It's not enough to just say LaMelo Ball is the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. That's obvious. Barring injury, he's pretty much a lock to win the award. No, what Ball is doing as the Hornets' starting point guard is beyond rookie standards, and well beyond what even his most staunch supporters thought was possible in what is still the infancy of his NBA development.
Count Michael Jordan among the surprised.
"I think Melo has adjusted to the NBA game better than any of us ever thought this early in his career," the Hornets owner told the Associated Press in an email, via Sports Illustrated. "He has exceeded our expectations so far this season."
Ball was widely regarded as something of a boom-or-bust prospect entering the 2020 draft. There just wasn't a lot of tape on him after short stints in Lithuania and Australia, and what film there was -- while offering glimpses of greatness -- warned of a suspect shooter and disinterested defender who too often approached the game with more flash than substance. All of that already looks foolish.
"I think people wondered at the beginning: was he a good enough shooter?" Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said in the same AP interview. "I don't think that's a concern."
It appears to be true. Through 35 games, Ball is shooting 40 percent from 3, per Cleaning the Glass. Since being inserted into the starting lineup on Feb. 1, he's averaging 20.7 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals a game while shooting 45 percent from 3 on over six attempts per game.
Most impressively, Ball is making shots and plays when it matters most, connecting at over 55 percent of his attempts from the field in clutch situations (five-point games with five minutes or fewer to play), where the Hornets are plus-27 during his minutes for the year, and plus-3.5 per game, with an astounding plus-64.7 net rating and 5-1 overall clutch record, since he became a starter.
Ball is already a winning player, plain and simple. He's a far more useful defender than originally advertised. He's a tailor-made rebound-and-push guy. We've discussed his better-than-projected shot. And of course, he's a brilliant passer -- the one part of his game in which experts were most confident. Hornets coach James Borrego recently broke down LaMelo's special three-level passing for this piece by Colin Ward-Henninger:
"To me, the elite passers, playmakers, they can make these passes and reads on all three levels," Borrego said. "So, when I initially beat my defender, whether it's out of a pick-and-roll or just straight beat him one-on-one, the ability to make that play. A lot of guys, they can see that. They can make that first read.
"That middle-tier read is pretty tough. I get downhill and now I'm kind of around the free-throw-line area, and now I've got to make another decision," Borrego continued. That's another level of playmaking -- in that midrange area. I get down there, now the defense starts to shift; what's my next read? The elite guys can make that play.
"Then you have the top tier that -- now I get to the rim area -- and now I can make the read and make the pass. So not only do I see it, but I can execute it," Borrego wrapped up. "When a big guy, a 7-footer's 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've got to have great size, or the ability to wrap it, or get up in the air and skip it. The elite passers, and I think Melo's in this category, he can make those plays and reads at all three levels -- not only make the read, but execute it. So yeah, he's special that way."
Special. You hear that word a lot in spots. Probably too much. But in LaMelo's case, it appears to legitimately apply. Michael Jordan doesn't just dish out compliments, even for his own players. LaMelo has earned that kind of praise from arguably the greatest to ever do it, and he's only just getting started.