25-under-25: Can LaMelo Ball make Charlotte matter again?

25-under-25, Charlotte Hornets

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LaMelo Ball has the talent to transform the Charlotte Hornets and take them to new heights. Can he keep making the subtle improvements it will take?

Assuming LeBron James stays healthy most of this season, he’ll pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. It’s a select club, those few who at some point held that title. LeBron. Kareem. Wilt Chamberlain. Bob Pettit. George Mikan. The NBA is full of clubs. The 20,000-point club. The quadruple-double club. The still-unsettled bus driver club. Few are as exclusive one that counts Terry Catledge, Willie Anderson and Ricky Davis as members.

All three of those players led their team in minutes the year before a franchise-defining talent arrived. Catledge was Orlando’s premiere big man the year before they drafted Shaquille O’Neal. Anderson was San Antonio’s pride and joy, a 22-year-old putting up nearly 20, 5 and 5, which was kind of a big deal, at least until David Robinson arrived a year later. Ricky Davis was trying to out-jump Cleveland’s long-suffering and damn near did; a year later, a rookie out of high school from nearby Akron began his Herculean labor of leading the Cavs to glory.

The Magic, Spurs and Cavaliers are not glamour franchises. But put a superstar on any team and that team is on the map; enjoy enough success there, especially if you win a title with them, and that franchise — no matter small — will always have cachet. This brings us to LaMelo Ball.

Charlotte’s point guard showed growth from his rookie year to his sophomore season. The 2021 Rookie of the Year was even better in 2022 when Ball was an All-Star and one of only five players in the league to average 20, 6 and 7. He finished top-10 in assists and steals, top-15 in 3-pointers and top-20 in points. His numbers improving wasn’t simply a matter of more playing time, either: Ball showed significant improvement shooting 3-pointers on catch-and-shoot looks and off the dribble his first two years, and that’s with him increasing his 3-point attempts by about 30 percent. And the numbers aren’t even the best part.

LaMelo Ball is changing how the league sees the Charlotte Hornets

For years, a “March game in Charlotte” was code for the doggiest of dog days, a hellish combination of the year’s most feral weather month and the NBA’s least-inspiring franchise. In Ball, the Hornets have a player as exciting to fans of other teams as his own, a first since Larry Johnson was in his Grandmama heyday. After missing the playoffs the four years before Ball’s arrival, they reached the play-in the last two as a 10-seed, eliminated in the first game each time. This year the East looks deeper than it has in years. And the Hornets have unsettled, unsettling questions hanging over the team.

Miles Bridges was expected to sign a large, maybe maximum contract extension last summer and co-star with Ball as the team’s best players. Both are young, both boast exceptional skill sets, both were drafted by Charlotte. All that understandably changed in July after Bridges was charged with three felonies relating to domestic violence and child abuse. The legal proceedings are still unfolding, but it’s harder to imagine these Hornets breaking their play-in duck and finally advancing without a Bridges-sized infusion of talent into the roster. That is, unless Ball hits a new level this year.

For Ball, that’d mean better finishing inside the arc, especially at or near the rim, and more caution. He was 10th in the league in turnovers last year. One ray of hope: the Hornets added a legit lob threat when they drafted 7-footer Mark Williams, a center whose ability to roll and get vertical offers Ball options not necessarily present with Bismack Biyobo or whichever Zeller or Plumlee is on the team this year.

A better big man might deepen the magic of Ball’s floater/lob game, reversing one of the few gray clouds in an otherwise sunny first two years: his first year he shot 4 percentage points worse on 2-pointers than the league average; last year he was more than 7 percentage points worse. Ball has also been subpar finishing at the basket. Current (and former!) Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford wants to see him stay aggressive pressuring defenses, saying if Ball could get to the line just three more times a game it’d be a “gamechanger.

Can Ball lead the Hornets to the playoffs? And some actual somewhere once they’re there? Coupling team success and his own could be enough to finally put Charlotte on the map and LaMelo in the select group of players who brought identity to their previously Podunk franchise. As young as Ball is, he’s already just about due to begin talking contract extension. The Hornets best get moving before a “March night in Charlotte” is once again a slur.

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