For NBA League Pass junkies, the Hornets have, so far, been a surprising aesthetic pleasure. From Terry Rozier’s airborne dexterity, to the near-constant use of a zone defense, to Gordon Hayward’s All-Star-caliber renaissance, Charlotte is more enjoyable than any borderline playoff team in the Eastern Conference should be.
But what really makes this team worth your time is how players share the ball. Charlotte’s assist rate is a league-leading 73.6, a full seven points higher than the second place Heat; that’s above what any NBA team has finished a season with since at least 1997. (The current gap between Charlotte and Miami is the same as the one between Miami and the 19th-ranked Los Angeles Lakers.)
Only the 76ers average more passes per game, and, in the last 20 years, only the 2017 Warriors tallied more assisted points per 100 possessions than Charlotte’s current mark of 69.4.
Hornets head coach James Borrego spent 10 seasons with the Spurs earlier in his career, when he witnessed the benefits of an instilled 0.5 mentality firsthand. (The idea being that when a player first touches the ball, they have 0.5 seconds to shoot, pass or drive. It promotes ball movement and washes out an easy-to-defend stagnancy.)
The Hornets are 25th in isolation frequency and sixth in cut frequency, per NBA.com. They’re fourth in pass percentage when they drive the ball, while averaging the third-fewest dribbles and second-fewest seconds per touch. For anyone who’s nostalgic for those old Spurs, the Hornets are like a JV version. They won’t have the same level of success because, well, the talent just isn’t there. But some of their possessions still spark a similar delight.
The frontman for this approach is rookie point guard LaMelo Ball, a 19-year-old warlock with endless peripheral vision and an unshakable desire to set up teammates in the most spontaneous, entertaining, experimental ways. Only 24 rookies in NBA history have recorded an assist rate above 35%. After 14 games, Ball is at 38.3, 0.1 higher than where Chris Paul finished when he won Rookie of the Year, and over 10 points more than anyone else on the Hornets. It’s extraordinary stuff, even more so after realizing Charlotte currently ranks 21st in effective field goal percentage.
Ball is a natural showman whose best passes paralyze the game’s rhythm. They’re unexpected yet inevitable, a champagne-stained collage of no-look line drives, preposterous half-court lobs, and behind-the-back darts. It’s offbeat improvisation with a purpose. But in addition to knowing teammates are wide open before they do while kindling an attack that’s inclined to seek chances in the open floor, Ball also knows how to orchestrate sensible offense in the half court. Here he is recognizing a potential mismatch, waving Rozier away from it, then quickly taking advantage.
And here, running a pick-and-roll against Toronto, when Fred VanVleet switches onto P.J. Washington, Ball throws an entry pass before Pascal Siakam can kick his point guard out of the paint. What makes this mundane action particularly impressive is the fact that LaMelo is staring at the corner when he lets go of the ball. His eyes force OG Anunoby to step toward Hayward, away from a potential steal.
Ball is the most electrifying passer on the NBA’s most selfless team, but the Hornets aren’t a one-man show. Charlotte’s starting five boasts the league’s highest assist rate (75.5%) among all five-man units that have played at least 100 minutes, and when Ball is on the bench the team’s assist rate drops only 0.2 points. The roster is filled with heady players—including Devonte’ Graham and Hayward—who’ve bought in, often in versatile units where everyone is a threat to make a play. They don’t hesitate to get off the ball when one of their teammates might have a better shot than their own.
(Real quick, for the record: Bismack Biyombo is averaging 1.8 assists per game, which is three times his career average.)
The Hayward corner three seen below is gift-wrapped by Miles Bridges—a 22-year-old, 40.8% three-point shooter in his own right—who looks off an open chance so he can feed a player who essentially pushed him to the bench.
The Hornets have embraced a gratifying style of basketball that alleviates some of their struggles—up to and including their inability to finish around the basket. Despite a 21st-ranked offense, they’d be in a far less desirable spot if it weren’t for their passing. Should those principles stick, while they stay healthy and start taking (and making) a few more threes every night, the playoffs could very well be in order. It’s easy to overlook a team with such an obvious ceiling, but don’t. Few offer a more refreshingly unique viewing experience.