Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball is surpassing the limits of a rookie

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

The Charlotte Hornets are fun. No disrespect to Kemba Walker, but I’m not sure I ever went out of my way to watch a Hornets game before this season. But there’s plenty of reasons to love this squad. Gordon Hayward is a perfect fit, Terry Rozier is clutch, Miles Bridges can fly, and play-by-play man Eric Collins marks out like Jim Ross for all of it. But what truly makes the Hornets League Pass worthy is star rookie LaMelo Ball.

LaMelo has been NBA Twitter fodder since he was 15 years old, and the video of his halfcourt shot went viral. He scored 92 points in a high school game and gave up his college eligibility as the No.1 recruit in the country to play in Lithuania.

LaMelo Ball is redefining what an NBA rookie can be with the Charlotte Hornets

But a lot of time has passed since then. LaMelo cut his trademark hair, and he’s proven his pre-draft scouting report wrong. The experts said Ball couldn’t shoot or compete on the defensive end. Ball hasn’t played 40 games yet, but he’s already making the Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors look bad.

Only four rookies in NBA history have averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists in a full season. Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Ben Simmons, and Michael Carter-Williams. (Say what you want about that season, no one can ever take MCW’s Rookie of the Year Award from him.)

Ball is on his way to joining that group. He’s averaging 15.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 6.4 assists. Ball has defied all of his critics with his shooting numbers. The rookie is also shooting 37.4 percent from 3-point range and 80.2 percent from the free throw line.

The Elias Sports Bureau stated that LaMelo broke a rookie record that stood for 60 NBA seasons. He led rookies at the All-Star Break in total points, rebounds, assists, and steals. That kind of versatility is something that you don’t typically see from a teenager in the league.

Ball’s shooting hasn’t been an issue. If you told people that LaMelo would have a game in his rookie season where he made seven shots and all seven of them were 3-pointers, they would’ve called you crazy.

But that’s the kind of season Ball is having. Crazy. He’s confident as hell from beyond the arc. The dude launches 5.3 3-pointers per game. Saddiq Bey and Tyrese Haliburton are the only rookies that have more 3-point makes. But it’s not by much.

Don’t be too quick to write Ball off as a scoring option off the ball. He is currently making better than 40 percent of his 3.0 catch and shoot 3-point attempts per game, per NBA Stats. His free throw percentage — notably a problem for his brother Lonzo as a rookie — is a good sign that he can become an even better shooter.

Another criticism of Ball entering the league was his defense. Like any rookie, Ball has a long way to go but he’s made an unexpected impact on that end as well. Ball is fourth in the league right now in steals. If you look at the NBA Stats database, he’s also in the top ten in deflections and loose balls recovered.

Ball has made his teammates better in a way that you hardly ever see from a rookie. We’ve seen improvements from young role players like Malik Monk, P.J. Washington, and Miles Bridges. Ball has assisted on more makes for Bridges (41) and Washington (39) than any other duo on the Hornets, per In addition to Ball’s outstanding debut, Terry Rozier has taken another step forward this season. The prospect of a Rozier-Ball backcourt duo going forward seems promising.

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Ball’s aggressiveness when attacking the rim is another thing that stuck out to me. The idea that Ball was passive and inconsistent was something that came up before draft time. LaMelo is in the 82nd percentile for point guards in frequency of shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s second on the Hornets in drives per game — just behind Gordon Hayward — and first among rookies.

Ball’s numbers have risen as a starter. He has started 15 games and posted averages of 20.7 points, 6.7 assists, and 6.2 rebounds on a staggering slash line of .466/.425/.843. It’s no surprise that head coach James Borrego announced that the rookie would stay in the starting lineup for the second half of the regular season.

Charlotte is 8-7 with Ball in the starting lineup and 9-11 when he comes off the bench. The win total is almost identical, but the biggest difference is the offense.

Since Ball was inserted into the starting lineup on February 2nd, the Hornets are 5th in effective field goal percentage and 11th in points scored per 100 possessions, via Cleaning the Glass. Prior to that, they were ranked 22nd and 21st respectively.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the five-man lineup of Ball, Rozier, Hayward, Washington, and Cody Zeller is outscoring opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions. To add some context, the efficiency differential of +5.5 is equal to the championship-contending Los Angeles Clippers.

The best part about LaMelo’s play for the Hornets is that they could actually make the playoffs. If the season ended right now, they’d be in. Kemba Walker is the best player in Hornets franchise history, but he only made the playoffs twice in his eight seasons with the team. A lack of talent around Walker prevented him from ever getting out of the first round.

You can argue that this team is as good or better than any team that Kemba Walker ever had. The Charlotte Hornets are fun, but it’s more than that. LaMelo Ball is the rare type of rookie that can lead a team into the playoffs.

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