It’s a Saturday night in early May and the Hornets are hosting the Pistons. LaMelo Ball has just returned to the starting lineup after being sidelined for five weeks due to a broken wrist. There’s a buzz, no pun intended, in the building as fans are slowly re-entering arenas, and Hornets faithful are getting their first in-person look at the prized rookie.
Midway through the first quarter, Cody Martin knocks loose a pass from Killian Hayes. P.J. Washington corrals the loose ball, passes to Ball and then it happens.
“You got to have top-notch confidence to pull something like that off,” Miles Bridges said of the play after the game.
“I have nothing to do with that,” head coach James Borrego noted with a wry smile.
In a slow jog 84 feet from the basket, Ball uncorks an underhanded pass that looks more like the form adopted in a bowling alley for an attempted strike than one used to notch an assist on the basketball court. Yet, the pass floats perfectly over the top of every player on the court and into the expecting arms of Bridges, who finishes the layup for one of the highlights of the season.
Only one Hornet was on the other side of midcourt when Ball threw the pass. Bridges, the recipient of many of Ball’s spectacular dimes on the season, was the only one on that end without a dumbfounded look after the play.
Ball claims it was normal for him, based on a youth in which his outspoken father implored his sons to get the ball up the court as quickly as possible and by any means.
He was the only one in the arena that night that would call that pass normal.
“I just closed my eyes on that,” Borrego said. “I had nothing to do with that. Maybe we should be teaching the Melo underhand flip.”
Ball did not enter the NBA with a reputation as a passer. Viral videos of his days at Chino Hills featured pull-up jumpers from half court — sometimes successful, sometimes not — mixed with highlights of him scoring 92 points — often without a thought of playing defense. Watch a video of LaMelo playing alongside brothers Lonzo and LiAngelo at Chino Hills and the highlights will be full of 3-pointers, not passes, from the youngest brother. Stops at the short-lived JBA or SPIRE Institute did little to reveal his acumen as a passer. Only when Ball played in the NBL at Illawarra, the first organized team and league his father didn’t have a hand in, did he begin to showcase his non-scoring skills. “I saw it on film,” Borrego said of Ball’s passing. “I thought it’d translate. I thought you could see it on film. I think it was pretty clear he had vision. He made the simple play. He made the spectacular play and all those plays in-between. He made the game easier for his teammates, and I felt like that would translate on film. But until you get him in your gym, you don’t really know how he’s going to fit or mix with your group.” His Hornets teammates needed one practice to find out the answer. Terry Rozier said he noticed Ball’s passing was special on Day 1. “We all kind of knew … how he played, but, still, when you’re out there with him, it’s amazing. His first day had us all looking at each other like ‘Damn. This kid is good.'” “I noticed in training camp,” Washington added. “Just the type of passes he was making, he wasn’t looking at guys and hitting them right on the money. It’s been like that since Day 1 with him. Everybody knows that he’s going to find you wherever you are. Whenever he’s on the court, you just have to be ready to catch the ball and shoot it. He’s going to find you whenever you’re open.” The rest of the NBA would soon see Ball’s passing on display. In his first preseason game, his behind-the-back find to Bridges for an and-one layup set a tone for the season. A week later, he set social media ablaze with a physics-defying bounce pass to Malik Monk in the team’s final preseason game. https://twitter.com/JacobRude/status/1340481204102033414 “It’s great playing with him because the ball is always able to get to you,” Monk said that night. “It doesn’t matter how he’s dribbling, where he’s at on the court, he can get you the ball.” Ball’s teammates were quickly learning that if they’re open, he will find them with one man in particular often on the receiving end of those passes.
In hindsight, Bridges was a tailor-made teammate for Ball. Pair an uber-athletic, high-flying, energetic wing with a player capable of finding him in even the smallest of openings and the result is a nightly reservation on SportsCenter’s Top 10. “The connection with me and Melo, it just clicked right away,” Bridges said. “As soon as he came here and it was our first practice, he just told me he’s going throw it up to me wherever.” The highlights piled up quickly between the two. At home against Philadelphia, it was a behind-the-back pass on the fast break from Ball that led to a windmill slam from Bridges. In Tampa against the Raptors, it was a pass to Bridges cutting on the baseline that led to a two-handed poster. Against Milwaukee, it was an alley-oop that seemed to leave even Bridges surprised.
In the same vein, few teams were better suited to welcome a player like Ball. Under Borrego, the Hornets were a team focusing on ball movement. In the abbreviated 2019-20 season, the Hornets ranked fourth in passes per game. What they lacked was the player that could turn a pass into an assist. The team ranked 21st in assists per game and 21st in potential assists per game last year. Ball stepped into the fold this season and immediately changed that. While the Hornets maintained their spot at fourth in passes per game, they were fifth in assists per game and fourth in potential assists per game. Ball led the team in all three categories this season and his 11.5 potential assists per game ranked 14th in the league overall, “Instinctively, he just makes plays that are very impressive and he can pass the rock for sure and has a great vision out on the court,” Gordon Hayward said. “It’s fun playing with him. If you run and you’re open, he’s going to find you.“I think the thing about LaMelo and I think about all great passers is that they’re not afraid to have a turnover from time to time. You guys have seen the full-court passes, the passes in traffic. That’s something that I don’t know if you can necessarily teach that. I think sometimes you either have that or you don’t. You know that like ‘I’m going to take a chance and throw this’ type of attribute. LaMelo for sure has that.”
The highlight-reel passes dominate social media in the modern world, but they aren’t always a coach’s favorite. It’s not difficult to find a behind-the-back pass that’s sailed out of bounds and an exasperated coach staring on from the sidelines. In that sense, what separates Ball from purely being a flashy passer is his ability to make every type of pass. Whatever the moment calls for — a skip pass, a wrap-around pass, a lob pass with just the right amount of touch — he can deliver. “To me, the elite passers and playmakers, they can make these passes and reads on all three levels meaning when I’m just starting to get downhill, I can make reads,” Borrego said when asked what makes Ball an elite passer. “So, when I initially beat my defender whether it’s out of a pick and roll or straight beat him 1-on-1, the ability to make that play. A lot of guys, they can make that first read. “That middle-tier read is pretty tough. I get downhill now and now I’m around the free throw line area and now I’ve got to make another decision. That’s another level of playmaking right in that midrange area. I get down there, now the defense starts to shift and what’s my next read. The elite guys can make that play. “Then, you have the top tier that, now that I get to the rim area and now I can make the read and make the pass,” he continued. “Not only do I see it, but I can execute it when a big guy, a seven-footer, is coming to block my shot, I can still execute a pass to get the ball out of there. That’s not easy to do. You have to have great size or the ability to wrap it or get up in the air and skip it.” It’s high praise to place on a rookie who only sparingly played organized basketball over the three years leading to him being drafted No. 3 overall. To have a player come in and immediately change a franchise is rare. To have a player do it given LaMelo’s path to the NBA is unprecedented. “He’s a special player,” Martin said. “You don’t have a lot of players that come around like him too often. For him, to be able to see it in person, not only to be able to do that on the court but the kind of person he is off the court, just his energy, the way he carries himself, just being a good teammate, that’s hard to find.”
As with any talented player, Ball quickly became the focus of scouting reports across the league. He was changing the Hornets’ present and future and the league was taking notice. “His passing activates everybody else,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said prior to the two sides meeting in Los Angeles in mid-March. “I think that’s one of those players that improves the guys around him. It’s not just about slowing him down but the way he distributes the basketball, everybody on their team is playing with confidence. There’s going to be five threats out there at all times because of that.” “He has a tremendous feel for the game,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone added after a late-season win over Charlotte. “And what I love and what I’m a fan of is his passing ability, his creativity, his flare and his ability to make all of his teammates better and obviously, he has a very, very bright future ahead of himself. “But this kid is a special, young talent and you don’t see that kind of passing ability from young players like this very often.” Repeatedly throughout the season, Borrego noted how rare it was for a 19-year-old in the NBA to have this much of an impact in winning games. While fellow rookies like Tyrese Haliburton and Anthony Edwards were filling up the scoring column for non-playoff teams in the Western Conference, Ball was starting, and often leading, the Hornets to wins in the middle of an Eastern Conference playoff race. Whether through his passing, his scoring, his surprisingly impactful rebounding or his IQ, Ball was on the floor in many of the biggest moments of the season for the Hornets and earning victories in those contests. “It’s rare,” Borrego said of a teenager having such a role in wins in the NBA. “You don’t see too many of them walking around this league right now. So, he’s done a tremendous job impacting winning and fourth quarter plays and big plays, both offensively, defensively, which is rare. It’s hard to find, but when you do find them, they’re special. To have the knowledge, the understanding, the physicality, the tools to do it, it’s pretty special.” In no uncertain terms, the Hornets have found a star in the making. Ball has changed the outlook of the franchise’s future. Charlotte will head into its first offseason with Ball on the roster looking to shape the team around it’s 19-year-old guard. Some of the pieces are already in place. Others will have to be brought in. But Ball has already shown that it doesn’t take a lot for him to make an impact and create a special moment.