The 2020 NBA Draft was said to be defined by its lack of star-power at the top of the class. While the first pick is usually obvious months ahead of draft day, there was little consensus on the top prospect in last year’s class. The Minnesota Timberwolves reportedly searched long and hard for a trade partner after landing the No. 1 overall pick, and couldn’t find any takers. Some suggested that as many as seven players from the 2021 draft class could go first overall in 2020.
Each of the top prospects was said to have a fatal flaw. Anthony Edwards had freakish athleticism and impressive shot-making flashes, but his focus often waned on both ends of the court. James Wiseman was extremely big and extremely fast from end-to-end, but his lack of polished offensive skill and underwhelming quick-twitch athletic traits left much to be desired from a top center prospect. Then there was LaMelo Ball, the player with the biggest name and most tantalizing highlights held back by a polarizing reputation with decision-makers around the league.
SB Nation had Ball as the top prospect in the draft coming off of his season in Australia, but executives with their jobs on the line weren’t as bullish. Critics thought Ball’s decision-making and shot selection were far too unrefined to be the offensive engine of an NBA team. They thought he would be among the worst defensive players in the league, and would need to completely overhaul his three-point stroke. They saw a lead guard who could make a flashy play but struggled to execute a simple one. There were also pervasive questions on how he would fit into an NBA locker room after typically having his team’s entire system built around him since his early days at Chino Hills High School.
Ball slipped to the Charlotte Hornets at the third pick after Edwards and Wiseman went 1-2. His critics had plenty of ammunition at the start of the season. Ball went scoreless in his debut against the Raptors. A week later, he shot 1-of-10 from the field in Charlotte’s three-point loss to the Magic. He went scoreless again the next game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Ever since, Ball has been on the fast track to stardom. His performance against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night showed just how special he can be.
Ball finished with 20 points, eight assists, four rebounds and two steals on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor. Phoenix had won nine of their last 10 games, but Ball’s brilliance lifted the Hornets to a 124-121 victory.
Since entering the Hornets’ starting lineup on Feb. 1, Ball is averaging 19.5 points, 6.3 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game with 40.8 percent shooting from three-point range. The Hornets have transformed into a playoff team overnight, and young teammates like Miles Bridges and Malik Monk have suddenly been unlocked.
Ball is just getting started, but it’s already clear that he’s a star in the making.
LaMelo Ball can absolutely be a lead offensive engine
The toughest thing to find in the NBA is a player who can consistently create in the halfcourt for himself and his teammates. While this has traditionally been the role of the point guard, wing-sized offensive players have taken on these duties more and more in recent years. Last season, LeBron James and Luka Doncic finished 1-2 in assists.
Ball provides the best of both worlds: he’s listed at 6’8 and is blessed with natural point guard instincts. There aren’t many players in the world who could see and make this skip pass to the corner:
There are plenty of examples of Ball finding the shooter in the corner with a pass on the money throughout the season:
LaMelo already so good as a passer. Double clutch mid air fake pass to the roll man on target to the corner. pic.twitter.com/DkO9iB7Fr7— Raj C. (@UnwrittenRul3s) February 23, 2021
Ball’s passing ability was highly regarded entering the draft, but it was fair to wonder how much value it would have if he couldn’t put pressure on the defense as a scorer.
That hasn’t been much of a problem thus far. After getting Suns center Deandre Ayton on a switch late in the fourth quarter, Ball cooked him off the dribble and finished with a dunk.
On the season, Ball is taking 31.1 percent of his shots at the rim, and he’s making 61.2 percent of those attempts, per Basketball Reference. His true shooting percentage is a tick below league average, but still impressive for a rookie at better than 54 percent.
If teams thought they could go under every screen against him at the start of his career, they’re quickly learning that’s an easy way to get burned.
LaMelo’s three-point shot has translated
Ball had flashes of shot-making with deep range during his year in Australia before the draft, but his numbers at the end of the season weren’t good. He ended his year making 27.9 percent of his three-pointers on 6.62 attempts per game.
His shot has already looked so much better in the NBA. Right now, Ball is making 35 percent of his threes on 5.3 attempts per game. Playing off the ball at times next to Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward has helped put Ball in position to hit spot-ups he wasn’t getting often last year. He’s also been incredibly impressive at hitting pull-ups.
So far, Ball is making 37.1 percent of his pull-up threes on 2.3 attempts per game. He’s making 35.6 percent of his spot-up threes on 2.9 attempts per game.
LaMelo Ball jumps to the ball and gets the steal/INT, then pushes in transition for a deep pull-up 3 pic.twitter.com/aAWeAAae9e— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) February 25, 2021
LaMelo’s defense is already passable
While Ball had plenty of lowlights on the defensive end in Australia, there was always reason to believe he would turn into a quality defender. Being 6’8 gives him a size advantage on any opposing point guard in isolation defense, and also helps him make plays as a rotation defender. He’s clearly a player with a great feel for the game offensively, and that has translated on the defensive end, too.
Right now, Ball is No. 6 in the league in steals per game, but his impact goes even beyond that.
If it was assumed Ball would be among the worst defenders in the league as a rookie, he’s far exceeded that expectation. The EPM metric from Dunks and Threes puts Ball in the 40th percentile league-wide as a defender. He grades out as a positive defensively by win shares and box score plus-minus, per Basketball Reference. He has plenty of room to grow on that end, but anyone who expected him to be a disaster should feel foolish now considering he’s already much better than that as a rookie.
Ball is only going to keep getting better and better
Ball is currently the second youngest player in the NBA behind fellow rookie Patrick Williams, who was taken one pick after him by the Chicago Bulls. Ball won’t turn 20 years old until August 22.
The Hornets finished 23-42 a year ago. With Ball this season, they’re currently the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture at one game under .500. Ball isn’t the sole reason for the Hornets’ turnaround — Terry Rozier’s career season, the addition of Gordon Hayward, and the recent breakout of Malik Monk have helped — but it’s clear his energy and enthusiasm has been infectious.
Edwards has been impressive as of late and Wiseman should be a solid center, but it sure feels like Ball should have been the first pick at this point. Maybe Cade Cunningham and/or Evan Mobley have brighter futures, but the idea that half the lottery from the 2021 class would be better than anyone in 2020 was laughable.
The Hornets already feel like LaMelo’s team. It isn’t hard to imagine him as one of the faces of the league in the near future. Not even halfway through his rookie season, Ball looks like the young centerpiece every team wishes it could have.