So much of what Hornets point guard LaMelo Ball was able to accomplish in an abnormal first NBA season was purely the result of rare talent and abilities says James Borrego. Now, the Charlotte Head Coach is ready to see the reigning Rookie of the Year take the next step, which means becoming an overall better game manager.
“He was able to have success early on in the season just off of instinct and some of our principles and concepts,” Borrego recalled. “He deserves a lot of credit for that. I think the basketball IQ has to take the next step and that’s about absorbing our system and applying it. His instinct is to go play and play off of feel, but now he has to apply more of our concepts.”
Even with an accelerated post-draft timeframe last year, Ball exploded onto the scene and navigated a midseason fractured shooting wrist to finish in the top two amongst all rookies in nightly points (15.7), rebounds (5.9), assists (6.1) and steals (1.6). And with more mouths to feed on the roster this season (which is a nice problem to have, frankly), a welcoming challenge has presented itself to the Chino Hills native.
“There’s only one ball to go around. We’ve got tremendous talent here offensively and a lot of it starts with Melo,” Borrego stated earlier this summer. “His instinct is there. He’s getting stronger. I think time and score situational pieces that equal winning are probably his next logical steps. How does he manage this group? How do I get Gordon [Hayward] a shot? How do I get Terry [Rozier] a shot? He’s got to understand his teammates and what we need.”
Added Borrego, “He has great instinct and I’m not going to take that away. That is his strength, and that’s tough to teach. Now it’s about managing the game, managing the roster, managing these players around him. These players have great respect for him and trust in him. He understands the responsibility that comes with being a point guard in this league and if we want to win, how does he manage that?”
In football, the term ‘game manager’ is sometimes slapped upon middle-of-the-road quarterbacks who are thrust into action and provided limited opportunities to do anything super crazy – just keep the car between 10 and 2, really. It’s a much higher status when it comes to basketball though as high-level point guards operate as empowering on-court maestros orchestrating much, if not the entire, offensive operation.
Ball is already one of the NBA’s most gifted passers and with the talent upgrades around him, could easily find himself sitting in the NBA’s top-10 ranking for assists by the end of the season. Since the start of the 2005-06 campaign, only six rookies have averaged at least six assists and fewer than three turnovers per game, a list that includes Chris Paul and Derrick Rose. Of these six, only Rose shot better from the field than Ball (47.5% to 43.6%) back in 2008-09.
And this is not the first time Borrego has been around such a young, talented point guard this early on in his career either, one who reunited with the Head Coach in Charlotte a few years ago. “The clearest example for me was Tony Parker. Tony played with a lot of instinct. He was a scorer coming out of the draft and did not manage the game at a high level. He had to learn that and it took years of playoff runs and a number of seasons to gain that.”
He added, “LaMelo has the same ability where he can absorb information, process it and apply it at a high level. I expect that growth to happen quicker than most young point guards because of his feel, his innate basketball IQ. At times he fights his instinct just like anybody. His instinct is to go play on feel, play in transition, make plays. There’s another level of slowing down and figuring out what we want to run, getting guys in the right spots, getting guys the right shots at the right time. The stuff he does you just can’t teach.”
Ball has been in Charlotte for the entire offseason and is fully healed from his March wrist injury. Said Borrego, “It’s just all of us getting on the same page and that’s going to come over time, but I believe we’ve taken a major step this summer. We’ve been around each other all summer, he’s around his teammates. I think for us, it’s just that comfort level. He’s going to have to get to know Kelly [Oubre Jr.] as well, Mason, Ish [Smith] and all these young guys.”
Things appear to already be right on track for the healthy Ball, who finally has the luxury of taking up roots in one location for the first time since high school after moving around often early on in his basketball career. And if you ask Terry Rozier, he says he already notices a difference from his fellow starting backcourter.
“It’s night and day for him. He’s there. We’re not really worried about LaMelo at all. He loves basketball. Every time he’s out there, you can tell that’s his peace. We just love him – he’s special. He’s sharpening things up after that first year of play. He helps us play fast and go. He’s our quarterback and I know he’s just happy to be back out there with us.”