When Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson cleared quarantine and returned to practice this week after an excused absence from the team, perhaps no one was as thrilled to see him as Lonzo Ball.
“We’re happy to have him back,” Ball told reporters Tuesday. “He puts our team at full strength. We’re a lot better with him than without him. Just having him back to start the [seeding] games is great for us.”
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Ball is right, of course. In 19 NBA games prior to the suspension of play, Williamson averaged 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while shooting nearly 59 percent from the field. When he was on the floor, the Pelicans had a net rating of plus-10.4. When he sat, that number dropped to minus-3.5.
Yes, that is a small sample size of fewer than 600 minutes, but Williamson’s initial impact went beyond the numbers. His mere presence can change the complexion of a game, and Ball grasps that idea better than anyone on the team.
The Pels’ new dynamic duo has already built a strong on-court relationship, one capable of bringing fans off their seats in seconds — and there is no better example of that element than Lonzo’s lobs to Zion during a March 8 game against the Timberwolves.
In a span of roughly a minute of game time, Ball found Williamson from beyond halfcourt twice with pinpoint alley-oop passes.
Ball will often grab a rebound or outlet pass and already be looking for Williamson before his body is completely turned toward the rim. He is one of the best players in the league at manufacturing points with pace.
“Honestly, sometimes I don’t even think he’s gonna throw it,” Williamson said after the win over the Timberwolves. “But then, he just throws it. I’m like, ‘All right, I’m gonna try to go get it.’ … He puts in on a perfect spot and I’m just able to get it.”
But it’s not just the spectacular plays that illustrate their chemistry. Ball already understands how defenses approach Williamson, and he isn’t afraid to improvise.
In the play below, Williamson explains how Ball recognizes the defender is jumping ahead of the play. Ball whips a pass to Williamson, who rips the ball baseline and finishes with a reverse layup.
While it’s extremely early in his pro career, Williamson also seems to be acutely aware of the “Zion Effect.” He knows help defenders plan to pounce when he starts driving toward the paint, and he is a willing passer.
“He makes my game very easy, honestly,” Ball said in March. “Whether it’s pick-and-roll, or throwing the ball up there for him to go get it. He requires a lot of attention on the offensive end, so he frees up a lot of open shots for other guys, including myself.”
New Orleans faces a challenging road to the 2020 NBA playoffs, as the Pelicans are 3 1/2 games back of the Grizzlies with eight “seeding games” remaining. It’s possible they could force a play-in prior to the first round, but there are other Western Conference teams in contention as well, including the suddenly healthy Trail Blazers.
But even if the Pels don’t reach the postseason this year, they can take solace in knowing Williamson, 20, and Ball, 22, are only scratching the surface of their connection.
“It’s really just natural. [Williamson is] a different type of talent,” Ball said on JJ Redick’s podcast in April. “I never really played with a guy like him before. He complements my game tremendously. I’m just happy to be with him.”