HOUSTON — The game was still far away — tipoff against the Rockets wasn’t for another eight hours — but LaMelo Ball’s competitive juices were already in high gear.
The 21-year-old doesn’t like losing, it’s a concept that is embedded in his DNA — from Chino Hills, Ca., to Australia and now in Charlotte. The Hornets’ point guard wants to win at everything — even a simple game of knockout at an early morning shootaround.
The only issue here is that Ball just lost — to an assistant coach. nonetheless. For someone who genuinely believes he shoots better than anyone, this is a shocking development. He’s not going to be satisfied until he wins, even if that means being one of the last teammates to exit the Toyota Center floor.
“Aye P! P! Don’t leave yet,” Ball pleads with forward PJ Washington, already dressed and headed for the team bus.
“Go get your popcorn, bro,” the coach responds almost immediately.
By the baseline sits a laughing Terry Rozier — Ball’s backcourt partner — who was also on his way out but has taken a sudden interest in the 3-point shootout.
The game continues, first to make 10. Now all of the coaches and trainers are tuned in, exactly what Ball wants. He loves the attention. And now, he’s found his groove and ca n’t miss.
Ball’s deep triples come one after another in quick succession. The coach, who was in high spirits and talking trash earlier, is struggling to keep up and is slowly realizing what he signed up for.
“Don’t miss Money!” Ball yells.
“I won’t,” the coach responds. In some ways, he’s already been defeated even though the score is tied at eight. Ball hits another, the coach misses again. By the time Ball’s tenth attempt goes up, he’s already walking off the floor. He knows it’s good.
“He can’t f— with me dawg!” Ball yells, with glee.
“Aye P! Pack the bags,” Ball screams. “Let’s get the f—- on!”
As Charlotte’s emotional compass, Ball’s passion for the game is infectious. His spirit and positive attitude are as well. It’s the biggest reason why the 13-35 Hornets, despite having the third-worst record in the NBA, haven’t hung their heads or let outside frustrations penetrate their locker room. It’s been a wild season thus far but Ball and the rest of the organization seem to be taking it in stride. In other words, trusting the process and Ball’s lead.
“Pretty much just taking every game one by one,” Ball told The Athletic. “Trying to get wins. Keeping our heads on right. Not letting our record devastate us.”
“Just his high spirit, man,” Rozier said. “He never gets down. He never gets too high, he never gets too low. Being in that limelight since a kid, knowing who he is, it’s easy to be up or down. But he stays in the moment and I always respect that about him. Great guy.”
This season hasn’t been what anyone within the organization expected but stumbling into an accidental rebuild is a blessing in disguise. It’s certainly better than being stuck in NBA purgatory — not good enough to contend but too good to bottom out. Over the past two seasons, the Hornets have finished 10th in the Eastern Conference on both occasions and lost in the Play-In Tournament. The four seasons before that saw them finish 10th, ninth, 10th and 11th. It’s been six seasons since Charlotte had a healthy playoff spot.
Injuries have ravaged this roster. Ball has missed more than half the season with ankle and shoulder issues. Gordon Hayward, who’s making upwards of $30 million per year, has missed 25 games. Kelly Oubre Jr. has missed 13 games and Terry Rozier has missed 10. It’s hard to win in the NBA, a task that becomes near impossible when so much of your core is missing. Miles Bridges, the team’s leading scorer during the 2021-22 season, has been out of the league since being arrested last June on felony domestic violence charges (Bridges pled no contest and was recently sentenced to three years probation). It’s been quite a change for Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, who recently became the winningest coach in franchise history. Even the most talented coaching staff would have a difficult time adjusting.
“I think that the whole thing that you want to try to create, I believe, in any season is finding ways to get better every day,” Clifford said. “You have to be able to handle frustration just like success also. I’m proud of the way they’ve hung in there and their attitude we’ve had about it. We’ve played long stretches without key guys which is difficult.”
It’s hard to compare Charlotte and other places like Houston, Detroit, Utah or San Antonio. No two rebuilds are built the same. The Hornets are in a down period but have the ability to turn things around with time. They’ll just need some outside help doing so.
The Jazz and Hornets show how different the approaches to rebuilding can be
For starters, finding a new home for Hayward might be best for all parties. He’s still a fine player — the Hornets defended nearly six points better with him on the floor this season and he’s been a positive presence there — but he’s 32, he’s still owed $60 million over the next two seasons and hasn’t played more than 53 games since 2019. Oubre and Mason Plumlee are scheduled to hit free agency this summer. Rozier is in a similar boat with Hayward — a talented player who can help winning teams but might not be the best long-term fit for a franchise that needs to reset, especially at that price point (Rozier signed a $96 million extension during the offseason ).
But the good news for the Hornets is that they’re not in a dire situation as a franchise desperately searching for a cornerstone to build around. As strange as it sounds, they might very well end up winning the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. Even if they were to land the second-overall pick, Charlotte could easily package that and net a quality return of assets. The jury is still out on the likes of James Bouknight and Mark Williams, but the Hornets have still done a solid job drafting overall. Charlotte’s lifeline doesn’t start and end with the draft — they already have a centerpiece in Ball. He’s young, athletic and has gotten better every season he’s been running the show.
“It’s grown tremendously,” Rozier told The Athletic. “Just the work he puts in, his confidence. He has so much confidence in himself before anyone does. That’s important. I just love to see his growth every day.”
“Just listening and working,” Ball said of his individual development. “Keep on trying.
For Cleaning the Glass, Charlotte is a plus-5.6 offensively with Ball on the floor, good for the 85th percentile. Over his first two seasons, her impact was in the 60th and 65th percentile, respectively. Averaging a career-high 8.2 assists a game, Ball’s court vision and IQ are what a front office can build around.
“I’m up there,” Ball said confidently of his place among the NBA’s best playmakers. It’s easier said than done but Ball has real gravitational pull. He makes those around him better and Clifford knows that better than anyone.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Clifford said. “Melo has a passion for the game. He badly wants to win and he badly wants to make improvements in every area of play. He’s very hard on himself, he’s a good worker and he’s a great teammate. Coaching him is not difficult.”
“Great coach,” Ball said of his relationship with Clifford. “We watch (a lot of) film, he helps me with a lot. Just love that he’s here, I’m glad that he’s here. We love to have him and just try to get better every day. Keep on building.”
When you watch Ball — whether it’s on the court with his teammates or in the locker room — there’s something about him that draws others close. Sure, he can be goofy and silly at times but he means well. He’s a diamond in the rough of a year that needs nurturing and development. But regardless of what the Hornets are going through, Ball’s going to remain true to himself—and his team should follow suit.
“Same person,” Ball said with a smile. “Just out here hoopin’ for real. Ain’t nothing really changed.”
(Top photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)