LaMelo Ball renews spark in Hornets, much to Michael Jordan's delight
For the first time in Michael Jordan's ownership tenure, Charlotte is a player in the East -- thanks largely to his phenom guard, LaMelo Ball.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just inside a mixed-use development near the Billy Graham Parkway where babies are strolled and coffee is sipped, there is a small stone marker with a familiar sight preserved in bronze on the facade, providing a clue to what this place was before the developers arrived.
This was once the site of the old Charlotte Coliseum, which drew enormous crowds and somehow still had enough room for all 5-foot-3 inches of Muggsy Bogues. On the plaque commemorating the Coliseum, there’s an inscription by the great poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that reads: “Look not mournfully into the past, it comes back not again. Wisely improve the present and go forth to meet the future with optimism and without fear.”
For the last few decades, the Hornets tried to duplicate the past, to recreate the noise, to find themselves all over again since leaving what was fondly nicknamed “The Hive” for newer digs downtown. To be rather blunt, those attempts were met with the same fate of a hornet crashing into a speeding automobile’s grill.
To be fair, there were some decent seasons here and there, none of which gained any traction or gave the Hornets much buzz beyond the city limits. The franchise was doomed by too many bad drafts, coach firings and just plain crummy luck. For every Muggsy, Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Dell Curry — tremendous players who laid the foundation and played exciting ball in the early- to mid-1990s — there was an Adam Morrison, an Emeka Okafor and a Zeller Brother (Cody, in this case).
You want to know the ultimate sin? The Hornets drafted a teenager out of high school in 1996 and then immediately traded him for Vlade Divac. That kid was Kobe Bryant.
You want to know the ultimate irony? This team has been owned by legendary six-time NBA champ Michael Jordan since 2010, yet has reached the playoffs three times since 2004.
Jordan is still around, and he’s in a happier mood, and there are friendly rumblings inside Spectrum Center on game nights, all because the Hornets are seemingly built to last — finally — and mainly because of a kid they didn’t let get away this time.
LaMelo Ball is throwing slick passes and Miles Bridges is finishing them with authority at the rim and a smattering of other rotational players are doing enough to give the Hornets what they’ve always craved in the Jordan era: credibility and crowds and a climb up the standings, where they’re 11-8 and fifth in the East.
They’re very much a work in progress, and yet that’s the key word — progress — that makes folks here suspect this team is not a cruel tease. This could be the best team Jordan has ever had, and while that sounds like being called the tallest man at a short man’s convention, the Hornets will take any good vibes they can get.
“I do know Michael is happy,” said Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak, whose personnel decisions have launched this renovation. “I think he likes the direction we’re going.”
The Hornets have already beaten the Nets and Warriors, the current conference leaders. They’re 6-2 at home and flexing their chance to replicate the atmosphere at the old Coliseum, which was often the loudest arena in the league. Even better, the Hornets aren’t an afterthought, drawing fans on the road thanks to their breezy style of play.
Much of this is due to LaMelo, the reigning Kia Rookie of the Year who is already a first-name-only player. He has improved in most areas and remains a highlight talent who demands and commands your attention.
Keep in mind that he turned 20 just three months ago but his game is much more seasoned than that. He leads the Hornets in rebounds (8.4 rpg), steals (2.1 spg) and assists (7.7 apg) and constantly feeds the team’s leading scorer, Bridges (20.8 ppg), with passes that lead to high percentage shots. His shooting efficiency remains under construction and, like his teammates, defense is a concern. But otherwise, LaMelo is exactly the type of young centerpiece needed by the Hornets. He’s averaging nearly a triple-double over his last three games (21.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 9.0 apg) and has three 30-point games to date this season.
“I’m just picking and choosing my spots, letting the game come to me,” Ball said. “My goal was to come back a better player.”
It is one thing to be a good player as the NBA is filled with those. But not every good player is a box-office player who wins over the crowd. Those are harder to find and valuable to have.
“Jerry West would use an expression about certain players, that they had a little gold dust sprinkled on them from above,” Kupchak said. “I do think LaMelo has that.”
Under the reign of Jordan, the most radiant talent was Kemba Walker, and before Walker … not much. Jordan has never had another All-Star besides Walker since assuming full control of the club. That speaks loudly about the lack of players who resonated and all the whiffs by the Hornets in their attempts to find one, either through the Draft, trades or free agency.
Even their pursuit of LaMelo, who could crack the All-Star code this year, was filled with question marks and the potential of failure.
LaMelo’s path to the NBA was unorthodox, to say the least. He played for two high schools in two different states and professionally in two countries. He was a social media darling by then and considered cool by his age group, but how much of that was pure hype? When he declared for the 2019 Draft, NBA scouts lacked the goods on him, other than being a five-star prep prospect. He lasted 12 games in Australia, his last stop before the NBA, because of a foot injury.
The Hornets got lucky in the Draft lottery, moving up from eight to No. 3, and suddenly LaMelo was on the radar. But again: He was considered a dice roll to a degree, simply because there wasn’t much to study. He didn’t play college ball and the amount of homework the Hornets could do was limited.
“We went to Australia, saw him practice two or three times and saw two games,” Kupchak said. “The draft was eight months later and he didn’t play after his injury. We had a couple of Zoom calls with him, and then the week before the draft we flew to L.A. for an individual workout that lasted 40 minutes. And that was it.”
Anthony Edwards went No. 1 to the Wolves as expected. Then the Warriors, choosing second, went big with James Wiseman. That left LaMelo — would he be another big miss by the Hornets or a talented crowd-pleaser? So far, LaMelo is filling stat sheets and arena seats.
“His playmaking has been there but his overall decision making as the point guard has improved,” said Hornets coach James Borrego. “His turnovers are down, and he’s better at understanding time and score situations. He’s come back a more physical defender. More than anything he’s come back a better leader in general, and he trusts his teammates.”
Kupchak adds this: “I played back with Pete Maravich and they have the same skill set. But not many people came to Pete’s games. The real way to get people into the building is to win games. I’m always careful to give too much to a player too early. He does have charisma, got a flair about the way he plays. But he’s got a long ways to go and at the end of the day it’s about winning games.”
Winning is also based on better player acquisition. The front office and coaching staff has turned over 100% since Kupchak was hired in 2018. His drafts produced Bridges and LaMelo and he brought in productive NBA veterans Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre via offseason moves.
Bridges and the Hornets couldn’t agree to terms of a contract extension this fall, so Bridges is betting on himself and the results are favorable. He’s having a career-best season and ranks among the NBA leaders in restricted area scoring and 3-pointers made.
“When Miles is in attack mode, he’s tough to guard,” Rozier said. “He’s big and aggressive and he’s been that way all year.”
The Hornets had a rough recent West Coast trip where they lost four of five but otherwise have flourished. They’ve won six of their last seven. Rozier hit eight 3-pointers in the Monday win over Washington. The win over the Warriors was double fun as not only did Charlotte give the Warriors only their second defeat, but it came at home, where the fans are becoming believers.
Three decades ago, the Hornets routinely led the NBA in attendance at the 23,000-seat Coliseum and were the only game in town. After the demolition, the new building and the team struggled to find a common ground. That’s probably changing now. Last season fans were denied LaMelo’s splashy rookie year because of the pandemic, but not so now.
“I’m happy for the fans in the building,” Kupchak said. “They’re into it. But for the players, it’s the biggest benefit. Last year and a half, playing in empty buildings, they competed hard but there was no response. When there’s people in the building and especially when you get back from a road trip, you get some energy. It’s huge. Against the Knicks they stood almost the whole second half.”
It’s all very promising for the Hornets right now, and yet the NBA grind can be cruel. The Hornets will either show they have the goods to maintain their flow over the next five months, or stumble under the weight of increased expectations. They’re mainly a young team so it can go either way.
If nothing else, there’s a sense that, unlike the Kemba Walker teams, this LaMelo team is earning the benefit of the doubt. And it’s far from a completed project, anyway; the best comparison is with the Hawks, who stockpiled and developed enough young talent over the years to go next-level and reach the Eastern Conference finals last season.
“Our goal is not to just get to the playoffs, not to win one round,” Kupchak said. “I want to advance. I want to do what Atlanta did last year and go a round better.”
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