So far, LaMelo Ball has been everything Hornets could’ve hoped for – and more

By Richard Walker

LaMelo Ball prepares to take a shot during a practice session earlier this season. [Hornets.com photo]
For years, the Charlotte Hornets have sought a player they could build their team around.

Is LaMelo Ball that player?

The early returns are certainly promising as Ball leads all NBA rookies in scoring, rebounding and assists after the first half of this year’s compacted scheduled.

But as teammates, coaches and even rivals have said about Ball so far this season after he was the No. 3 overall pick in the Nov. 18, 2020 NBA Draft, it’s more than numbers that make the 19-year-old so special.

“We’ve got a star in the making,” Hornets guard Terry Rozier said of Ball earlier this month. “I would just tell people just to enjoy it because you aren’t going to really see too many people like him. A special talent, special person. Just enjoy it because you aren’t going to see too many guys like this – ever.”

How impressive has Ball been?

He’s breathed life into a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016 hasn’t won a playoff series since 2002.

The son of the flamboyant LeVar Ball and brother of New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball and G-League guard LiAngelo Ball, LaMelo Ball brought national attention to Charlotte in addition to nearly six million Instagram followers.

LaMelo Ball also has an unselfish flair to his game that is pleasing to old school and new school basketball fans alike.

He’s also gotten support from his owner Michael Jordan, who emailed supportive responses to The Associated Press last week after Charlotte closed the first half of his season with a 17-18 overall record that positioned the Hornets seventh in the 15-team Eastern Conference.

“I think Melo has adjusted to the NBA game better than any of us ever thought this early in his career,” Jordan told AP in an email. “He has exceeded our expectations so far this season.”

LaMelo Ball is currently averaging 15.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. Second place in scoring is No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves at 14.9 points per game. Third place in scoring (13.2) and second place in assists (5.4) is No. 12 overall pick Tyrese Haliburton of the Sacramento Kings. And second place in rebounding (5.9) is No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman of the Golden State Warriors.

Current stars like Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell have taken notice.

“He’s the real deal,” Mitchell said of the rookie after a recent Jazz-Hornets game.

Veteran coach Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks went one step futher.

“Right now, with the way things look, he looks like NBA rookie of the year to me,” Carlisle said. “He’s getting it done statistically, their team is winning. He’s got energy, he’s got a vibe, he’s got swagger. If you like watching players that play with flair, he’s right up there.”

LaMelo Ball started the season coming off the bench before injuries led him into the starting lineup.

In his 15 starts, he’s averaging 20.6 points, 6.6 assists and 6.2 rebounds, has already won NBA rookie of the month honors twice and his 20-6-6 averages in February making him only the third teenager to do so in NBA history.

The other two? NBA All-Stars LeBron James and Luka Doncic.

For his part, LaMelo Ball hasn’t been impressed by any of it.

If anything, he’s fulfilling statements his coach James Borrego has frequently made about him that “no moment is too big for him.”

In many ways, LaMelo Ball foreshadowed his solid play shortly after being drafted.

“I feel like I can go out there and play basketball,” he said. “I feel like I was born to do this.”

That LaMelo Ball has been so succesful comes after the pandemic kept him from valuable playing and teaching time he would’ve gotten under normal circumstances like summer league and a full training camp.

Said Borrego before the season began: “We need LaMelo to develop, obviously this is a huge season for him. This is his summer league so it is like we are throwing him into the fire.”

When he came off the bench, LaMelo Ball quickly formed a bond with the athletic Miles Bridges, frequently tossing alley-opp passes to Bridges.

Said Bridges: “I love playing with him, he throws it up all the time and hits me on cuts. It’s infectious.”

Since the award began in 1953, 29 NBA Rookie of the Year winners have eventually become Basketball Hall of Famers, among them all-time greats like Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson.

Can LaMelo Ball follow in those extraordinary footsteps?

Only time will tell.

For now, he’s very clear what his motivation is for the season that resumes Thursday at home against the Detroit Pistons.

“The main goal is always winning,” LaMelo Ball said. “I feel that’s like in life too. You always want to win. So whenever we get a win, that’s great.”