To remember a time when the Charlotte Hornets were good you have to go back to the early aughts, when the Paul Silas-coached, Baron Davis-led Buzz won 46-plus games and made it to back-to-back conference semifinals.
To remember a time when they were entertaining, you would have to be thinking of another team.
The Hornets are pretty good—not great, good—with a 13-15 record that’s strong enough to keep them in the playoff mix. There are several reasons why. Gordon Hayward is living up to the four-year, $120 million contract Charlotte lavished on him last offseason, averaging 22.3 points while knocking down 42.2% of his three’s. Terry Rozier (20.6 points) has been excellent. Malik Monk has been solid off the bench. In all the Hornets seven players averaging double figures, with Miles Bridges just a fraction of a point from making it eight.
It takes fewer words to explain why Charlotte is entertaining. Two, actually: LaMelo Ball.
Inching towards the All-Star break of his rookie season, one thing is clear: Ball is good. The 19-year old rookie is averaging 14.6 points and 6.1 assists this season. Since busting into the starting lineup on February 1st, Ball is averaging 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He leads all rookies in double-doubles (six) and 20-point games (seven). Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau called Ball’s passing “a gift.” Dwyane Wade called him “a problem.” Kendrick Perkins called Ball a “baby Magic Johnson.”
“He's playing amazing," Stephen Curry said this week. "There was a lot of talk about what he could show his rookie year. He's surprising a lot of people.”
James Borrego isn’t surprised. The Hornets coach was sold on Ball last November, when Borrego, Hornets president Mitch Kupchak and assistant GM Buzz Peterson flew to Los Angeles to watch Ball work out. They knew about the passing. “He’s able to read coverages before they happen,” Borrego said in a telephone interview. But then they saw the shooting. “He had a nice little floater,” says Borrego. And the confidence. At one point, Borrego and Kupchak discussed how when Ball shot, he seemed to believe every one was going in.
The interview sealed it. Borrego admits—he had a few preconceived notions about Ball. He knew his history. The visibility. The youngest of the three Ball brothers with the brash, loudmouth father. “It's what you hear,” says Borrego. “It's what you read. It’s what is on the Internet.” In the weeks before the draft, reports surfaced that Ball was tanking his team interviews.
Not Charlotte. In L.A., the Hornets brass grilled Ball for more than 30 minutes. About basketball. About life. At one point, Borrego asked Ball what he valued. Family, Ball said. I care about people. “It felt real and genuine,” says Borrego. “Whatever I got back in that interview to me was very honest and genuine. I felt like this was a more humble kid than I anticipated. It eased my concerns a little bit.”
In training camp, any lingering concerns evaporated quickly. The playmaking skills were obvious. "He has elite vision," says Borrego. But there was the burst. “His ability to beat guys off the bounce was further ahead than I thought,” says Borrego. The finishing at the rim. The rebounding. Borrego recalls watch Ball battle with big men for defensive boards. “He has a knack to go get rebounds against seven-footers or big wings,” says Borrego. “He really competes.”
And he runs. Charlotte ranked at the bottom of the league in pace last season. This year, they are inside the top-15 and are top-five in shots within seven seconds. Ball’s teammates have embraced him. Hayward, who Ball has developed early chemistry with, likens Ball’s feel for the game to that of Luka Dončić and Russell Westbrook. Ball’s energy in the locker room has proven infectious. “I didn't know how his teammates would respond to him,” says Borrego. “And they love him. They just love him. They love being around him. They love his energy. They love playing with him. He doesn't take himself too serious. I think everybody recognizes that. He laughs at himself. He makes jokes at himself. And he's just a lot of fun for our guys to play on the court with and also interact with off the court.”
Questions about Ball’s shooting form will linger. Ball admitted the Hornets tried to tweak his shot in training camp. “This is how I shoot,” Ball shrugged. So far, it’s been effective. Ball made seven three’s against Houston earlier this month. He’s shooting 35.4% from three, a more than respectable number.
Borrego understands the value in reworking a shot. Borrego is an alum of the Spurs system. In San Antonio, assistant coach Chip Engelland—a noted shot doctor—reshaped the shot of Richard Jefferson. And Kawhi Leonard. Leonard was a non-factor from three in college. In the NBA, he’s a career 38.3% shooter. With Ball, Borrego says, “I don’t want to touch his shot.” When the season is over, the staff and Ball will look at ways to improve all areas of his game—including his shooting.
And that meeting could come later than expected. The Hornets are .500 in February. They picked up wins over the Pacers, Bucks and Heat in the last three weeks. The three-guard lineup of Ball, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham is working. The ball movement has been crisp—Charlotte leads the NBA in passes made and ranks among the top teams in assists—and the Hornets are second in the league in transition points. The playoffs are a realistic possibility.
And they are relevant. No team in the NBA has been in need of an infusion of star power than Charlotte. For years, the Hornets roster has been as sexy as a street light. The only reason to eyeball the bench was if team owner Michael Jordan was sitting near it.
Ball has changed that. He’s made the Hornets compelling television. He’s a walking League Pass Alert. Charlotte ranked 28th in the NBA in attendance last season. Whenever fans start to trickle back in, it will be to see him. To watch Ball throw alley-oops to Bridges. To watch him spin behind the back passes to Hayward for open three’s. The Hornets have been good before. But they have never had this much potential.