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Let’s Make A Steal: LaMelo Ball Keeps Generating Takeaways

by Sam Perley

The natural instinct of LaMelo Ball allows him to see things on the basketball court that a lot of other players can’t. Seemingly always a step or two ahead, his feel and intuition has allowed him to puppeteer the Hornets’ offense in an incredibly unique fashion. 

Ball’s scoring and facilitating dominates most of his highlight reels, but lately, that same flare has spilled over more and more to the defensive play-making end. He currently ranks eighth in the NBA in steals per game (2.1), third in total deflections (64) and eighth in loose balls recovered (20). Both his nightly marks for steals and deflections (3.4) are increases from his rookie season (1.6 and 3.0, respectively). 

Mimicking an NFL defensive back more than an NBA player, many of Ball’s takeaways are coming off-the-ball or in zone coverage, compared to more traditional man-to-man defense. “Passing lanes, how the game is going, whether I can get it or not, right place at the right time,” Ball says, when asked about what he looks for pre-steal. “If I feel like I can go get it, I’m going to try and go for the steal. I feel like it boosts the momentum definitely because defense leads to offense. I feel like a steal, block or any play like that can boost the momentum. 

Adds PJ Washington, “Melo has a knack for things like that. When he’s off the ball, he’s always trying to get steals and find a way to get back on offense. In that area, I think he’s one of the best in the league. You feel like when he’s out there, he’s trying to steal every pass. Having a guy like that who can get those passes, get out in transition and create for others is great.”

Ball is accounting for 31.2% of the Hornets’ steals when he’s on the floor, the eighth-highest rate in the NBA amongst players averaging at least 30 minutes per game. Gerald Wallace was the last Charlotte player to average multiple steals a game for a full season, doing so three straight times from 2005-08. Only Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, LeBron James and Chris Paul have accomplished this feat at age 20 years old or younger. 

There’s a fine line in the NBA between knowing when to stay in check defensively and when to gamble, especially for younger players. If things pay off, it can lead to a live-ball turnover and possible transition opportunity the other way. But when the roll of the dice suddenly goes awry, the whole defense can be left scrambling or personal fouls can start adding up quickly.    

“Watching [LaMelo’s] film pre-draft, he gambled quite a bit,” recalls Hornets Head Coach James Borrego. “He was out in passing lanes. That was his instinct there. That didn’t surprise me. The rebounding, going to get 50-50 balls against seven-footers in traffic, I didn’t see as much of that on film. I did see some of the passing lane stuff and I thought that would translate. We’ve had to pull him back a little bit doing that too much at times.”

One of the most recent examples of Ball’s prowess in this area took place in the fourth quarter of the team’s 104-96 home win over New York on Nov. 12. Down six with 1:15 remaining, Knicks point guard Kemba Walker lofted an inbounds pass from the Hornets’ baseline out to RJ Barrett just beyond the top of the arc. As soon as Ball sees his man, Alec Burks, is not the intended target, he takes two brisk steps to the right and uses a perfectly-timed right-handed swat to knock the ball away from Barrett’s fingertips. Ball then snags the loose ball in mid-air and before you know it, is banking in the victory-sealing transition layup at the other end. 

Explains Borrego, “In a couple of these situations, it’s out of our underneath-out-of-bounds defense, where he becomes more of a free safety. We’re using his instincts in that zone to create plays. That’s where we’ve turned him loose. In the man-to-man, at times, he tries to make a play and it puts us in a tough position. Sometimes, he completes it. I’d like him to be a little more solid in those areas, but there’s instances throughout our defense, throughout a game where he is turned loose to make plays, use his instinct and he’s done that. 

He adds, “I remember Manu [Ginóbili] do the same thing with Pop (Head Coach Gregg Popovich in San Antonio). At times, you want to pull your hair out and in the next breath, he’s making a play that wins the game for you. So, it’s the balance and I think LaMelo understanding time, score, situation and when he might be able to take a chance [versus] not taking too many chances. What makes him special are those instinctive plays.”

Like Borrego mentions, knowing when to give Ball the green light to make those rare instinctual plays – which also applies on the offensive end – and when to hold back is all part of the 20-year-old’s maturation process. An increasingly-more-disciplined Ball is tied for the sixth-most personal fouls committed in the NBA this season (57), although he’s exceeded three just once in the past eight games after averaging 3.5 violations across the opening 11 contests.

Overall though, Ball’s ability to analyze opposing offenses and then generate live-ball turnovers with tips and deflections leading to extra possessions is a huge luxury for the Hornets. His three-point shooting, no-look passes and fancy crossovers might draw most of the oohh’s and aahh’s, but don’t overlook this entertaining and rather fascinating component of Ball’s game.

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