Can Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram thrive in New Orleans?
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New Orleans is buzzing.
New Orleans is usually buzzing in one definition or another, but when it comes to sports it is a Saints town through and through. Other teams, including the NBA’s Pelicans, were more of an afterthought.
Zion Williamson has changed that.
Alvin Gentry, now about to enter his fifth season as coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, said he has never seen the city buzzing about basketball and the NBA like this before. Williamson has that kind of magnetism — he was even on NBC’s Football Night in America before the Saints game Sunday talking about the city. Zion has the Big Easy excited about fast-paced, high-flying Pelicans team that will be League Pass darlings this season.
It’s the perfect platform for Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, a clean slate to turn around their underachieving reputations.
Can they seize the opportunity?
Ball and Ingram were at the heart of a trade package that brought Anthony Davis to the Lakers, giving the Pelicans two recent No. 2 picks to go alongside Williamson and veterans such as Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick. Ball and Ingram both were up and down in Los Angeles, showing stretches of potential but also struggling to adapt to the NBA then to playing with LeBron James (something a lot of players have struggled with).
New Orleans gives Ball and Ingram a chance, outside the glare of the Lakers’ spotlight, to prove they were worthy of those lofty picks and expectations. That also comes with pressure because they are playing for their next contracts — Ingram will be a restricted free agent next summer, and Ball will be extension eligible.
The pair will get plenty of opportunities — Ball likely starts at point guard, next to the veteran Holiday at the two, and they will share shot creation duties. Ingram probably will start at the three, next to Williamson at the four. The question isn’t will they get minutes.
The big question is can they stay on the court?
Ball has played in just 99 games over two seasons, or 60.4 percent of the Lakers’ games, due to injuries. His season ended last March due to an ankle injury he was not recovering from as expected, and he has battled a host of injuries over his couple of NBA seasons.
Ingram has missed 53 games over the past two years due to injury, including playing in just 52 games last season, and his season was shut down in March also for the potentially more serious blood clotting issue called deep venous thrombosis. That diagnosis has teams cautious about him; if it is chronic it could cost him his NBA career. He’s also just thin (officially listed as 190 pounds at 6’9”) and the physicality of the NBA wears him down and leads to injuries.
If one or both have their season again shortened by injury, it will be a red flag to teams (including the Pelicans, which just upgraded its training staff considerably this summer).
There are reasons to believe Ball and Ingram can breakthrough.
They will also be in an up-tempo style that suits them — the Pelicans played in the second-fastest pace in the NBA last season and coach Alvin Gentry wants to speed things up, not slow them down.
That should be great news for Ball, who does his best work when playing on instinct in open space, more of a playground style. That’s when his look-ahead passes find targets, where his creation is at its best (he’s improved at thinking the game in the halfcourt, but that is still a work in progress). Ball, however, needs to be a bigger threat to score in transition to open up those passing lanes, he scored less than a point per possession on shots in transition last season. He improved as a finisher at the rim, although he’s pretty average there still, and force him into the midrange or a pull-up three and the defense wins. Ball has to change that.
Ingram got 18.8 percent of his shots in transition last season and score an impressive 1.22 points per possession that way.
Ingram played his best ball in the middle of his sophomore season, when the Lakers put the ball in his hands and made him their primary scorer. In February 2018, he was aggressive and attacked the rim, averaging 18.6 points per game shooting 54 percent overall and better than 50 percent from three for the Lakers through 10 games. He seemed to be breaking out, then ankle and knee issues essentially shut him down. The next season the ball was in LeBron’s hands more, and Ingram was slow to adjust.
Ingram can put up numbers — he averaged 18.3 points and 5.1 rebounds a game while shooting a career-high 49.7 percent overall last season — and nobody questions his athleticism, he just tends not to be efficient, shooting just 33 percent from three last season (after 39 percent the season before). When he’s aggressive and attacks the rim he gets to the line, but shot just 67.5 percent of free throws. He simply does not get easy buckets
Ball has skills that teams like — the court vision and passing, plus he is an excellent defensive point guard. Around the league, Ball still has fans in front offices watching as he cleans up some fundamentals (funky shot, taking off on the wrong foot on shots at the rim, etc.). He just needs to become more of a scoring threat. Right now defenses tend to treat him like Rajon Rondo and back off, he needs to develop a floater, and a more consistent three-point shot (he hit 32.9 percent last season, but let him set his feet and have space and he can hit it).
The trade gives Ball and Ingram a chance, an opportunity. That’s all they can ask for. Now it’s on them to grab it.