There are a lot of levels in the NBA, and right now Charlotte Hornets rookie LaMelo Ball has reached a good one.
His early return from a broken right wrist should ensure that Melo wins “NBA Rookie of the Year.” He’s created a whole new category for highlight packages with his look-ahead passes, which defy belief at least once per game. He’s fun, he’s marketable and he’s only 19 years old.
But there remain many more NBA levels for Ball to conquer. His performance in the final eight games of the regular season — starting Tuesday night at Detroit, followed by five straight games in Charlotte — will give him a lot of chances to reach a couple more of them.
And then, assuming the Hornets (31-33) make it to the play-in portion of the NBA playoffs starting May 18, Ball will have a chance to reach even higher. It will be cool to see him perform under the sort of one-and-done pressure he never experienced in an NCAA tournament since he never played in one.
Charlotte has no shot at making a serious playoff push throughout May and remaining alive into June unless Ball plays extremely well — better than he did Sunday night in a 121-111 home loss to Miami.
It’s probably not quite fair to put that sort of pressure on a teenager. But without the injured Gordon Hayward in the lineup, that’s where the Hornets are, fair or not. Ball has to elevate both his own game and, just as importantly, the games of talented teammates like Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges.
The Miami defeat Sunday night should be instructive to the Hornets, because it looked like the Heat already had fast-forwarded to the postseason.
The Hornets got pushed around. They allowed Miami to shoot 68% from two-point range (34 of 50), mostly because of all of the Heat’s layups and dunks. By the second half, Charlotte was resorting to the old “Let’s complain about the officiating calls” approach used by thousands of losing teams.
Ball was still good in the loss, which was only his second game back from injury. But he wasn’t quite good enough. And yes, I’m judging him by a very high standard, because he did have 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals, plus one 80-foot touchdown pass to Terry Rozier just before halftime that was a throw Sam Darnold would be proud of if he made it in September.
But Ball also made five turnovers, allowed several blow-bys on defense, missed a couple of assignments and had a plus-minus of minus-17. He just didn’t affect the game enough.
I asked coach James Borrego after the game how the Hornets were assimilating Ball back into the lineup after the rookie missed 21 games due to his broken wrist.
Said Borrego of Ball: “He’s getting there … You know, he’s trying to find his rhythm again. He’s been out for a while. We’re all trying to get used to him, and he’s trying to get used to us … He understands he made a few (passes) out there that he’d like to have back, but we’ll get a better rhythm.”
Ball said Saturday night, after his first game back: “It feels like a dream. Even when I was on the court, it didn’t feel like I was out here.”
In other words, the Hornets’ dream of the postseason remains blurry around the edges. Charlotte would totally have to tank these last eight games not to make the play-in tournament, but the focus is going to have to sharpen up to make it into a true best-of-7 NBA playoff series for the first time since 2016. And the guy who has to lead the charge?
It’s got to be Ball.