Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: LaMelo Ball gearing up for final push

Charlotte's star rookie is working to gain ground for the No. 1 spot he held among most voters' all season.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Can LaMelo Ball still win Kia Rookie of the Year?

LaMelo Ball coming back as soon as he did — heck, coming back at all — was a boost for the Charlotte Hornets and to his already strong candidacy for the 2020-21 Kia Rookie of the Year Award.

The way in which he came back, though, surpassed surprising and veered into stunning.

Six weeks after it appeared his rookie season might be done, Ball returned to action for Charlotte against Detroit Saturday and put up 11 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, two blocks and one steal in 28 minutes. Little apparent rust, no noticeable stamina issues and a recharged Hornets transition game (23 fast-break points) in the victory.

“You never know how someone’s going to respond to that time off,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “If there’s a guy who maybe could come back and not miss a beat, it’s LaMelo. … He’s got another gear to get to in conditioning. But he has a great instinct and feel.”

So yawn, right? Except for the outlet pass he unleashed in the first quarter of his return, a 70-foot underhanded strike to Miles Bridges for a layup that declared Charlotte again had something special in its lineup. The guy would have delighted fans if he simply had turned in a modest, workmanlike performance after surgery and rehab on his fractured right wrist. But no, he chipped in a jaw-dropper that seems such a natural part of his game.

“I had nothing to do with that,” said Borrego, who flashed back to his San Antonio days watching Manu Ginobili’s trickery. “I just close my eyes.”

Said Ball of any nerves or limitations: “None of that. I was cool. Just walked in [like always] at 4:30.”

Ball’s return gives the Hornets (32-33) a chance to solidify their hold on a Play-In Tournament spot in the East and possibly chase the No. 6 spot.

As for his Rookie of the Year prospects, there was enough chatter among potential voters to indicate Ball’s production and impact in just 41 games was enough to earn him strong, even favorite’s, consideration. But coming back to up his participation rate in this 72-game season — and possibly to regain his impressive form from the first three months — could restore him as a runaway pick.

That’s why the Ladder vaulted him up to No. 2 this week. Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards has raised his game, reduced mistakes and even helped the Timberwolves win more since the All-Star break. He tops all rookies in total minutes, points, field-goal attempts, buckets and free throws, staking a real claim to the ROY.

Ball is back, though, and the race to the wire is on.

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

(All stats through Monday, May 5)

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

Season stats: 18.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 24.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1

Edwards picked up his second consecutive Kia NBA Western Conference Rookie of the Month award, tearing through April with 21.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.3 apg and 1.6 steals in 34.4 minutes, and he did it with the Timberwolves going 8-8. That last part has meant a happier team experience for the No. 1 overall pick in November – “Shorter talks in the locker room after the game. … Everybody is talking to everybody, laughing, playing music.” – and Edwards’ developing game and offensive connection with vets Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell have played central roles in that. Said coach Chris Finch: “He has a swagger and a confidence and a belief that he is a great player.”

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

Season stats: 15.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 6.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5

Take your pick of one-stop, season-summarizing, black-box combo stats — the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate (PIE) or the long-standing Player Efficiency Rating (PER) — and you’ll see the Hornets rookie point guard is comfortably out from of his 2020 classmates. Ball has a 12.2 PIE score and an 18.5 PER, with a bigger gap in PIE between him and No. 2 Isaiah Stewart (10.9/16.4) than between Stewart and the next seven rookies. Vets such as Kyle Lowry (11.5), Joe Ingles (11.4) and John Wall (11.4) are among those looking up at Ball too.

3. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 11.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3

Here’s a compelling stat on behalf of Tate, a workhorse among the Rockets. They are more than seven points better when he’s on the floor for them (107.3/111.4) vs. off (100.6/112.3). He’s eighth in points per game among rookies, fourth in rebounds, third in steals (1.3) and fifth in field goal percentage (51.3) among rotation newbies.

4. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 13.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 7.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2

A hyperextended left knee Sunday at Dallas likely ended Haliburton’s first NBA season, and it can be certified a success for both tangibles and intangibles. His 3.36 assists-to-turnovers ratio and 40.9% 3-point shooting were big, but so was his ability to handle various roles, assert some leadership and earn minutes late in games. The No. 12 pick had stepped in for injured guard De’Aaron Fox, and had 23 points with 10 assists in last week’s upset of the Los Angeles Lakers.

5. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 11.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 22.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4

Bey has had 11 games in which he has made at least five 3-pointers, a record for rookies (Stephen Curry and Allen Iverson shared the old mark of nine such games). That suggests a player who can have a hot — and presumably on other nights, cold — hand, but Bey’s steady play is what has stood out to Pistons coach Dwane Casey. “It’s kind of like you want him to be a little more reckless, more aggressive,” Casey told reporters. “But he’s such a conscientious player, a conscientious kid that he doesn’t want to make mistakes. And doesn’t.”

The Next Five:

6. Isaiah Stewart, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 7.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.0 ppg, 6.7, 0.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6

Second among rookies in PIE and PER, first in boards and blocks.

7. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks

Season stats: 11.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7

Net rating (7.1) vs. Edwards (-6.7), Ball (-1.9), Tate (-4.1).

8. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies

Season stats: 9.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8

Per 36 among rooks, sixth in scoring (15.0), third in 3FGM on 44.8%.

9. Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9

Aggressiveness on offense triggers 32 points vs. Suns.

10. Cole Anthony, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 12.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 10

Game-winning 3FG vs. Grizzlies, then “snub” for East’s top rookie in March.

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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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