LaMelo Ball is a 19-year-old rookie already playing like a savvy veteran

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

LaMelo Ball is already a good rotation player for the Charlotte Hornets, but early returns suggest he’s going to be much more than that in the near future.

LaMelo Ball just makes stuff happen on the hardwood.

While a boilerplate description, it is the best summation for how a rookie shooting 40.3 percent from the field, 33.3 percent beyond the arc and 67.9 percent at the line (49.6 percent true shooting) has emerged as one of the ninth-seeded Charlotte Hornets’ top players a month into his NBA career.

He simply understands how to play the game and processes events on the floor at a rate much quicker than other young players. And, his 49.6 percent true shooting, while ghastly on the surface, is also that of a rookie saddled with a hefty on-ball workload, illuminated by the fact a team-high 45.2 percent of his field goals are unassisted.

There are flaws, to be sure, and he is not some star rookie en route to an All-Star-caliber season such as Blake Griffin or Ben Simmons. Ranking 174th (minus-0.4) in Estimated Plus-Minus and 119th (plus-0.1) in RAPTOR, both of which are fourth among Hornets, he is achieving rotation-level production at 19 years old. And as a player who many thought would take more time to find footing in the league.

What has let LaMelo Ball make a positive impact so early in his career?

Passing is the first and most obvious skill driving impact but it’s just one part of the offensive creativity that enables him to consistently compromises defenses. In just 25.2 minutes per game, he is averaging 6.1 assists and 2.1 turnovers, generating opportunities for others in ways few NBA players are capable of.

His ingenuity as a passer is among the best in the league, slinging feeds from funky angles and arm slots. His processing speed is elite, too. Ball identifies openings and supplements that awareness with live dribble ambidexterity. Despite attempting so many audacious reads, he is sitting just four assists shy of a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio because of the velocity, precision and timeliness of his passing.

Although versatile pick-and-roll partners Gordon Hayward and P.J. Washington insulate Ball and mitigate his current scoring limitations, he is the engine behind the success of these pairings. It’s not as though he is solely producing when one of those two is involved, either. His passing is multifaceted and his capacity for operating on or off the ball diversifies Charlotte’s guard configurations.

The on-ball creation is most important for his long-term projection, but working well alongside other creators is also a factor in his immediate success. I did not buy the notion Ball owned a low floor as a prospect because of his perceived boom-or-bust ball-dominant nature or that he’d be a poor off-ball player. A 6-foot-8 initiator with his instincts, intelligence and passing gene can forge paths to success in varying ways, even if optimized with the ball in their hands. Through 14 games, he has reinforced this idea and showcased malleable playmaking.

Look at the wide-ranging examples above. There’s a behind-the-back scoop pass lofted perfectly to the shooting pocket. A lefty skip pass after forcing the weak-side tagger to commit. A live dribble swing pass for the corner triple, right as the low man distributes weight toward the basket. A cut and skip to the wing. A cut and off-hand lay-down pass in traffic. An impromptu screen and drop-off on the short roll after baiting the help defender. Optical savvy leading to foul shots. A snappy live dribble pass to the baseline cutter for a hockey assist.

In many of those clips, the outcome hinges on Ball’s blend of processing speed, manipulation and creativity. He sees or anticipates openings, discerns when the correct time to strike is and makes the pass, sometimes conjuring reads from angles that most would not and could not consider. Nothing has to develop slowly for him to capitalize. He is instantaneous in recognizing how to seize these moments, which expands his offensive usage. Every pass is on the table for him because he cooks up avenues on the fly to deliver them.

The primary utility of this instantaneous decision-making is that Ball never has to reorient himself to pass and risk tipping off the defense. He transitions seamlessly from dribble to pass and ensures his body angles do not signal his intentions. In turn, he can manipulate angles to trick defenders, positioning one direction, shifting them to or holding them at a spot and inventing previously nonexistent creases upon which to pounce. Luka Doncic is a master of this and while Ball isn’t of that caliber, it is part of what makes him so special.

The translation of his passing never concerned me, but its versatility popping so quickly is highly impressive and the manner in which his scoring value, despite glaring inefficiency, amplifies that trait has been encouraging. If Ball continues to struggle to this degree as a scorer, perhaps defenses alter their approach and force him to win on his own. But at this point, he already draws hasty, pressuring closeouts to open driving lanes and passing opportunities, and intermittently receives double-teams/hedges/traps in ball-screens to generate 4-on-3 situations — though the latter may be more closely tied to scheme.

Teams respect him beyond the arc because he’s been legitimately good from deep. He’s shooting 36.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s (13-of-36) and 37.1 percent (10 of 27) on pull-up 3s. He ranks in the 82nd percentile off the dribble and 62nd percentile on spot-ups. His off-the-bounce flashes are high-level shot-making for a 19-year-old.

Those buckets and the aforementioned proficiency off the catch means opponents bite on the shot fake he’s weaponized, empowering him to pressure the paint and ignite offense. Plus, his burst has looked better than anticipated. There are still times when he cannot scoot past what look like mismatches but just as many times his shooting gravity demands defenders play him closely and Ball burns them.

The issue, however, is that he almost solely creates effectively for others in these cases. He’s shooting 45.5 percent on 2-pointers and while his 37.1 percent rim frequency is quite positive, given pre-draft concerns about his horizontal explosiveness, he ranks in the eighth percentile in finishing (21-of-49, 42.9 percent). Short on functional strength and vertical pop, he struggles significantly to merge downhill momentum with power as a driver.

He does not have much lower body stability and strength, so generating force to attack the basket is particularly challenging. Most of his attempts are difficult and successful ones rely on extreme craft rather than gaining a head of steam and plowing to the rim when afforded space (which he often is). In essence, he cannot weave vertical and horizontal explosion together to score inside. He crumples against contact or must contort for nearly impossible finishes.

Among 72 players averaging at least eight drives per game, Ball’s 38.2 percent efficiency ranks 68th. Many of his forays appear doomed if any sort of help defender with a length or brawn advantage (I.e.: most players) rotates promptly. He’s much more willing to play through contact than he was a year ago, let alone two years ago, but he does not have the core strength to maintain balance when the defender gets physical. That, too, hinders his vertical pop and power. Addressing these deficiencies is vital to improving and avoiding plays routinely ending like such:

Compounding this shortcoming is his lack of a refined intermediate game. He’s only logged 13 of his 154 shots (8.5 percent) from mid-range this season and while he’s converted seven of them, there exists a clear discomfort finding looks in that area. His attempts are long, awkward, high-arcing floaters or off-balance pull-up jumpers. Most look unnatural.

Launching in traffic is a critical area for growth. Until he rectifies it, his scoring ceiling will be capped. An inability to take controlled, stable pull-up jumpers among defenders or on the move with forward momentum is a significant hurdle. The step-back triples and deep pull-ups matter, but if that’s the entirety of your on-ball scoring juice, defenses will figure you out and organize themselves to eliminate it. Ball’s rate of improvement over the past few seasons strongly suggests he will build upon his current scoring repertoire, though, so it should simply be viewed as a point of short-term concern rather than long-term hair-pulling.

His floater undeniably has a purpose, just not well away from the rim like he currently relies on it. Treating it as a release valve 12 feet and in when the rim is barricaded should be the philosophy. Sharpening his shooting mechanics in traffic is the step to greater discretion with the floater because his approach on mid-range pull-ups is flawed.

I charted his 62 non-heave 3s this season and classified the lower body landing mechanics into two categories: landing on two feet without any lower body sway and landing on one foot or two feet with sway. The results are based on my own rough eye test but generally, establish a roadmap for his shooting success. He is 14-of-36 (38.9 percent) when landing on two feet without sway and 8-of-26 (30.8 percent) when he sways his lower body at all and lands on one foot or two feet.

The samples are small and a few different results would alter the data, but the degree to which the lower body sway influences his balance is troubling, especially based on previous problems with balance on his jumper. In high school, he drifted or faded away on most of his 3s. The frequency decreased in the NBL last season and that progress has sustained early into his NBA career. It seems like he is wary of landing when other bodies are in the area, and the hope would be that increased lower body strength could subside that detrimental cautiousness by bringing about better stability.

His shooting mechanics are not the only area that continues to experience growth. His defense, while still developing, has enjoyed massive strides from a year ago to now. Similar to my belief in his off-ball offense, guys with Ball’s intersection of size, instincts and intelligence rarely are glaring defensive negatives.

He’s struggled in off-ball positioning on the perimeter and Charlotte’s infatuation with zone (NBA-leading 22.7 percent of its defensive possessions) has thrust him into nuanced responsibilities, some of which are outside of his grasp. Ball-watching happens too frequently. Poor strength invites opponents to isolate him, though that’s happened less than one might expect. His middling lateral movement leaves him susceptible to penetration.

As most rookies are, he is a net negative defensively. Learning and adjusting to NBA defenses is taxing, and some of his physical tools are restricting. But he also demonstrates an understanding of many fundamental team defense rotations and uses his length/anticipation well to muck up the action. Posting a steal rate of 2.9 percent (fourth league-wide) and 3.7 deflections per 36 minutes (26th among 264 guys with 150-plus minutes), he is playing with more activity than in previous years because he knows more about coverage and duties.

*First play is a foul, yes, but the effort and awareness are present*

Just as Ball’s offensive usage across different roles should prepare him long-term, so too should his varying defensive requirements. He’s defending on the ball, playing the strong-side in help, operating as the low man on the weak-side, splitting the difference among shooters and navigating life in a zone. A ton is being thrown at him, per usual for rookies, and a good portion of it is already sticking. Sizable space for improvement remains. Effectively toggling his focus between man and ball must improve considerably.

Yet, the dude is a vastly better player in January 2021 than he was on Nov. 30, 2019 — his final official basketball game prior to an NBA arrival. His jumper mechanics are improved, though still inconsistent. He plays through more physicality. He’s upgraded his defensive know-how. He’s a more impactful off-ball player.

In the span of a year, he went from lead handler of a basement-dwelling NBL club to viable rotation guard on a decent NBA team, one with a legitimate playoff chance. And soon enough, LaMelo Ball will be so much more.

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