LaMelo Ball’s unconventional, winding path to the NBA finally reached a stopping point on Wednesday night at around 8:30 PM EST when the Charlotte Hornets called in to officially select the 19-year-old point guard with the third overall pick in the draft.
A 6-7 ball-handler with off-the-charts court vision and creativity, Ball made his professional debut in Lithuania at age 16 before eventually landing in Australia to play for the NBL’s Illawarra Hawks last season. He averaged 17.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.5 steals and just 2.6 turnovers in 13 outings, winning Rookie of the Year honors and becoming the youngest player in league history to tally a triple-double (and the fourth overall to do so in consecutive games).
The younger brother of New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball, LaMelo is the fifth Hornets’ draftee taken directly from an overseas program, joining Alexis Ajinça, Jeremy Tyler, Juan Pablo Vaulet and Arnoldas Kulboka. This also marks the second time in the last four years that the NBL has produced a player taken in the first round of the NBA Draft (Terrance Ferguson, 2017).
“We’re very happy that LaMelo Ball was there when we drafted,” said Hornets President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Mitch Kupchak. “He’s a very young, talented player that plays the kind of pace we want to play. He has a flare to his game. We drafted him for his size, length, how he handles the ball and how he pushes the ball. There’s a lot of upside there.”
Head Coach James Borrego added, “We love the pick. We’ve studied him a tremendous amount, just a high-level kid. First of all, top-tier playmaker with size, versatility, can make plays for others. He makes it look effortless. I’m thrilled to have him and I think he fits our style of play. I think it’s a heck-of-a-pick for our franchise, for our organization, for our city.”
“I’m definitely excited,” Ball said. “I’ve been seeing [the Hornets core] since I was young. I saw Miles Bridges at Michigan State and played against PJ Washington [in high school]. It’s going to be exciting. They’re high flyers and we have a young team. I feel like it’s going to be nice. I love to get up and down [the court]. If that’s the playstyle, it definitely fits.”
Ball will provide an immediate boost to the team’s offense (which ranked last in the NBA in pace and third to last in efficiency last season) thanks to his sensational ability to see scoring opportunities well before they transpire. On the other end, his height and length give him a great starting point towards become a high-caliber NBA defender who can switch onto multiple positions.
“We’re going to play a very position-less offense next year,” Borrego stated. “Who’s bringing it up? Anybody’s bringing it up. All the guys can handle the ball, they can move the ball, they all can score at a high level, they all can shoot, they all can play-make and I expect everyone to do that. [LaMelo’s] an elite playmaker and it’s going to be infectious. This is a guy that can move the ball, share the ball with elite size at his position. Our offense should take a major step-up next season.”
Shooting efficiency (38% and 28% from three last season) as well as reliable defensive engagement (which is relatively normal for a 19-year-old prospect) are the two most glaring areas of Ball’s game that need to be addressed. He certainly has the physical skillset and intangibles to possibly play one through three at the NBA level and some of his shortcomings are likely more a byproduct of the inconsistent environments he’s been in up to this point.
“The kid has the ability to guard,” said Borrego. “It’s just going to come down to does he have pride and discipline to do it? I have no question that he’s going to guard and defend at this level. He’s got extreme pride and there’s things we’re going to have to help him with and demand it. I’m just thrilled about the will, the character, the pride of this kid. He wants to win, he wants to get better and there’s a real pride about his craft.”
Borrego also mentioned the possibility of playing Ball and fellow guards Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier concurrently at times this year. Floor spacing, finishing at the rim, facilitating and rebounding are all areas Ball can and should immediately contribute to the team come Day 1.
This is unlike any pick the Hornets have made in recent history though, thanks largely to Ball’s alternative upbringing. Thrust into the basketball spotlight as a high school freshman with cameras and social media tracking his every move, there’s no question he brings a necessary element of excitement and exposure to a young Hornets core still looking to establish its identity. And despite the early oncoming of fame, Ball has stayed grounded throughout the process.
“We got to find out what a good dude he was, how good of a player he is, how hard he works and how normal he is,” said former Illawarra teammate and Australian native Sam Froling, following Ball’s signing amidst a large amount of local fanfare. “When all you see is the TV stuff, you can lose track of who he is as a person. You go to hang out with him and he’s a completely normal person and he’s a lot of fun to be around.”
Earlier this year, Ball generously donated an entire month’s salary to local wildfire victims in the New South Wales region of Australia. “My parents taught me to help out wherever I can, so this is my way of helping,” he said at the time via an Illawarra team statement.
The top of the NBA Draft will more times than not be a boom-or-bust proposition. After jumping up in the lottery for the first time in 21 years, the Hornets were finally in position to swing on a player with true superstar potential. Patience will be paramount in Ball’s development over the next few years, although as it stands now, there’s little argument one of the world’s most talented and intriguing young players is on his way to Charlotte.