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Pass the Ball?: Should you trade or keep Lonzo Ball in fantasy basketball

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Ball is playing some of his best basketball right now, but will it continue or should you sell high on him?

USA Today/Pete Rogers Illustrations

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Brandon Ingram this season, so let’s look in on one of the other young players traded to the Pelicans from the Lakers for Anthony Davis: Lonzo Ball.

Remember him? Remember his dad? Remember how strange Lonzo looked playing next to LeBron?

Lonzo’s now 22 years old and is playing his third season in the NBA. He’s averaging his most shot attempts per game (11.7 FGA per game) and his most three-point attempts per game (6+ 3PA per game), while shooting a career-best 35+% from deep. He’s dishing 6+ dimes, and grabbing 5+ boards, and he’s maintained his 1+ steals per game (he’s averaged 1+ SPG across all three seasons). He’s shooting 39% from the floor this year, which is a little bit worse than last season, but better than his rookie year (36 FG%).

He’s been a top 150 fantasy player on the season, but he’s really turned it on lately: Since Christmas, Ball’s scored three triple-doubles, and he’s averaging 15+ PPG, 7+ RPG, 8+ APG, and he’s shooting better than 40% from the floor, and 37+% from three. Over the past month, he’s been 51st on the ESPN Player Rater.

The problems with Lonzo continue to be his free throw shooting, and his finishing. It is VERY difficult to trust a player who shoots free throws as poorly as Lonzo does. He’s shooting 55% from the charity stripe over the past month. That’s a career-best for Lonzo. He shot 45 FT% his rookie season, 41 FT% (Jesus!) his sophomore season, and he’s hitting exactly half of his free throw shots this season.

Devil’s Advocate (sort of): Lonzo’s True Shooting percentage has improved each season! ....except that it’s improved to an atrocious 49.5 TS% from a catastrophic 44 TS% his rookie year.

Lonzo’s also not a great finisher (just 32 FG% on drives), and any foul calls he gets are negated by the fact that he’s such a poor free throw shooter. 92 players average 6+ drives per game this season, including Lonzo at 6.4 per game. Lonzo has the third-worst FG% on drives of those players, and he gets the fourth-fewest fouls on drives, which doesn’t really matter, anyway, because he wouldn’t make the free throws even if he got them.

New Orleans Pelicans v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Now, you don’t have to be a good free throw shooter to have quality fantasy value, obviously, but shooting under 60% from the line means that the player has to give you pretty good counting stat numbers to make up for the drag on your team’s FT%, and the loss of potential points. Up to December 1st of 2019, Lonzo wasn’t really delivering elite counting stats that could fully make up for his deficiencies. However, now that he’s sinking more shots, his fantasy value has risen.

Another potential issue is playing time. Since Christmas, Lonzo’s averaged the most playing time on the Pelicans, and the third-most shots (after Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday). Do we think that’s likely to continue, especially with ZION WILLIAMSON starting to play? I have no idea how New Orleans will handle Zion, but I imagine that everyone will lose a few shots per game so that he can get his.

Lonzo will have to maintain his improved efficiency (such as it is, he’s still below average) if he starts losing shots. There are 85 players this season who average 30+ MPG and shoot 10+ times a game and Lonzo has the third-worst true shooting percentage of that group. If Lonzo can keep his ratios up, or if he can improve on them even more, then his inevitable loss of shots to Zion may not hurt as much in fantasy. Lonzo was never expected to be a scoring point guard, but being a good rebounder, and a high-volume passer (Lonzo’s 21st in total assists so far this season) were seen as vital to his having a successful career, especially if he could become an elite defender. (Lonzo’s basically even in Defensive RPM, if you go in for that sort of thing.)

My gut feeling is that Lonzo’s value may never be higher, and I’m tempted to advise you to sell high on him to someone who doesn’t care about his sinfully bad free throw percentage, and the chance that he loses shots and minutes once Zion starts playing. Having said that, I absolutely can see Lonzo thriving on a team that needs a point guard, and doesn’t have as many good players as the Pels do; in which case, you’d want to hold onto Lonzo until you see what happens at the trade deadline.

And, honestly, that’s probably the best thing to do, because that theoretical team that needs a PG and isn’t as good as the Pelicans are now could be the Pelicans. If they trade Jrue Holiday, or JJ Redick, or Derrick Favors, or any of their players aside from Zion, Ingram, and Lonzo, then Ball could find himself in the exact position to succeed as I mentioned above. And, Zion will most likely be brought along slowly, and New Orleans may not be in a rush to trade Lonzo (especially if they traded one of their vets). His situation could certainly improve, regardless of whether he gets traded or not.

Hopefully, his free throw percentage will, too.

Stats as of Wednesday, January 22nd 2020.