LaMelo Ball was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the No. 3 pick Wednesday night. That sounds like all sorts of fun, and it will sell all sorts of tickets, and it will generate all sorts of revenue for a small-market team that badly needs a one-name star.
And despite all that, I don’t like it.
Sorry to throw cold water on the virtual parade, but LaMelo Ball isn’t going to be a big NBA star. The Hornets should have traded up to acquire James Wiseman at No. 2.
Will Ball be a solid NBA starter one day? Sure.
Will he be an all-star every night, the sort of player you build a franchise around? No.
He won’t be nearly as good a player as Kemba Walker was for the Hornets, for instance. He also won’t be a complete bust like fellow No. 3 pick Adam Morrison was in 2006. Ball will be somewhere in the middle, but he just won’t be the difference-maker people will want him to be.
I’d love to be wrong and to have to eat this column one day. I’ll save a copy of it, just in case. It would be terrific to be incorrect and to instead watch Ball lead Charlotte on a deep playoff run because the Hornets, frankly, can be a boring team to cover.
The Hornets badly need some more style, and style is what Ball has. But there’s not enough substance to go along with it.
Charlotte’s “win-2, lose-3” pattern has worn thin enough around the Queen City that they tied for 28th out of 30 NBA teams last season in attendance (before COVID-19 shut everything down).
Ball will certainly help with that part of it. The 19-year-old has the name recognition and the splashy creativity with the ball in his hands, especially at full throttle. His new Hornets jersey will be a must-have under a lot of Christmas trees.
But Ball is also a suspect defender and, worse than that, a jump shooter with a strange release who doesn’t make a lot of outside shots (shades of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?!).
As ESPN draft analyst Jay Bilas told me before the NBA draft about Ball’s jumper: “He’s going to have to really work on it. He’s got an odd release. And worse than the odd release? It doesn’t go in.”
I wrote the day before the draft that I wanted the Hornets to trade up a spot or two to pick the 7-foot-1 Wiseman, a big man who one day will be an absolute terror in the NBA, barring injury.
Instead, Minnesota chose Anthony Edwards with the first pick and then Golden State took Wiseman at 2. The Hornets made no early trades, stood pat at No. 3 and drafted Ball, the youngest of the famous trio of Ball brothers — New Orleans guard Lonzo Ball was the No. 2 overall pick in 2017.
If Golden State and Minnesota absolutely refused a realistic deal at the top, the Hornets should have traded down and out of the No. 3 spot. Instead, they could have picked up a talented starter or a future first-round pick, slide back a few positions and still get either Auburn’s Isaac Okoro (he went fifth to Cleveland) or Dayton’s Obi Toppin (he went eighth to the N.Y. Knicks).
LaVar Ball and the Panthers
What many people also know LaMelo Ball for is that he’s the son of the infamous LaVar Ball.
Think what you like about LaVar Ball, but the man is an expert promoter. He’s adept at saying things so outlandish — like proclaiming that he could have beaten Hornets owner Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one, a game that should now absolutely happen — that it’s hard not to pay attention.
LaVar Ball played both football and basketball but wasn’t great at either. As a practice-squad NFL tight end, he had a cup of coffee with the original Carolina Panthers in 1995, never playing a real down but part of the official team photo directly behind owner Jerry Richardson.
But LaMelo Ball has grown up in the spotlight that his father focused on his family, playing basketball everywhere from California to Lithuania to Australia. As ESPN noted in its draft coverage, LaMelo Ball has 5.6 million Instagram followers. That’s more than Zion Williamson or Cam Newton.
He won’t shy from the spotlight, because he’s used to it and has mostly handled it just fine. As for being the face of Charlotte’s franchise, LaMelo said Wednesday shortly after being drafted: “I feel like I was born to do this. So that’s really my answer right there.”
A ‘flair’ to LaMelo Ball’s game
Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said of Ball on Wednesday after drafting him: “He has a kind of flair to his game that maybe has some entertainment to it, more so than some other players. Having said that, that’s not why we drafted him … We drafted him because of his size (6-foot-7) and his length, the way he can handle the ball and pushes the ball.”
Ball will lead some fast breaks that will be dazzling. He will undoubtedly draw praise from Jordan at some point, because Jordan also will be invested in Ball becoming great. For his part, LaMelo called playing for the Hornets owner “a straight blessing, for real.”
But I wonder how someone who shot only 25 percent from three-point range in a lesser league in Australia plans to become the 35-40 percent three-point shooter the Hornets will need him to be.
I wonder if he isn’t the third-best point guard on the Charlotte roster, behind both Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier.
Does Ball really have the will to play the sort of ornery defense it takes to be a great two-way player in the NBA, or will he be content with a highlight or two per night that makes it to SportsCenter.
Hornets coach James Borrego has his work cut out for him here. And maybe LaMelo Ball will become his masterpiece.
I want to like the LaMelo pick, because in many ways it sounds so good for both the city and the team.
But I don’t.