New Orleans Pelicans: Comparing Lonzo Ball to NBA’s Assist Leaders

Lonzo Ball has shined in his first year for the New Orleans Pelicans. His passing numbers will make him a franchise cornerstone over the foreseeable future.

Lonzo Ball of the New Orleans Pelicans is a pass-first point guard, who in many ways is a throwback to the old days.

In the beginning the point guard was the player who organized and ran the offense without necessarily taking the shot themselves. In the late ’90s, the point guard would look to score for themselves and set up teammates second.

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This culminated with guys like Allen Iverson, who looked to score first and distribute only if Plan A didn’t pan out.

Today the point guard is a mixture of those two types, a smart passer who scores to set up their teammates or vise versa. Lonzo Ball is a little closer to the early iterations of the position, and it helps when the team has scorers like Brandon Ingram and J.J. Redick to kick the ball to.

Lonzo Ball is one of the more pass-happy players in the league today. He’s fifth in passes made this season and was third in passes during his rookie year. His second year was the only time in his short career that he wasn’t in the top five by passes made and that was the year LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent.

I’ve made a table to compare the assist leaders from this season. What this chart shows is a ranking of the top-15 in assists per game this season, as well as some other numbers to paint a more complete picture of how each player has gotten to their assists per game number.

PlayerAst Games Ast % Pot. Ast Ast Pts Ast-Pass % Total
 LeBron James10.6     60  49.7    18.7   26.5       16.9  636
 Trae Young 9.3     60  45.6    17.3   23.2       17.5  560
 Ricky Rubio 8.9     57  45.6    16.3   22.3       14.3  507
 Luka Doncic 8.7     54  45.3    16.3   22.4       14.1  471
 Ben Simmons 8.2     54  34.8    16.4   21.4       11.3  442
 Damian Lillard 7.8     58  34.1    14.0   19.8       14.5  453
 Kyle Lowry 7.7     52  31.0    13.6   19.0       12.5  399
 Devonte’ Graham 7.5     63  35.3    13.4   19.0       11.3  471
 James Harden 7.4     61  34.4    14.2   18.7       15.1  450
 Malcolm Brogdon 7.1     48  34.5    12.7   17.8       12.6  343
 Lonzo Ball 7.0     56  29.3    12.8   18.4       10.6  392
 Russell Westbrook 7.0     53  35.0    15.3   19.0       15.7  370
 Ja Morant 6.9     59  34.6    12.3   16.8       14.5  409
 Jrue Holiday 6.9     55  29.8    13.0   17.9       12.1  392
 Nikola Jokic 6.9     65  34.4    10.9   17.0         9.1  446

 

The first three columns are fairly self-explanatory, but after that the chart can become more confusing.

The Assist Percentage column represents the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while on the court.

The Potential Assist column shows the number of assists a player could have averaged if a player would have made a basket after receiving a pass.

Assist Points Created are the points created by a player through their assists. The Assist-Pass Ratio is the percentage of a player’s passes that become assists. Finally, Total Assists is just how many assists a player has on the season.

A couple of quick takeaways before we dive deeper into how that chart relates to what our eyes see.

  • The New Orleans Pelicans,  Houston Rockets, and Phoenix Suns are the only teams with multiple players in the top 15 in assists this season.
  • Up to this point, LeBron James’ 49.7% assist rate is the 21st highest all time. John Stockton has the highest single-season mark of 57.5% in 1990-91. Russell Westbrook (57.3% in 2016-17 and 49.8% in 2017-18) and James Harden (50.7% in 2016-17) are the only players on the chart with a higher number than LeBron has this season.
New Orleans Pelicans, Lonzo Ball

Lonzo Ball #2 of the New Orleans Pelicans (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

At some point in his career, Lonzo Ball of the New Orleans Pelicans will lead the NBA in assists.

The most important piece to keep in mind during this is that Lonzo more resembles the classic style of point guard than the elite scoring guard who gets assists when defenses leave his teammates wide open.

For Lonzo to join the elite company of pass-first point guards he’ll need to improve his Ast % number. This shouldn’t be too hard considering his teammates; Brandon Ingram has become an All-Star this season, Zion Williamson has proven he’s too much to handle for most teams, J.J. Redick is one of the best three-point shooters of all-time, and Jrue Holiday is a do-everything player who can knock down any look he’s given.

It could be said that the presence of Jrue Holiday is bringing down that number already. As stated before, only two other teams have multiple players in the top-15 in assists. Jrue and Lonzo’s assist numbers are so similar that their production is likely having a positive effect on the team while hurting their individual stats.

If Lonzo gets an increased role next season, or the New Orleans Pelicans trade Holiday, Ball could very well lead the league in assists.

Lonzo was a 32.3% shooter on pull ups this season. If he can become better than that from beyond the arc, opposing teams will be less willing to give him space in the half-court. The more distance a defense has to cover the more likely one of his teammates will be able to cut to the basket for an open layup or run around a screen a knock down a three.

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Better shooting by Ball will actually translate to more assists.

One thing that may not catch your eye immediately is that Ball has the second-lowest Ast-Pass % behind only Nikola Jokic. What that means is Lonzo is not going to dribble out the shot clock trying to get his shot, he’s going to keep the ball moving even if the potential for an assist isn’t there. Teammates are more excited to play with a point guard who doesn’t dribble the ball into the floor and keeps it moving.

Lonzo Ball is a throwback to the old days, when point guards saw it as their duty to get everyone involved in the offense. If he continues his pass-first mentality, he could emerge as the best assist man in the game.

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