I’m not sure I could have anticipated LaMelo Ball being this good this quickly.
He’s been on a tear since being named to the Hornets’ starting lineup on February 1, averaging almost 21 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in 14 games. There certainly were lofty expectations for Ball as a top-three draft selection in 2020. He’s more than exceeded them, and he’s already taken over social media with nightly highlights. But this recognition isn’t anything new for the 19-year-old.
Ball was in the spotlight from the beginning. Accompanied by his two brothers, Lonzo and LiAngelo, and his garish father LaVar, LaMelo verbally committed to play basketball for UCLA at age 13. He dominated at Chino Hills High School as a freshman and sophomore before moving to Lithuania with LiAngelo to play professionally. After four fruitless months for BC Prienai, LaMelo signed with the Junior Basketball Association, a league created by his father as a substitute for NCAA basketball. He then joined SPIRE Institute in Ohio for his senior year.
His real opportunity to show his NBA readiness came in Australia. Ball signed a deal with the Illawarra Hawks of the National Basketball League in June 2019 and played 12 games before bruising his foot. He was named NBL Rookie of the Year after averaging 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 1.6 steals on 37.5% shooting from the field and 25.0% from 3-point range.
In the months leading up to the 2020 NBA draft, experts reached a consensus that Ball was a top-five pick. But that was where the agreement ended. Some argued that he had the ceiling to warrant a number one selection. Others pointed toward his lack of efficiency and inconsistent effort. Ball’s tantalizing potential confused some but beguiled others. It was certain that whoever drafted him would expect a franchise point guard who could score and create looks for others.
After Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman went number one and two, respectively, the Charlotte Hornets selected Ball with the third pick. They took the chance on him despite having Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham— two starting-caliber point guards—on the roster. The first two months of the season for Ball were one big learning experience as he learned head coach James Borrego’s system. He cracked the starting lineup because of an injury to Terry Rozier, but it was only a matter of time before his production took him off the bench.
Court vision is a phrase that is often used to describe a point guard’s playmaking skills. But not every point guard has that vision. Ball does. He leads all rookies with 6.4 assists per game, but his ability to facilitate an NBA offense transcends that number. Every game, Ball makes passes that simply make you say, “How did he know that was open?” He thrives in the fastbreak, whipping behind-the-back passes or launching lobs to high-flying Hornets like Miles Bridges.
Ball’s efficiency during his time in Australia was concerning. Paired with a funky jumpshot that looks like a chest pass, there was valid uneasiness about his ceiling as a scorer in the pros. It’s worked for him, as he’s converting 36.7% of his 3-point attempts. He still has work to do as a finisher around the rim, but that should come with experience and time in the weight room.
His defense is also a work in progress, but the effort he exerts play-by-play is definitely becoming more consistent. That’s a major theme in Ball’s development: there are lots of aspects of his game that still need time to grow, but that’s expected. He’s only played 34 NBA games and we’re expecting greatness for years to come. Those expectations are warranted, but Ball will have growing pains like any other rookie in the league.
So far, Ball is the favorite for the Rookie of the Year Award this season. He's displayed his well-rounded skillset, both as a scorer and a playmaker. But like most NBA rookies, the best is yet to come for Ball. He's the face of the Hornets franchise and will add plenty more awe-inspiring plays to his highlight reel in the coming years.