LaMelo Ball going down with a broken right wrist was one of the season’s true bummers. He’s set to be reevaluated in a few weeks, and with more than a month remaining in this shortened season, it’s possible the Hornets could bring him back for the last leg of their playoff push. But don’t bet on it. He’s likely done for the year.
Which begs the question: Was Ball’s performance through 41 games enough to override a potential 31-game absence to close the season and still win Rookie of the Year?
“Oh yeah,” an Eastern Conference scout told CBS Sports. “It’s a done deal in my view. Even if [Anthony] Edwards finishes with better stats, or better scoring stats I should say, LaMelo was actually impacting winning. That’s the difference to me. [Hornets coach] James [Borrego] is coaching his ass off trying to get that team in the postseason, and he couldn’t keep LaMelo off the floor.”
It’s true. Borrego resisted putting Ball in the starting lineup as long as he could. After the kid went for a then-career-high 27 points — registering a positively stupid plus-37 — in Charlotte’s double-digit victory over the full-strength Bucks on Jan. 30, Borrego had no choice.
Terry Rozier being down with a sprained ankle made the call even easier. Ball started the next game against Miami, and from that point forward he averaged 19.5 points, 6.2 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 46-percent shooting, including 42.6 percent from 3 and over 80 percent from the free-throw line.
The Hornets handed at least a partial set of keys to their offense to a 19-year-old with 20 games of NBA experience. It should be noted that Minnesota has since done the same with Edwards, but again, the difference is the Wolves aren’t trying to win at the moment. It’s all about development for Edwards, who is cooking now but was afforded the privilege of playing through a lot of mistakes through the first few months of his career.
A rookie being handed the reins on a team with honest postseason expectations is an entirely different story. Borrego regularly yanked Ball early on for turnovers. There were real stakes, and thus real consequences. Ball’s 27.0 usage rate, which still leads the team, was earned.
For many and long stretches, Ball was the best player on the team. And yet he never carried himself with anything other than humility. His teammates love him. He brings an inclusive energy to the offense, one of the traits that he shares with his brother, Lonzo.
When asked what has impressed him most about LaMelo’s rookie season, a second Eastern Conference scout texted: “The way he’s gotten the vets/teammates to believe in him so quickly.”
Over six weeks as a starter, Ball amassed 46 more assists and nine more steals than anyone else on the roster, and his 409 total points put him just five behind team-leader Rozier. The Hornets were No. 7 in the East when Ball went down, and have since risen to No. 4 entering play on Friday.
It’s a remarkable story so far, and that narrative of Ball not just contributing to, but in many ways leading a winning team, isn’t going to die easily. The simple truth is that LaMelo blew everyone away through the first 41 games of his career. Even Hornets owner Michael Jordan didn’t see this coming.
Had Ball been even a smidge less impressive before his injury, or if Charlotte had performed like the lottery team most people expected it to be, Edwards might have a chance to overtake LaMelo for Rookie of the Year. Again, Edwards has been electric over the last six weeks. He averaged 24.2 points a night in March, and he’s posting 23.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists over his past 20 games. As pointed out in this really good Edwards feature by The Ringer’s Dan Devine, the only teenagers to match that level of production through a full season are LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Luka Doncic, and Zion Williamson.
For most of the past 20 years, Edwards’ scoring alone would’ve been enough to win him the ROY. From 2001-2016, in fact, only four ROY winners weren’t the leading rookie scorer, including LeBron James, who finished second in rookie scoring to Carmelo Anthony in 2004.