Nylon Calculus: Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball have special chemistry

Zion Williamson, #1, New Orleans Pelicans, Lonzo Ball, #2, New Orleans Pelicans, (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson, #1, New Orleans Pelicans, Lonzo Ball, #2, New Orleans Pelicans, (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

In a short time together, Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson developed a special chemistry that could be a huge factor when the Pelicans arrive in Orlando.

Zion Williamson’s rookie season was abbreviated — first by knee surgery and then by the COVID-19 pandemic — but that didn’t make it any less impressive. As expected, he was incredibly efficient as a finisher around the basket but he was also unbelievably prolific at getting shots around the basket. The quick chemistry he developed with Lonzo Ball was an important factor and, while the Pelicans may still be a longshot to make the playoffs in Orlando, what hopes they do have rest heavily on Ball and Williamson creating easy offense.

Ball assisted Williamson 57 times last season, well down the cumulative assist combination leaderboard. But they also played just 437 minutes together, meaning they were connecting for an assist 4.7 times per 36 minutes when they were both on the court. That minute-weighted number would vault them to the top of the leaderboard, placing them in outlier territory.

Ball’s totals are somewhat padded by Williamson’s elite touch and finishing ability, as well those plays where he’s delivering a simple entry pass and abdicating responsibility for creating the actual scoring opportunity. But that’s true, to some degree, for all of these player combinations and the skill sets of Ball and Williamson are incredibly complementary.

What makes Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson such a special combination?

Among qualified guards this season, Ball ranked 14th in defensive rebounds per 100 possessions and 16th in assists per 100 possessions, and just over a third of his assists (132 of 392) came on possessions that began with him grabbing a defensive rebound. His relentless focus on transition, immediately getting his head up and finding Williamson, was a powerful tool for the Pelicans’ offense.

The three plays here are eye-popping examples. In the second, Ball is still in the air coming down with the defensive rebound and he’s already looking up the court for Williamson. In the last play, he doesn’t even have the ball yet, he’s waiting for Brandon Ingram to hand it off, and he’s already sneaking a peak to see where Zion is.

It’s not just Ball’s awareness in transition that makes this partnership work. He’s also an extremely accurate passer, particularly with lobs, and got Williamson plenty of easy buckets by passing over the top of the defense and letting Zion use his leaping ability and catch radius to finish. Of the 57 assists Ball threw to Williamson this season, 53 were for shots in the paint, 20 were for transition baskets (made in the first six seconds of the shot clock) and 13 came on lobs.

Watching video of all 57 assists, I counted at least five others that were ostensibly lobs but Zion landed off the catch and finished on his second jump.

Exactly what kind of basketball we’ll see in Orlando is still a big question, but it stands to reason that rust — both physical and mental — will have complex offensive systems running at something less than peak efficiency. In that kind of scenario, the simplistic, skill-based chemistry of Ball and Williamson, getting easy buckets in transition and exploiting vertical holes in opposing defenses, could be an enormous difference-maker.

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