinating contractual subplots of the season. The reason is the questions surrounding his development. Is he a point guard? Can he be a wing? Was the 37.5 percent shooting from three a blip? Is a player with so many questions worth extending?

Why not trade him? Maybe there is a suitor out there who knows these answers better than you or I. Plenty of teams could use an extra ball handler, just look at Toronto, New York, and Orlando. Maybe the Los Angeles Clippers make something work in spite of their lack of draft picks.

Who is Lonzo Ball? I for one believe he tops out as a quality rotational piece. He has the size and the hands to be disruptive on defense. Players who can contribute on defense and make open threes will typically last ten-years in the league. Perhaps his destiny is the next Iman Shumpert.

These days, the only sure thing with Ball is no one knows what to expect.

The Pelicans squeezed out a128-123 victory over the Sacramento Kings last Friday. How are they doing this season in Northern California? Follow @KyleEdwords for more NBA chatter.
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Kyle Edwards

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