The Charlotte Hornets found their franchise cornerstone when LaMelo Ball fell into their lap with the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Any uncertainty about the phenom's ability was put to bed during his debut NBA season, where Ball posted averages of 15.7 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game on his way to winning Rookie of the Year. He helped lead the Hornets to the Play-In Tournament in Year 1, but with a more talented roster around him in Year 2, expectations are set slightly higher than before.
Ahead of what should be another strong season to start Ball's career, members of our NBA.com Staff play a game of "Fact or Fiction" to discuss what the 20-year-old's ceiling is for his sophomore season.
LaMelo Ball will lead the Charlotte Hornets to the playoffs
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): Fact. Although the Eastern Conference didn't get any easier over the offseason, the Hornets still got better. With Gordon Hayward returning, additions such as Kelly Oubre Jr., Mason Plumlee and a pair of quality rookies in James Bouknight and Kai Jones, and other established players on the roster improving like Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges and PJ Washington, I think Charlotte will be a sleeper team in the East. With all of that talent around a playmaker of Ball's calibre, I believe the reigning Rookie of the Year will elevate his team to the playoffs, even if it's by way of winning through the Play-In Tournament.
Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): Fact. The Hornets made the Play-In Tournament last season despite some key injuries down the stretch and with everyone healthy, I think they're a lock to breakthrough in the East.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Fiction. I want to say yes to see Ball in the postseason but unless one of the nine teams that finished above them last season, have a dismal campaign this time around and fall off the charts I don't see it. Two teams that finished that below them - the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls - look a lot better than they did last season and will be contenders for at least the final spots in the Play-In Tournament.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Fact. I'm really high on the Hornets going into this season. Had it not been for injuries, the team would have been a playoff team in 2020 and would have been able to make some noise. Beginning with Ball, I expect that all the key returning players have added to their games and in bringing in players like Oubre, Plumlee, Bouknight, Jones and Ish Smith, the second unit is prepared to step up in the event any key starters miss extended time. That should help them stay in the playoff picture.
LaMelo Ball will be the best player in his draft class again in Year 2
Irving: Fact. The 2020 NBA Draft class ended up being much deeper than most people anticipated, with Ball, Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton all looking like certified franchise cornerstones. Edwards and Ball were neck-and-neck for Rookie of the Year last season, and I think Edwards will solidify himself as one of the 10 best young players in the NBA this season, but I still think Ball will hold the upper hand by leading his team to a better overall record and a potential postseason bid. I expect Edwards and Haliburton to both take another step forward this year, but I don't think those steps will be bigger than Ball's leap.
Kidane: Fact. Haliburton and Edwards made the race for Rookie of the Year a lot closer than many expected and while they will both take on more responsibility for their teams in Year 2, Ball is the man in Charlotte and will have more opportunities to shine with the ball in his hands on a team competing for a playoff spot.
Matange: Fact. There are no two ways about how talented Edwards and Haliburton are, which could see them emerging as cornerstones for their respective franchises, but Ball's skills are more multi-faceted and will be lethal for longer periods of his career.
McGregor: Fact. By Year 3 I might have a different answer, but I think LaMelo is in a perfect position to show his strengths while Edwards is still a year away from blossoming fully into who he's going to become, which is a dominant force in this league. There's a reason Ball bested his peers for Rookie of the Year honours.
LaMelo Ball will lead the league in assists
Irving: I'm going to go fiction on this one, but I don't think it's that farfetched.
Ball averaged over six assists per game as a rookie, joining Stephon Marbury as the only teenager to ever achieve that feat in their first NBA season. As a full-time starter in Year 2 and with Devonte' Graham no longer on the roster, I believe Ball will get his average high enough where he could be in the conversation of leading the league. The previous two assist champions playing on the same roster help his case, as LeBron James and Russell Westbrook will likely cannibalize each other's assists averages. But he'll still be up against playmakers like Trae Young, Chris Paul, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
Ball will lead the league in assists at some point over his career, I just don't think it happens this season.
Kidane: Fiction...But I want to be proven wrong.
The Hornets were 18th in pace last season and with LaMelo at the wheel from the jump, expect them to be out and running, even more, this season creating plenty of fastbreak opportunities with Miles Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr. and co.
Melo is already one of the best transition point guards, but to lead the league in assists, he'll need to take a leap as a half-court creator, which he already showed flashes of last season. I think he can add 2-3 more assists per game this season and finish in the top 5, but as Kyle noted, there's a ton of competition for the top spot.
Matange: Fiction. Ball will certainly be a regular on the highlight-reel with his flashy dimes but I believe leading the league in assists is a bit much. With Russell Westbrook and LeBron James - the assists leaders of the previous four seasons - on the same team, there could be a new assists champion for the 2021-22 season but I see that player being either Young or Doncic.
McGregor: Fact. I mean, why not? Last year's assists champ, Russell Westbrook, will now share playmaking duties with a guy named LeBron James, which means the claim to the title is wide open in my eyes. Ball averaged 6.1 assists last season while still figuring out the NBA game. Having a year of experience under his belt is good for at least another two dimes per game - maybe even three. It'll be an interesting race, but LaMelo has as good of a chance as anyone else.
LaMelo Ball will be an All-Star
Irving: Fact. If you couldn't already tell, I'm very high on Ball in Year 2. Cracking the All-Star team technically means you're one of the 24 best players in the NBA, give or take a few players that will miss out due to injury. He'll have to beat out the greater majority of players like James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Trae Young, Jaylen Brown, Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine, Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday, but I don't think it's impossible.
If he improves upon his averages from last season and has the Hornets in the thick of the playoff picture when the time All-Star ballots come around, he'll surely be the player to receive votes on his team. Add to it that he has the star power to drive fan votes and I think Ball has a legitimate chance to be an All-Star already.
Kidane: Fact. Last season we saw Zion Williamson make the All-Star game in Year 2 and while Ball won't have the same eye-popping numbers, his impact on his team measures up.
If the Hornets are balling for the first couple months of the season, Ball, like Zion is a star of the social media generation and could see his name near the top of the ballots.
Matange: Fiction. I think the reigning Rookie of the Year will make a leap in his second year which will put him in contention for the guard spots on the All-Star team. However, Kyle shared the list of players and I don't see him beating them out unless injuries play spoilsport.
McGregor: Big fact. The East is deep with guards, but I think the key ingredient to LaMelo earning an All-Star nod is winning, just like Kyle said. A leap into averaging something like 18 points and eight assists for a Hornets team that looks like a solidified playoff squad should be enough for Ball to take the floor in Cleveland when the 2022 All-Star weekend rolls around.
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