Let’s Hear it for the Hornets

Charlotte Hornets

LaVar Ball claimed he could beat Michael Jordan one-on-one in 2017 but as there was no real link between the two men, there was little chance of the match-up happening. But today, there is actually a connection between the GOAT and one of the NBA’s most famous fathers.

LaMelo Ball, Lavar’s youngest son, was drafted by the Jordan-owned Charlotte Hornets third overall in the 2020 NBA Draft.

When LaMelo Ball was asked about the one-on-one matchup in his introductory press conference, he said: “I think we know how it would turn out.”

In contrast, people didn’t know how LaMelo Ball’s NBA career would turn out. They also couldn’t have predicted that the 19-year-old would become the final piece in the Charlotte Hornets’ surprising revitalization.

Charlotte haven’t been to the playoffs since 2016, when they lost to the Miami Heat in the first round. This season, with a record of 21-21, the Hornets are currently the Eastern Conference’s six seed. They’re in with a chance (along with many other teams in the East) of making the post-season. But it took losing the franchise’s all-time leading scorer to get here.

Kemba Walker joined the Boston Celtics in the 2019 off-season. In return, the Hornets acquired Terry Rozier on a three-year contract worth $56 million. Despite averaging nine points per game in his final year in Boston, Rozier earned almost $20 million in his first season with Charlotte. The Hornets finished ninth in the East last season with a 23-42 record.

In response, in the 2020 off-season, Charlotte signed another player from Boston. Gordon Hayward was sent, along with two second-round picks, to the Hornets in a sign and trade. In exchange, the Celtics received a conditional second-round pick and the largest trade exception ($28.5 million) in NBA history.

Thanks to his four-year $128 million contract, Hayward was instantly branded as overpaid. Some even considered the deal “one of the worst free agent contracts in recent memory” because of his injury history. It had echoes of 2016, when Charlotte signed Nicolas Batum to a five-year, $120 million contract which he failed to live up to. Batum proved to be so unmovable, the Hornets had to stretch his contract over three years before waiving the Frenchman.

Regardless, Charlotte had the two veterans to help their recently drafted rookie, LaMelo Ball, develop. And his game developed into must-watch basketball.

Ball’s passing and playmaking abilities, boosted by his height and handle, were rightly lauded before the draft. As such, he’s averaging just over six assists per game this year, which leads all rookies. In the season of Coronavirus, thankfully it’s LaMelo Ball’s passing that has become contagious. The Hornets are third in the league in assists per 100 possessions.

Ball is also averaging 15.9 points (second among rookies) and just under six rebounds (second among rookies) per game. What’s most surprising, and encouraging, is that he’s shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range. Ball has an unconventional jump shot, and some draft scouts were claiming that his jumper would have to be completely broken down and rebuilt. While some have noted a slight change in his form, Ball’s outside shooting hasn’t been impacted by his jump shot, and he’s a part of a team that’s seventh in the NBA in three-point percentage.

Ball has started only 21 of the 41 games he’s played this season, as he began the year coming off the bench. He finally got his chance in the starting line-up in February, when he took the place of an injured Terry Rozier in a game against the Miami Heat. Charlotte won 129-121 in overtime. Ball never looked back.

Since that game, Ball has led the Hornets in touches, averaging over 22 touches per game more than the second-placed Rozier. Charlotte’s head coach James Borrego has to be praised for bringing the 19-year-old along slowly, and only giving Ball the keys to the offense when he was ready.

Unfortunately for Ball, the Hornets, and NBA fans alike, the rookie is expected to miss the remainder of the season after fracturing his right wrist against the Los Angeles Clippers. This means Borrego will need a little more from the two veterans with the two derided contracts. Hayward and Rozier.

Gordon Hayward is putting up numbers that are comparable to his 2016-17 All-Star season. His averages of 20.4 points, four assists, and five and a half rebounds per game, are almost identical to that year – as are his shooting percentages of 48 percent from the field, and 41.2 percent from three. He’s also shooting a career-best 86.8 percent from the free throw line. The injury-plagued seasons in Boston appear to be behind him, and Hayward even garnered some All-Star consideration when selections were being made in February.

Terry Rozier has become the team’s closer. It helps that he’s averaging 20.2 points per game, along with shooting 47.3 percent from the field, and 41.8 percent from three – all career highs. He’s hit several big shots late in games for Charlotte, and his game-winner against the Golden State Warriors (where he lost his dribble after forcing a switch, and hopped into a deep two) displayed his current level of confidence.

Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk are also producing for Borrego, and many are high on Monk’s shooting and scoring abilities coming off the bench. Miles Bridges has developed chemistry with LaMelo Ball, and has been on the receiving end of countless lobs or passes in transition – finishing almost all of them with aplomb.

Statistically, the Hornets are an average team, which makes sense as they currently sit at .500. They’re 15th in the NBA in Offensive Rating and 20th in Defensive Rating.

The injury to LaMelo Ball has not only damaged his chances at claiming the Rookie of the Year trophy, but also Charlotte’s chances at making the playoffs. Ball made the right decisions on the court, shared the ball, and improved those around him. Charlotte have the fifth-youngest roster in the league, so they have some decisions to make with the trade deadline looming. Should they try to improve the team, give the youngsters some help, and hope the second opinion on Ball’s wrist brings news of an early return? Or should they trade some of their more movable assets (such as Cody Zeller’s expiring $15 million contract) and build for next season?

Even if this season appears to have been tinged with some sadness and uncertainty, the franchise should be optimistic about the future. And not just because they have LaMelo Ball. Because for the first time in a long time, there’s a real buzz about the Charlotte Hornets.