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2021-22 Hornets Player Preview: LaMelo Ball

A historic rookie season has set Ball on the path to stardom, but how high can he fly as a sophomore?

2021 ESPY Awards - Show Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

LaMelo Ball is a good basketball player.

Exactly how good he would be upon entering the NBA was the true question for those who didn’t harbor a general disdain for the Ball family during the 2020 NBA Draft process. Then again, he was an 18-year-old that posted 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game in Australia’s NBL, arguably the most competitive domestic basketball league outside of the NBA. Maybe we overthought it.

Regardless, even the most fervent “Ball stans” couldn’t have predicted a debut season of this magnitude; he matched a 60-year-old NBA record by ranking first among rookies in total points (553), rebounds (211), assists (221) and steals (57) at the All-Star break. He averaged 18 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists per-36 minutes, becoming the only rookie in history to hit those marks other than Oscar Robertson. He did not start a game until Feb. 1.

A broken wrist sidelined him for 21 games and hindered his ability for weeks after he returned to the lineup in May. His 3-point efficiency dropped off of a cliff, as it was clear that the pain and inflexibility he experienced was distracting. Last season was unique, though, and not in a good way — in any other year, he’d have more wiggle room to rehab during the regular season instead of rushing back (though he was cleared to play, he obviously wasn’t ready) to help end the Hornets’ late-season skid.

The “sophomore slump” is very real in the NBA; Hornets fans witnessed it last year as PJ Washington struggled to adapt to his role in his second season. Considering Ball is closer to the level of a Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum or Trae Young-type young star than Washington is, a significant regression is fairly unlikely — even when he was playing with a bum wrist, all that really suffered was his jumper. He put up a stellar rookie season with almost no time to prepare for life as an NBA player between the draft and opening night. It’s hard to believe a full, healthy offseason will do anything but help him.

When training camp opened, there was some buzz that Ball had gained weight/gotten stronger over the offseason. He’s listed at 185 pounds on Charlotte’s opening night roster, which is five pounds more than what he weight at the start of last season. It’s not a lot, but he did gain some weight, which is the one thing he really needs to do as he develops; right now, he’s a liability in ball screens simply due to his slight frame.

Most bigs in the NBA can (and often do) crush Ball with hard-hitting screens at the point of attack, and there are a lot of guards that can bulldoze through him on the way to the lane, too. Luckily for him, he’s 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, which, along with advanced off-ball instincts, saves him from being an outright-poor defender. In today’s screen-heavy NBA, elite players need to hold up physically and be able to defend their position.

Head coach James Borrego made Ball earn the keys to the franchise last season, as any respectable coach would. Now, he’s earned them, and LaMelo Ball gets to show the world that he truly is “1 of 1.”