Little was working in favor of LaMelo Ball heading into the NBA draft, where he landed with the Charlotte Hornets. He’d bounced around from team to team and country to country, his age was raising a red flag with respect to his maturity, and his father’s reputation meant that the 6-foot-6 guard carried more baggage than a hotel bellhop.
It added up to justifiable pessimism from the man that Ball needs to impress most on a daily basis. Ten starting assignments into his NBA career, Ball is wiping away all skepticism.
Michael Jordan’s Hornets picked wisely on draft day.
LaMelo Ball’s past affected projecting his future
LaMelo Ball already had a target on his back on Day 1 of his scholastic career in Chino Hills, California. Playing alongside brothers LiAngelo and Lonzo Ball, he emerged as a star, sharing MaxPreps’ recognition as the nation’s best freshman. He followed by averaging 26.7 points as a sophomore. However, LaVar Ball pulled his son out of school the following fall.
On Dec. 7, 2017, LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball signed with an agent, ending any possibility that LaMelo Ball, 16 at the time, could ever play college basketball. Four days later, the brothers signed with Prienai of the Lithuanian Basketball League. Having to adjust both to life overseas and pro competition, Ball played sparingly and ineffectively. LaVar Ball cited injuries and playing time in bringing his sons back to the U.S. in April 2018.
Ball spent the following year playing for SPIRE Institute and Academy, an Ohio prep school outside the jurisdiction of major high school sports sanctioning bodies. His nomadic career took one more twist after that as Ball signed with the Illawarra Hawks in Australia.
A foot injury ended his season Down Under after 12 games. However, Ball showed flashes of brilliance while averaging 17 points and 6.8 assists. He returned to the U.S. in January 2020, anticipating that a schedule of combines and private workouts would showcase him for the NBA draft. Instead, the pandemic shut down nearly all activities.
College prospects had a 25- to 30-game season during which time NBA scouts could evaluate them. Ball would have to enter the NBA draft as more of a question mark for owner Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets as the front office evaluated options.
Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego had his doubts
A consensus formed in the early fall that Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, and LaMelo Ball would be the top picks of the delayed NBA draft. Edwards has struggled with his shooting for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Wiseman plays to good reviews in relatively limited court time for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Drafting third, the Charlotte Hornets were almost obligated to take Ball, a consensus cut above the remaining talent. Still, Hornets coach James Borrego had reservations about bringing Ball into an organization owned by Michael Jordan, one of the fiercest competitors the NBA has seen. The Ball family connection and the fact that the teen prospect had spent recent years bouncing around the globe raised concerns.
Borrego, team president Mitch Kupchak, and assistant GM Buzz Peterson worked Ball out in November. Nothing they saw about his passing and shooting surprised them, but the way Ball handled tough questions as they spoke sealed it. Borrego determined that reality trumped perception.
“It’s what you hear. It’s what you read. It’s what is on the Internet,” Borrego told Sports Illustrated in explaining initial concerns.
Ball spoke passionately about valuing family. “It felt real and genuine,” the coach said. “Whatever I got back in that interview to me was very honest and genuine. I felt like this was a more humble kid than I anticipated. It eased my concerns a little bit.”
LaMelo Ball is a rookie star in the NBA
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The Charlotte Hornets have found themselves a winner in LaMelo Ball. The rookie guard remains a work in progress when it comes to his shooting and defense, but all the elements necessary for a long NBA career are apparent.
For the season, Ball is averaging 14.6 points, 6.1 assists, and 6.1 rebounds a game for the 14-16 Hornets, who have a shot at their first winning record and playoff berth since 2016.
Coach James Borrego finally relented and inserted Ball into the starting lineup in early February. In the 10 games since, he is averaging 19.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 6.1 rebounds. Ball’s turnovers are up as he logs more minutes against No. 1 point guards, but so is his shooting percentage.
At 40.6% accuracy on 3-pointers as a starter, Ball is forcing defenses to play him tight on the perimeter. As the season progresses, that should lead to broader passing lanes and more opportunities to create by improving his first step and driving to the bucket.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.