As the Golden State Warriors visit the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday, they'll get their first up-close look at a player who could very easily have been wearing a Warriors uniform this season - superstar rookie LaMelo Ball.
After the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Anthony Edwards with the No.1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the next two picks were clear, either James Wiseman or Ball. At the time, despite Ball's obvious talent, he appeared to be the more risky option of the two players. The Warriors went with Wiseman, who has the potential to be a transcendent big man, but injuries have slowed his freshman season in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Ball has thrived in Charlotte, quickly becoming their most important player with his knack for playmaking, elite vision and supreme confidence in setting the tone for their young roster.
The thought of pairing Ball alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson is something that certainly crossed the Warriors' minds ahead of the draft and with Thompson sidelined for the season, perhaps the opportunity would have been there for Ball to take on a bigger role, supplementing their playmaking duties, an area the Warriors have struggled in any non-Curry minutes. But would it make sense long-term?
Of late, the freedom Ball has been afforded by head coach James Borrego perhaps wouldn't have been there in Golden State. He's allowed to play through mistakes and attempt passes that would make most coaches squirm, although a lot of them end up in Miles Bridges' hands for an alley-oop.
The BEST BALL-BRIDGES connections! 💥- NBA (@NBA) February 8, 2021
LaMelo, Miles and the @hornets host Houston tonight at 7pm/et on NBA TV. pic.twitter.com/H1sOhEadnu
Over the past eight games since he's been inserted into the Hornets starting lineup, Ball has taken his game to another level, averaging 20.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game on 44.6 percent shooting and an impressive 43.9 percent from the 3-point line on 7.1 attempts in 34.4 minutes.
MORE: NBA Rookie Ladder: Did any rookie take Ball's top spot?
Ball has the Hornets at 13-15 on the season, leading all rookies in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game, making the 19-year-old an early front-runner for Rookie of the Year. Even two-time MVP Curry has taken notice.
"He's playing amazing," Curry said of Ball. "There was a lot of talk about what he could show his rookie year. He's surprising a lot of people."
Ball joined Curry and Jason Kidd as the only rookies to make seven 3-pointers in a game with his career-high 34-point night against the Houston Rockets and joined LeBron James and Luka Doncic as the only players 19 or younger to record multiple games of 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. He is also the youngest player to record a triple-double in NBA history.
"He's special," Borrego said of his young playmaker. "He's a special player. I love coaching him. He's developing right before our eyes. He's young. He's 19. This is new for him and he's having a major impact on our program, our team, our city, our culture and it's fantastic for our group. He's only going to get better from here and we found ourselves a heck of a player, a heck of a person.
"There's room for growth here, which is exciting. That's why I get excited every day to come to work, to help mold and shape this kid. That's the beauty of this job. I love him, I love coaching him. He's a special guy, a special talent and his teammates love him so all of that is very important for us."
The thought of Ball being the third Splash Brother would have theoretically worked, especially in a modern NBA that is not shy of three-guard lineups.
Having said that, Wiseman, who has been sidelined since Jan 30. with a wrist injury, has looked like a solid long-term fit in Golden State who have one of the most promising big man prospects in recent years.
The Warriors announced Thursday that Wiseman was re-evaluated and the results "indicated James is making good progress," with the expectation he returns at some point during their road trip, perhaps as early as their first of two games against the Hornets, who square off again in San Francisco on Friday.
While Ball has been a bright spark in Charlotte, the same can be said of Wiseman, who in his short time with the Warriors has played well beyond the expectations of a 19-year-old big man.
His ability to protect the rim, operate in the pick-and-roll and space the floor with his sweet-stroking 3-point shot has the makings of the next NBA unicorn. Not to mention, having Draymond Green in his ear during games, offering advice and serving as an in-game coach, especially on the defensive end.
Despite playing just 20 games, the 19-year-old leads all rookies with 1.4 blocks per game and as he continues to learn the NBA game, his presence inside bodes well for team that will have championship aspirations once they return to full health.
In an alternate universe, Ball ends up as the third Splash Brother and Wiseman becomes a Hornet. While it's still too early to tell which player will end up as the better NBA pro, Saturday's matchup might end up being less of a 'what could have been,' but more a reminder that both teams got players that are served for long-term success.
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