Rookie of the Year favorite LaMelo Ball’s ‘elite’ pass lays the foundation for a potentially spectacular career


There is a colloquialism that tries to define the indefinable: “I know it when I see it.” The phrase was most famously and controversially invoked by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 obscenity case, but it also applies to art, film, and even NBA award races.

In the case of the Charlotte Hornets, it wasn’t long before they realized rookie LaMelo Ball “had it.”

“We all knew his type of game, how he plays, but still when you’re out there with him it’s like, ‘Hey!’ Hornets guard Terry Rozier said: “His first day made us all look at all of us like, ‘Damn, this kid can do it!'”

Ball was a bit of an enigma during the pre-draft process due to a shorter high school career that led to extremely limited stints with professional teams in Lithuania and Australia. His actions in the draft ranged from “franchise player” to “potential bankruptcy,” in large part because there just wasn’t much to analyze.

What immediately stood out, even in the movie, and what made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, was his vision and passing ability. Both Hornets coach James Borrego and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose team was ranked No. 2, noted those elite skills before the draft; The question was always whether his game would translate to the NBA.

But once Ball entered the court during the preseason, it became clear that that would not be a problem.

“I realized in training camp, just the kind of passes he was making. I wasn’t looking at the guys and hitting them right for the money. It’s been that way since Day 1,” Hornets forward PJ Washington said. . “Everybody knows him, everybody knows that he will find you wherever you are, so when he’s on the court you have to be ready to catch the ball and throw it. He will find you when you’re open.”

And find open guys, he has. Ball, 19, is averaging 6.4 assists per game this season and is a nightly staple in featured videos with his wide variety of fantastic dishes. He’s also far ahead in other aspects of his game than most expected. He is on track to join Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Ben Simmons and Michael Carter-Williams as the only NBA rookies to average at least 15 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. He’s shooting 36.7 percent from 3-point range, a much higher rate than most expected given his pre-NBA percentages and unorthodox shooting.

Even with all of his other talents, which have combined to make Ball the top candidate for Rookie of the Year, the elite pass and vision are what could eventually make him an All-Star, an All-NBA player or even a member of the Hall of Fame. .

“A good passer is almost like a good shooter,” Kerr said. “When the ball comes out of his fingers, it looks smoother. It looks like it’s going to be completed, it goes to the right place with good timing. You see all of that with LaMelo.”

It’s hard to get into something deeper than “I know it when I see it” without listening to someone who interacts with Ball on a daily basis. So I asked Borrego what, in his opinion, distinguishes an elite passer from, say, a good passer. He went into great detail, as only a veteran coach can, which helps us better understand what it is that makes Ball so special.

“For me, the elite passers, the playmakers, can do these passes and reads at all three levels,” Borrego said.

What are those three levels, exactly? I’m really glad you asked.

Level 1

“So when I initially beat my defender, whether it’s on a pick-and-roll or I just beat him one-on-one, the ability to make that play,” Borrego said, describing the first level of playmaking. “Many guys You can see that. You can do that first reading. “

Here are a couple of examples of that “first reading” Borrego talks about, and how Ball excels in that area. On the surface, this may seem like a simple balloon play called by the coach. But Ball has a crucial quick read to do. If Bucks forward Bobby Portis gets the cutting Miles Bridges, who just swiped the screen, Ball can hit Washington for an open triple. But Ball anticipates that Portis will cheat for a split second and hands Bridges a perfect balloon for a standout dunk:

On this play against the Raptors, Ball draws in two defenders from a pick-and-roll, reads Fred VanVleet assisting in Washington’s move, and delivers an over-the-shoulder one-handed pass to goal to Devonte ‘Graham for the opening. . 3 pointers:

These are split-second decisions that need to be executed flawlessly, and Ball rarely misses. But, as Borrego says, many NBA point guards can do those readings. Let’s take a look at the second level.

Level 2

“That mid-level reading is pretty tough. I go downhill and now I’m a little bit around the free throw line area, and now I have another decision to make,” Borrego said. “That’s another level of playmaking, in that mid-range area. I get there, now the defense starts to shift; what’s my next read? The elite guys can make that play.”

Look here as Ball uses the pick to get past Jrue Holiday, then he has to make a choice between rolling bridges or Rozier shooting for a triple over the break. Ball reads Giannis Antetokounmpo glued to the cutter and makes another cash delivery to Rozier, who doesn’t have a defender within 20 feet of him:

Then on this play, again from the free throw line area, Ball somehow sees Cody Zeller cutting into heavy traffic and gives him a lead pass to an open layup:

When the minds of the NBA speak of Ball’s elite vision, this is what they mean. He sees the play unfold before it happens, knowing that is The situation will somehow become an easy basket for your team.

The third level of playmaking, however, is what Borrego says sets truly special passersby apart.

Level 3

“So you have the upper level that, now I get to the rim area, and now I can do the reading Y make the pass. So not only do I see it, but I can execute it, “Borrego said.” When a big guy, a 7-footer, comes to block my shot, I can still make a pass to get the ball out of there. That is not easy to do. You have to have a large size, or the ability to wrap it, or get up in the air and skip it. The elite passers, and I think Melo is in this category, he can make those plays and reads at all three levels, not just do the read, but execute it. So yeah, he’s special that way. “

You can see this with players like LeBron James and Luka Doncic, who have the ability to get deep into the lane and somehow find the narrowest passing lanes to deliver frozen ropes directly into the pocket of open 3-point shooters. Ball is already doing the same, as you can see in this play against the Raptors. With Chris Boucher behind him and Pascal Siakam ready to block his shot, Ball doesn’t break stride as he throws a one-handed bullet pass to the weak-side corner for an open triple from Bridges:

Here, Ball uses that same vision among the trees to find Bismack Biyombo for a tray with a wraparound left-handed plate:

You can break down all the videos you want, but there’s still something ethereal about the way Ball plays. He pushes the pace, always looking for an open partner, but stays in control. He makes spectacular passes, but thrives on playing the simple game. Of course, he occasionally commits turnovers, as any young point guard will, but he has delivered the ball less frequently (2.8 per game) than both Trae Young and Luka Doncic during their rookie seasons. Borrego has pulled Ball out of the games after bad turnovers, but ultimately he knows he must let Ball take risks as it is an essential part of his basketball DNA.

“He’s going to have to make some aggressive plays. That’s what it is, and I have to live with some of those turnovers,” Borrego said. “Those head kicks on top where you’re looking big or miles [Bridges] on the edge, they are built from aggressiveness. … I have to give him the freedom to be who he is, but the careless ones, the ones in traffic, those are the ones we can clean up. “

Most importantly, Ball impacts the game in a way rarely seen in players his age. He makes his teammates better, and by continually finding the man open at a breakneck pace, he has won the affection of his teammates and impressed his opponents. He has already helped make Charlotte one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA after being largely ignored on the national scale for the past few years.

“I think the most important thing is the energy that he brings to the game. You can tell that people like to play with him and that he is not afraid,” Kerr said. “He loves to play. He really is not solely responsible, but a large part of [the Hornets] building this identity that they have already built. So he will be a great player, if he isn’t already. “



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