LaMelo Ball’s Dazzling Debut Season Ends with NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award

by Sam Perley

Guard LaMelo Ball’s spectacular first NBA campaign with the Charlotte Hornets was finally officially capped off in award-winning fashion on Wednesday evening as he became just the third player in franchise history to garner Rookie of the Year honors.

Across 51 total appearances this season – 31 of which were starts – Ball averaged 15.7 points on 43.6% shooting, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals, while weathering a midseason right wrist fracture. Per Basketball Reference, he became just the seventh rookie in NBA history to record this particular 15/5/6/1 statline, joining a list that includes names like Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway, Chris Paul and Ben Simmons.

“I didn’t know what to expect when we drafted him,” said Hornets Head Coach James Borrego. “I couldn’t be more thrilled to have the kid on the roster. He’s ignited us, given us hope and tremendous excitement. I’m very proud of how he’s handled this year. It’s not easy to come into a situation like this with no Summer League, very limited practice time. To do what he did was extremely special. He was thrust into the fire and he handled himself with maturity, honesty and courage. I’m extremely proud of him for that.”

From his very first preseason appearance in mid-December, Ball’s infectious joy and highlight-generating, improvisational play reverberated immediately on the NBA landscape. Whether it was his pace-pushing tempo, no-look passes or downhill basket attacking, the Chino Hills, CA native and the Hornets quickly became must-see TV on League Pass, bringing more eyeballs to the organization than anything else had in recent memory.

“The day I got drafted, I already knew a lot of these guys,” said Ball during exit interviews. “Being around them and hanging out with people that are real, the energy goes around. The whole year, we can learn from it, take it and move on. It started off pretty well. We probably didn’t have the type of ending we wanted, but like I said, it’s a learning lesson. It’s something we can all remember and then take it for fuel next year.”

Amongst Ball’s most notable performances was his first career triple-double on Jan. 9, making him the youngest player in league history to accomplish this feat. He also tied the franchise’s single-game rookie record for three-pointers (7) on Feb. 8 and scored a career-high 34 points on Feb. 5, the most by any Charlotte rookie since Alonzo Mourning had 36 back in 1993.

Ball finished the year shooting 35.2% and 75.8% from three and the charity stripe, respectively, although was solidly over 37% in the former prior to breaking his wrist on March 20. He trailed only Rookie of the Year runner-up Anthony Edwards in scoring amongst first-year players, was second in rebounding and double-doubles (8) behind big man Isaiah Stewart and then finished first in both assists and steals.

“I thought he was making some significant steps before the injury,” recalled Borrego. “Obviously, that was disrupted and the goal now – it’s one of my top priorities this summer – is to really work with this kid, to develop him, work on offense and defense. I think he’s taken steps in both of those areas, but we got to take some major steps. I think it starts with his body and then working through the offense and defense.”

He added, “We got a ways to go, but he’s hungry, receptive, coachable and he’s got a knack for the game. He’s got the intangibles that you can’t teach. We have a history of guys getting better in the offseason and I expect Melo to do the same thing. This is a kid that wants to work, he loves the game, understands that he needs to get better and wants to get better. When our guys have that approach and that mentality, they’re going to get better in this program.”

Much like it is for almost all young players, getting Ball’s body to the point where it can better absorb NBA-level physicality will be a huge focal point in the coming months. “All aspects of the game, but mostly get the body right, get the body stronger,” he said, when asked about his desired offseason improvements. “I’ll probably be in Charlotte and California just trying to get better and come in next year ready to go further. Get a lot of wins and stay in the gym.”

“Well, he’s got to get stronger,” reiterated President of Basketball Operations and GM Mitch Kupchak. “He’s still a 19-year-old kid playing a game where a lot of the big players are 270, 280 pounds. His skill level is pretty good. He really hasn’t had consistent coaching in four or five years, so having a coach year-to-year on the defensive side of the ball [will help]. He’s got a really good foundation. Clearly, we’re happy to have him, but there’s still a lot of work to get done. The good thing is he is a gym rat. Nothing makes him happier than being in the gym.”

While there’s clearly still plenty of room for Ball to grow, the Hornets undoubtedly nailed last year’s first-round draft pick, which is an invaluable development in terms of how to construct the roster moving forward. Added Kupchak, “Drafting LaMelo at No. 3 and [him] having such a promising season even though it was cut short, gives us more clarity on the direction of the franchise. We still need to add talent... but I do feel that we did upgrade our talent. Some of the talent we [already] had got better.”

“The kid’s going to be great,” said teammate Bismack Biyombo. “You can’t teach somebody how to work hard or force somebody to listen and ask questions. He has all those qualities. All the great players, they listen, work hard and they learn from other people. He’s done that the whole season, whether it’s from coaches and players, and he’s going to continue to do that. I look forward to what’s ahead of him. I think it’s exciting for everybody.”

Although the Hornets’ season ended in somewhat disappointing fashion, there is certainly plenty of excitement brewing for the future with LaMelo Ball firmly at the center of it all.

“I think [having a full offseason] will help a lot,” he said. “Building all that chemistry, staying in the gym, getting all those reps up. I feel like everything I do is going to help for next season. You want to go in every year thinking championship. If that’s not why you’re playing, what are you even doing? Championship is the mindset people got to have. We all know how we can be. I think everybody over here knows what type of team we can be. I definitely believe we can be that caliber-type of team when everybody’s back right."

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