Barring injury …
We all know that phrase, which is part cautionary, part reminder and sometimes seemingly part jinx. Given the way Charlotte rookie LaMelo Ball played through the 2020-21 season’s first half, it routinely got attached to statements about him such as: “Barring injury, Ball will be an easy choice as the league’s Kia NBA Rookie of the Year this spring.” Or even: “Barring injury, Ball is putting together one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent NBA history.”
Injury avoidance isn’t something that can be spoken into existence, however, especially when it’s something as fluky as Ball breaking a bone in his right wrist when he braced himself Saturday from a fall against the LA Clippers. The immediate fear, backed up soon thereafter by the prognosis, was that the versatile guard’s first NBA season was over — ending with it his shot at the ROY trophy.
Ultimately, the media panel of 100 voters will decide, and that decision will hinge on what Ball showed in the games he was able to play, and whether he played enough to merit the honor.
For perspective, if Ball’s season truly is over, he will have played in 56.9% of Charlotte’s games (41 of 72). The lowest percentage ever by a Rookie winner was 61% by New York center Patrick Ewing in 1986 (50 of 82).
So unless somehow Ball were able to mend, rehab and return for at least three games near the end of the Hornets’ regular season, one of two things is going to happen: We’re either going to have a new floor established for availability/durability in ROY consideration. Or some other newcomer is going to get the award.
This week’s Kia Rookie Ladder reflects the ongoing competition for that, at least near the top. Ball has been slotted into the No. 6 spot as something of a holding pen, ready to move up if he returns (or other top contenders get hurt too, conceivably). It’s also an acknowledgement of what he accomplished this season, individually and for his team.
Drafted No. 3 behind Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and Golden State’s James Wiseman, Ball seized minutes off the bench for Charlotte, earned his way into the starting lineup and soon enough became coach James Borrego’s essential piece. He won the East’s Rookie of the Month titles in January and February (Sacramento’s Tyrese Haliburton did the same out West) and led all first-year players in most traditional statistical categories while he was healthy.
Ball had Borrego testing a three-guard lineup with Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham to cram all their talents on the floor together. And his combination of savvy play and highlight moments turned the Hornets into something of an NBA League Pass darling for TV viewers.
It’s possible ROY voters still will reward Ball for what he did in the games he could. In 1986, Ewing got the trophy while fellow future Hall of Famer Karl Malone, who played in 81 games for Utah, finished third.
But more recently, Zion Williamson played in only 24 games for New Orleans, opening the award door for Memphis’ Ja Morant. Williamson got just one of the 100 first-place votes cast, his rookie season deemed too limited to honor despite his obvious potential and All-Star-worthy play this season. Morant got the other 99.
The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Monday, March 22)
1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Season stats: 16.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 24.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Now the Rookie of the Year favorite if voters decide Ball’s sample size is too small to merit the award, Edwards will determine whether he seizes the opportunity or wins it as a consolation choice. Signs point to the former, given nights like his 42-point outburst at Phoenix when he became the third-youngest player in NBA history to score 40+ (only LeBron James and Kevin Durant did it younger). Edwards’ efficiency isn’t great — 16.7 ppg on 16.0 FGA, while shooting 38.5% — but his free throw attempts are up in March (4.9 per game vs. 2.4 through February). Attacking the basket, meshing with teammate Karl-Anthony Towns, benefiting from suspended Malik Beasley’s available minutes and learning under new coach Chris Finch all are boosting Edwards’ play.
2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings
Season stats: 12.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Moved into a three-guard starting lineup with Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox with forward Marvin Bagley out, Haliburton responded and the Kings went 3-1. Off his minutes restriction after returning from a calf injury, he is less frustrated and scored a season-best 28 points vs. Cleveland. The No. 12 pick overall ranks third in scoring among rookies, second in assists, and is hitting 42% of his 3-pointers. His 3.32 assist/turnover ratio is best among rookies who have played 30+ games, and his 60.3 true shooting percentage trails only Memphis’ Desmond Bane.
3. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks
Season stats: 12.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Though only 18th in minutes among first-year players, Quickley leads the Class of 2020 in free throw attempts (3.2) while averaging 23.2 points per 36 minutes (Edwards is at 19.9) and a usage rate (26.8) that tops all rotation rookies. The 25th pick out of Kentucky has logged most of his minutes at point guard for the improved Knicks, staying afloat as a plus-player. Maybe folks will factor this all into coach Tom Thibodeau’s reputation for favoring veterans and stifling young guys.
CHILL QUICK 🔥 pic.twitter.com/GpfHs9UErt
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) March 24, 2021
4. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets
Season stats: 10.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.2 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
A contributor at both ends, Tate against Toronto Monday became the first Houston rookie with at least 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals since Steve Francis in 1999-2000. He produces about the same wherever, whenever — wins vs. losses, home vs. road. So far, when Tate hasn’t been on the court, the Rockets have been outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions, biggest deficit among their regulars.
5. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 10.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
An off-night against Chicago Sunday, but Bey had been a consistent contributor in the 18 games prior, averaging 14.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in 30 minutes while making 42% of his 3-pointers. “He’s as strong as an ox,” coach Dwane Casey said last week, “and you can see what he’s doing with his jump shot. He’s going to be a star in this league for a long time.” Effusive, yes, but the Pistons reportedly declined Sacramento’s trade interest in Bey for Marvin Bagley.
Saddiq Bey (28 PTS, 12 REB, 6 3PM) lifts the @DetroitPistons at home!#DetroitUp #NBARooks pic.twitter.com/gG2v3MC2hH
— NBA (@NBA) March 18, 2021
The Next Five:
6. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Season stats: 15.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Season-long ROY fave will hold this spot till, whenever, he returns.
7. James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
Season stats: 11.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 0.6 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Back from virus sitdown to starting, tops rookies in PIP (7.7), boards (5.9).
8. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies
Season stats: 9.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9
Top 3FG% (45.7) for any rookie ever attempting 3+ per game.
9. Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls
Season stats: 9.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Scoring was down but phone calls in trade queries were up.
10. Isaiah Stewart, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 6.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.0 bpg
Since last Ladder: 11.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A
Only Pistons rotation player with a positive (1.0) net rating.
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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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