March 30, 2023

Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball Named N.B.A.’s Rookie of the Year

LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets won the N.B.A.’s Rookie of the Year Award on Wednesday, joining Larry Johnson and Emeka Okafor as players in the franchise’s history to receive the honor.

Ball, who before this season bypassed college ball to play professionally in Australia and had a stint in Lithuania while still in high school, received 84 of 99 first-place votes to beat out Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards despite Edwards’s second-half surge. Tyrese Haliburton of the Sacramento Kings finished third.

Selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft, Ball moved into Charlotte’s starting lineup in the 21st game of the season and, in tandem with the former All-Star Gordon Hayward and guard Terry Rozier, unexpectedly led the Hornets into contention for a top-six spot in the Eastern Conference. That push was derailed by a fractured right wrist Ball sustained on March 20 that forced him to miss 21 games, and Hayward was knocked out of the lineup on April 2 by a sprained right foot that sidelined him for the rest of the season.

Ball, who turns 20 in August, averaged 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game. He also shot a respectable 43.6 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from 3-point range, after worrisome showings in both categories in the preseason (26.2 percent shooting overall and 27.3 percent on 3s in four games) amplified skepticism about his shooting ability as he made the transition to the N.B.A.

Most of all, Ball has come to be known for his court vision and passing, especially as he regularly connected with Miles Bridges for alley oops and long-range assists.

The Hornets’ chance to draft Ball arose only because they fortuitously moved up to No. 3 in the draft lottery from their No. 8 projection. After Charlotte landed a top-three pick, word began to spread in league circles that Michael Jordan, the Hornets’ majority owner, was a Ball fan.

“He’s got a long way to go, but he’s got a chance to be a heck of a player,” Mitch Kupchak, Charlotte’s president of basketball operations, said of Ball in a phone interview with The New York Times recently.

Ball was a runaway favorite to win the award before the wrist injury, which the Hornets initially feared would be season-ending. He returned to play in Charlotte’s final 10 regular-season games but, with Hayward still sidelined, could not prevent Charlotte’s lopsided loss at Indiana in a playoff play-in game after the Hornets had finished with the East’s 10th best record.

Edwards, who also turns 20 in August, quickly gained a reputation for highlight-reel dunks after the Timberwolves selected him with last year’s No. 1 overall pick. He made the awards race closer than anticipated with his strong play while Ball was injured. Edwards averaged 23.8 points per game and shot 45.4 percent from the field during the season’s second half, helping Minnesota go 16-20 after a treacherous 7-29 start.

Ball’s comeback enabled him to play in 71 percent of Charlotte’s games. Had he not made it back from injury, Ball would have appeared in only 57 percent of Charlotte’s games — a lower percentage than anyone who had gone on to be named rookie of the year. Patrick Ewing’s 60 percent (50 out of 82 games) for the Knicks in the 1985-86 season stands as the lowest.

Johnson won rookie of the year honors for the Hornets in 1992, and Okafor won in 2005 when the franchise was known as the Bobcats. Recent winners of the award include Ja Morant (2020) of the Memphis Grizzlies, Luka Doncic (2019) of the Dallas Mavericks and Ben Simmons (2018) of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Ball and his brother Lonzo Ball, who was drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2017 and now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans, are the first brothers in N.B.A. history to both be selected among the top three picks.

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