Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: LaMelo Ball shakes up top 5 as he nears return

The Hornets rookie isn't the only player on the rise with less than one month left in the regular season.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

LaMelo Ball is close to a return to the floor as he rehabilitates his right wrist injury.

He’s baaaack.

OK, not back-back, as in back in the Charlotte Hornets’ lineup, triggering their offense once again with his tremendous court vision and riding what had been a big lead in Rookie of the Year consideration over the rest of the Class of 2020.

But LaMelo Ball is back in the Hornets’ injury update pipeline and back in play here on the Kia Rookie Ladder. Might not be long before he’s back to treating ROY rivals, with his nightly performances, the way Larry Bird used to treat other Three-Point Shootout contestants (“So, who’s coming in second?”).

Charlotte issued a surprise report Monday – or at least sooner than expected – that Ball had been cleared for individual basketball activities. The cast on the right wrist he fractured on March 20 was off, and a CT scan confirmed that the surgery and pin inserted had done their jobs. A timeline of 7-to-10 days could have him back by the end of the month. That would leave 10 games for Ball to help the Hornets’ push for a playoff or at least play-in berth and re-assert himself in the ROY race.

First things first: Is this reckless in any way? The Hornets are convinced it is not. GM Mitch Kupchak, from the start, has relayed info from their medical experts that once Ball’s bone healed, he would simply have to re-gain flexibility in the hand.

And coach James Borrego said Tuesday: “Nothing is written in stone. … Hopefully, we see significant [improvement] day-to-day in flexibility. The No. 1 thing is it doesn’t sound like he can injure this thing further.”

So now we can shift our focus to the Ladder. Ball had been parked at No. 6 since the injury, a compromise that recognized his stellar first three months while allowing for other rookies to rise or fall as the season played out. (Golden State’s James Wiseman got the same treatment during his absences, until he had season-ending surgery on his right knee last week, having appeared in only 39 games. Orlando’s Cole Anthony slipped off the Ladder entirely when he missed 25 games in the middle of the Magic’s schedule. But he’s back now.)

As for Ball’s ROY worthiness, the issue came down to games played. Would 41 out of 72 be enough to earn the award? No player has ever won one of the NBA’s individual awards with such a low participation rate (57%). Patrick Ewing played 50 of 82 games (61%) in being named ROY in 1985 – that’s the lowest ever.

Some potential voters, as noted in last week’s Ladder, told the Charlotte Observer they still were inclined to have Ball No. 1 on their ballots. For those of us who felt rookies who played most or all of the season deserved more consideration, Ball’s imminent return might sway votes back his way.

And his first 41 games were so impressive, even some rusty performances might not drag down his stats or change the eye-test assessments. Still to be determined over the final weeks: Will Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Jae’Sean Tate or any other newbie have done enough to catch and surpass Ball, who soon won’t be a stationary target anymore.


The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, April 19)

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

Season stats: 18.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1

Edwards got a ringing endorsement from Clippers star Paul George the other day: “He’s a big time talent. Strong kid. Explosive kid,” George said after he and the Timberwolves rookie each scored 23 points in L.A.’s rout of Minnesota Sunday. “He’s got a powerful game. He can do a little of everything, shoot the three ball, come off pin-downs, play the pick and roll, and he finishes strong at the basket. You’re talking three-level scorer… He’s elite. I see star, All-Star, possibly superstar. The sky’s the limit for the kid.”


2. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 11.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3

There often is a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately element to the Ladder, and Tate is a prime example of that. The Houston Rockets’ moribund season has opened up opportunities in coach Stephen Silas’ lineups and Tate has benefited, playing some small forward and even taking on point guard duties when John Wall missed a game. The undrafted 25-year-old has adjusted how he’s played, but not how hard. “I’ve averaging a bloody nose a week,” Tate said after Houston beat Orlando. “That’s what happens sometimes when you’re playing hard.”


3. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 11.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4

Our Monday cutoff on stats enabled Bey, who had missed 14 of his previous 16 3-point attempts, to light up the Cavaliers Monday for 6-of-11 from the arc on his way to 20 points. Bey’s overall field-goal percentage of 41.2% is affected by him taking 68% of his shots from 3-point range. But the Pistons think Bey is developing his shot creation to become way more than a 3-and-D guy. Coach Dwane Casey believes the No. 19 pick from Villanova should be in the ROY “conversation” and at the moment, he is.


4. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 12.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 7.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2

Haliburton is an interesting case, in the context of Ball’s injury absence. Had the Kings rookie been hurt and sidelined this month, instead of just fading, would he be better off as a ROY candidate? He was named the Western Conference’s top rookie for the first two months, but his April splits are poor. He’s averaging 9.4 points and 1.8 rebounds while shooting 38.5%, though his assists (5.8) and turnovers (1.2) still are strong. Sacramento’s 1-9 mark this month mean Haliburton, like all of his teammates, isn’t impacting winning these days either.


5. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

Season stats: 15.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.1 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 6

Ball kept things simple in his Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. Didn’t speak at length about what he learned watching from the side during his layoff or concerns he has in coming back. “I’ve pretty much already started,” Ball said of the rehab work to restore flexibility in his right hand and wrist. “This morning, I had treatment, trying to bend it down, bend it up, all that type of stuff.” No one asked him to demonstrate in front of the camera, but the rapid healing ability of 19 year olds is a plus for him and the Hornets.


The Next Five:

6. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies

Season stats: 9.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5

Moves back into starting lineup for injured Dillon Brooks.

7. Isaiah Stewart, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 7.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.0 ppg, 14.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9

Overachieving as No. 16 pick and as a 6-foot-8 center.

8. James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 7

Season-ending knee surgery freezes up-and-down year at 39 games.

9. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks

Season stats: 11.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8

In April, shooting 43.2% on 3FGAs, but 32.4% on 2FGAs.

T10. Cole Anthony, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 11.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 6.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A

Shooting is rusty, but he’s contributing again after 25-game absence.

T10. Xavier Tillman Sr., Memphis Grizzlies

Season stats: 6.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A

Averaging 8.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 57.8% shooting in Grizzlies’ victories.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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