It’s the first week of January, and the Hornets have just wrapped up a practice in Atlanta. Assistant coach Jay Triano, who has been an integral part of the development of Charlotte’s rookies, playfully fires a behind-the-back pass to a streaking LaMelo Ball. The youngest Ball brother is taken aback.
“Coach, you got some shit to yourself,” a wide-eyed LaMelo says.
Triano laughs. He tells LaMelo that his favorite player growing up was Pete Maravich, and that the first NBA game he ever watched was a 1971 contest between Maravich’s Hawks and the Buffalo Braves. Maravich had 41 points in that game, which was enough to make him Triano’s guy. After practice, Triano realizes it’s January 5—the anniversary of Maravich’s death. He sends LaMelo a text to tell him of the coincidence and the rookie responds with his own research.
“He said, ‘That’s crazy, coach. It’s crazy how this all works because he was also the no. 3 pick in the draft,’” Triano says of LaMelo, who was this year’s no. 3 pick. LaMelo also says people have told him that he plays a bit like Maravich. And Triano, who has a front-row seat to the electric start of LaMelo’s career, can’t help but agree.
“He’s such a good reader of the freelance style of the game and just finding space,” Triano said on a phone call this week. “He just seems like he’s bouncing on top of the world all the time.”
Without summer league and a normal training camp, the Hornets didn’t have much time to get LaMelo up to speed or install too many sets before the start of the season. But even so, they quickly found out that LaMelo thrives in that kind of unstructured environment. It became clear early that LaMelo’s instincts as a ball handler and passer would translate to the NBA. On one occasion, Ball made a perfect two-on-one fast-break pass to Gordon Hayward, which wowed Triano. “We haven’t had a guy that has been able to make that type of a pass the last couple years,” Triano said. “It happened immediately. It wasn’t like, ‘I need to play with these guys to figure out what they’re going to do,’ he just kind of read it right away.”
So far, the more LaMelo plays, the more he wows, and the more he wows, the brighter Charlotte’s future gets. Even though it’s early, it’s becoming tougher and tougher for the Hornets to keep Ball out of the starting lineup—or on the bench at all.
With less than two minutes left in the first quarter of January 11’s Hornets-Knicks game, Austin Rivers scored a routine layup. As the ball rippled out of the net, LaMelo did not let it fall more than a few inches before tapping it to himself, stepping briefly out of bounds, and pushing it forward to Devonte’ Graham. Suddenly, out of a made basket, Ball had manufactured a Hornets fast break.
The play did not result in points, but the goal was obvious: The Hornets want to pass the ball around as much as possible, and in LaMelo, they’ve found a player who has ball movement in his blood. Even if he isn’t starting yet, LaMelo is the carburetor that Charlotte needs if it wants to become a sports car. From a basketball standpoint and an entertainment one, he’s exactly what this franchise has been missing.
“I feel like every game, with his passing, whatever he does, it’s like a movie,” Terry Rozier said. “He’s always gonna have somebody off their feet.”
The Hornets aren’t playing at lightning speed (they’re currently 19th in the NBA in pace), but they are top five in fast-break points and lead the league in assists and assist percentage by a wide margin. Triano says they want to play even faster, and LaMelo is the guy who will help them do that. As a team, the Hornets are making 314.7 passes a game, second only to the Sixers. LaMelo is playing only 25 minutes a game, but his pass-per-minute output is around two, which is topped only by players like Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Jokic, Ben Simmons, and Draymond Green. LaMelo’s rate is even better than Luka Doncic, James Harden, and his brother Lonzo Ball.
When it comes to NBA rookies, there’s an expectation that the younger they are, the less they’ll be able to contribute right away. Draft picks are made based more on ceiling than instant impact. LaMelo, who was the third-youngest player in this year’s draft, is breaking that stereotype, but not in a customary fashion. Instead of putting up inflated scoring stats on a bad team, his passing skills have helped energize the Hornets offense; his pace has been infectious; and his rebounding has been a pleasant surprise. He leads the team in the latter category and recently became the youngest player in league history to record a triple-double.
“It’s like he’s been doing this for a number of years already,” head coach James Borrego said recently. “He’s impacting winning at multiple levels … a 19-year-old rookie does not look like this.”
“I’ve been doing this ever since I was 3, so it comes quite easy to me, for real,” LaMelo said after his triple-double against the Hawks on January 9. “I played a lot of 21 when I was growing up.”
There’s something paradoxical about the LaMelo experience. On the one hand, he’s only 19, and sometimes watching him play in the NBA is like watching a toddler try to color inside the lines for the first time—messy, but endearing. On the other hand, he’s played in professional leagues in Lithuania and Australia against older, tougher players, so he hasn’t looked out of place at all. And his basketball IQ is as palpable as his athleticism.
“His whole life he’s been playing up,” P.J. Washington said. “He’s played against top competition his whole life, so I don’t think this is anything new for him.”
As Triano points out, it helps that LaMelo is a point guard with the height of a big wing at 6-foot-6 (and he may not even be done growing). Strength will come the longer he’s in the league, and the fact that he can already hold his own speaks both to his physical makeup and the unusual path he took to the NBA. But at this level, everyone has the talent and build to compete. The great separators are the things that can’t be ranked or measured, like feel or vision. And it takes only a few seconds of LaMelo tape to convince you that he has all that.
“The way he sees the game, that is a gift,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said after the Hornets beat the Knicks on January 11. “He has had a lot of different experiences that have probably helped him mature, and the way he is playing right now … when you have that type of size ... they can see over people, and it is easy for them to make passes to the opposite corner and put pressure on the rim. Those things add a lot. … He makes everyone around him a lot better.”
The Hornets’ offensive MO this season has been centered on improvisation, and LaMelo is a perfect performer in such a setting. While a smaller point guard like Trae Young needs to be slippery and crafty to create space, LaMelo can use his size to step into space confidently and overwhelm defenders with his speed and passing. This capability has fueled his own start, but has also infused the entire Hornets team with energy and led to cohesive, selfless basketball.
“This is the way they told me they were going to play,” Hayward, who has already developed a sticky connection with LaMelo, said after a team practice more than a week ago. “It’s fun basketball playing like this. When the ball is moving, you’re getting open shots, you’re getting easy buckets, it’s just fun.”
There’s very little lag time between thought and action when LaMelo holds the ball. He has a naturally nimble flow and quick-twitch reactions that seem to put the game into fast-forward. And while that often results in strokes of basketball genius, there’s also a clear rawness in some aspects of his game.
Ball is shooting 33 percent from deep, and his motion looks like a grotesque sequel to Lonzo Ball’s early attempts in the league. (On pull-up 3s, LaMelo’s average rises to a promising 37 percent.) There’s also room for improvement in how LaMelo finishes at the rim. But the Hornets believe they have time and age on their side, and so far, the pros are outweighing the cons.
“We’re still trying to figure out how best to put him in a situation to succeed,” Triano said, while giddily acknowledging that “it already takes two defenders to guard [LaMelo].”
Borrego hasn’t lost sight of where Ball is in his career. The coach has called this period of the season LaMelo’s “summer league” and admits he is throwing his star rookie into the fire. The task now is to balance LaMelo’s contributions to the team with the space for natural development. There will be a steep learning curve for some facets of the game, especially defensively. But Charlotte has a willing student.
“I think the biggest surprise has been the person,” Borrego said. “I just can’t get over this kid, he’s just a wonderful person to be around.”
LaMelo opens up possibilities for Charlotte both in the future and the present—and people within the Hornets organization, as well as around the league, have started to take notice.
“He’s terrific. ... He’s got energy, he’s got a vibe, he’s got swagger,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after the Mavs beat the Hornets last week. “Right now, with the way things look, he looks like Rookie of the Year to me.”