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LaMelo Ball has become the face of the Charlotte Hornets. The 20-year-old and the team are 40-39, which is good for the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference. That said, the Hornets only trail the eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets by two games, as it concerns the NBA Play-in Tournament.

Ball, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, had a unique road to the NBA. Going against the grain of playing high school and collegiate basketball, he played professionally in Lithuania. This decision took place as Ball’s brother, Lonzo Ball, was beginning his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

LaMelo’s time in Lithuania was eventually followed by one season with the NBL Australia as a member of the Illawarra Hawks. However, the young guard credits his time in Lithuania with giving him the grit required in the NBA.

LaMelo Ball’s time in Lithuania with Vytautas Prienai

LaMelo Ball of Vytautas Prienai in action during a game against Zalgiris Kauno in 2018 in Prienai, Lithuania
Vytautas Prienai’s LaMelo Ball during a 2018 game in Lithuania | Alius Koroliovas/Getty Images

In an interview with SLAM, LaMelo discussed how the rigors of playing in Lithuania both on and off the floor equipped him for whatever the NBA could throw his way. He described how playing basketball there involved a completely different lifestyle.

“Honestly, after Lithuania, I didn’t give a f–k where I got drafted to,” LaMelo said. “The beds? You roll off to the left, you fall off. You roll off to the right, you fall off. Motherf–king calves hanging off the bed — not feet, calves hanging off the bed! It was bad, bro.”

The guard emphasized that he was grateful to be in the U.S. after honing his skills in Europe. “Food was hard to eat out there. Hella cold. Nobody around. That’s pretty much when I just locked in,” he stated. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t really need too much. Just get it done and grind.’ That right there was big, I feel like. Sacrifice — you feel me? That’s what I looked at it as.”

Learning how to be mentally tough benefits any athlete, but younger ones certainly have a steeper learning curve. LaMelo, however, believes Vytautas Prienai, his Lithuanian team, toughened him up for the NBA. “The mental s–t goes back to Lithuania,” he explained. “Ever since all that, I ain’t gon’ lie, my mental has been straight. It ain’t nothing you can do. I even sat the bench there. I literally did everything out there.”

LaMelo is already one of the best ball-handlers in the NBA

Just two seasons into his NBA career, LaMelo has become a sturdy floor general and one of the best ball-handlers in the sport. The compelling offensive player does a little bit of everything on that end of the floor.

LaMelo is adept at getting inside off the dribble, finding his teammates for easy buckets, and stretching the floor. The 6-foot-7 athlete is an efficient shooter — a weakness of his entering the NBA — a nifty passer, and starts the fastbreak off the boards.

LaMelo entered the Charlotte Hornets’ April 5 matchup with the Miami Heat averaging 19.9 points, 7.5 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals while shooting 42.5/37.9/86.9 across 32.3 minutes per game. Starting in the bulk of the Hornets’ games this season (he missed some time in the second half of last season due to a wrist injury), LaMelo has built on his rookie campaign. 

This growth has come in field goal, free throw, and overall scoring efficiency, while serving as the driving force of the team’s offense. While his NBA career is still raw, LaMelo has proven the Hornets right in their decision to draft him. When Charlotte selected LaMelo, they already had two capable point guards in Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham.

LaMelo is to the Hornets what Trae Young is to the Atlanta Hawks. He’s a centerpiece point guard drafted in the early portion of his respective draft class who’s flashing elite potential.

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As previously alluded to, LaMelo has continually improved across his two NBA seasons. Given his unique frame, impact, and youth, he still has room for growth. Some of the evolution could be on display this spring in the NBA Playoffs. 

Last season, LaMelo didn’t look 100% in his return to the floor. At the moment, he’s firing on all cylinders, and the Hornets just got back another vital source of offense in Gordon Hayward. Hornets head coach James Borrego has a tantalizing rotation from a sheer scoring standpoint. 

LaMelo and Rozier generate offense and ball movement. Miles Bridges is having a breakout season, serving as a force to be reckoned with on the offensive end. Hayward is a well-rounded and efficient scorer. Kelly Oubre Jr. is an athletic and versatile scorer. Big men Mason Plumlee and Montrezl Harrell can move people in the paint.

It’s a matter of the Hornets getting past the Play-in Tournament. If they make it, LaMelo has the tools to do what Young did last postseason — a star player who takes his team on a deep playoff run.

LaMelo and the Hornets have the talent and complementary skill sets to make noise in the Eastern Conference. Everyone around them — the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Miami Heat — are up against the clock. But Charlotte is just getting started.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference. Contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.