Hornets season preview: Is LaMelo Ball ready to become an All-Star?

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·7 min read
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The Charlotte Hornets are a team that can potentially exceed expectations, especially if LaMelo Ball is able to further improve his game.

Ball is one of the most exciting young players in basketball and the sky is the limit when it comes to his career. But there are still some questions about if that will translate to winning for the Hornets. For example, will he have enough talent around him to make a splash in the postseason?

Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Hornets campaign.

Roster changes

Gordon Hayward driving the ball
Gordon Hayward driving the ball

Returning: Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels, Vernon Carey and Nick Richards

Additions: Kelly Oubre (Golden State), Mason Plumlee (Detroit), Ishmael Smith (Washington), James Bouknight (Connecticut), Kai Jones (Texas), Wesley Iwundu (New Orleans), JT Thor (Auburn), DJ Carton (Marquette), Xavier Sneed (Niagara River Lions), Arnoldas Kulboka (Bilbao Basket) and Scottie Lewis (Florida)

Departures: Cody Zeller (Portland), Malik Monk (LA Lakers), Brad Wanamaker (Indiana), Devonte Graham (New Orleans), Caleb Martin (Miami) and Grant Riller (Philadelphia)

Strengths

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

* LaMelo Ball is one of the game’s brightest young stars… During his rookie season, Ball showed the world that he is a do-it-all player ready to enjoy a fantastic professional career. He joined Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history to average at least 15 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists per game before turning 20 years old. If he can stay healthy, Charlotte will be a team to watch in the Eastern Conference.

* Miles Bridges is coming into his own… Last season, after a positional change to power forward, Bridges took a massive step forward. While his rookie campaign was fairly underwhelming, the former Michigan State star was one of the most improved defenders in the league. His athleticism and speed made him a versatile option when it comes to stopping opponents. While we’ve long known he’s one of the best dunkers in the league, he also showed some maturation as a playmaker and he was a more accurate shooter as well. If that upward trajectory continues, he is an excellent asset.

* Charlotte is tough to beat when they’re playing fast… Ball is such a unique passer, which lends itself to some highlight plays. But it also allows his team to be one of the best teams when they’re on the go. They averaged 6.6 seconds before shooting after turnovers, via Inpredictable, which was third-fastest in the league. The Hornets also averaged 23.1 points per game in transition, per Synergy, which ranked fourth-best in the NBA. Compare that to the season prior when Charlotte averaged 16.9 ppg in transition, which ranked third-worst in the East.

* They have a ton of talent along the perimeter… Even though Ball’s jump shot is still a bit inconsistent, the Hornets are still an impressive bunch from beyond the arc. Since coming to the organization, Gordon Hayward (41.5 percent) and Terry Rozier (39.6 percent) have both been above average on their long-distance attempts. Rozier has also become a much better pull-up shooter since leaving the Boston Celtics. If the offense can somehow find a way to get Kelly Oubre back on track on his three-pointers after he had a down year in 2020-21, they will have fantastic spacing in Charlotte.

Weaknesses

James Borrego
James Borrego

* The Hornets were lousy in the half-court offense… While we already wrote about what makes Charlotte so special in transition, they are less impressive in the half-court. The Hornets averaged just 0.94 points per possession when in a set offense, according to Synergy, which was fifth-worst in the NBA. No team, meanwhile, scored fewer points per game in a set offense than what the Hornets recorded this past season. Ball, still young, is fairly inefficient both as a scorer and playmaker in the half-court. Head coach James Borrego said the team is going to avoid running set plays so their offense isn’t predictable, but when they do, they need to be able to convert.

* Charlotte has historically struggled to score at the rim… For more than a decade now, the Hornets have somehow finished among the least efficient teams in the NBA when shooting within four feet of the basket. They were 60.4 percent from this zone this past season, per Cleaning the Glass, which ranked fourth-worst in the league. The Hornets added some depth in their frontcourt by drafting Kai Jones and JT Thor but both are closer to raw than they are NBA-ready. Perhaps Mason Plumlee is more productive than Cody Zeller was but those odds seem low.

* They don’t have as much experience as other playoff teams… When it’s all said and done, even if the Hornets make the playoffs, they could be met with a rude awakening down the stretch. Rozier is the only player on their roster with more than a dozen postseason wins under his belt thus far in his career. Hayward and Oubre are both very experienced NBA veterans, but otherwise, the rotation for Charlotte is very young and may not have the poise they need when push comes to shove should they even make the playoffs.

* If they have injuries, they’re in trouble… Injuries aren’t a good thing for any team in the league. Outside of the Brooklyn Nets, who have an insane amount of star power, very few teams could survive injuries to their key role players. But while some times like the Atlanta Hawks could manage to lose a guy or two and still make the playoffs, the Hornets very likely don’t have that luxury in terms of depth. Rookies like James Bouknight, Jones and Thor all offer quite a bit of upside and potential but are still unproven. So, too, are younger players such as Jalen McDaniels, Vernon Carey and Nick Richards.

Depth Chart

Possible moves

* The Hornets kept things relatively simple this offseason with their biggest offseason addition being signing Kelly Oubre with their cap space. Other than that, the roster is mostly similar, banking on a huge breakout by LaMelo Ball and a healthy Gordon Hayward. The Hornets currently have 16 players with guaranteed contracts and need to get down to 15 before the season starts. They currently sit $19.7 million below the luxury tax, so they can comfortably waive any player. The decision on who they waive or trade will likely come after getting a look at their end-of-bench players during training camp.

* After giving Terry Rozier his maximum possible extension, Charlotte is currently unlikely to have significant cap space in the 2022 offseason. This makes the decision to potentially extend Miles Bridges before the season starts easier and it will be fascinating to see what number is agreed upon. After a strong finish to last season, Bridges is in prime position to have a major breakout year and could start at power forward. Jalen McDaniels and Cody Martin are also extension-eligible this season.

* Charlotte has enough tradeable salaries to make a significant move. An upgrade at center may still be required despite going from Cody Zeller to Mason Plumlee, who has a $9.2 million salary that is very moveable. And while Oubre should be a spark plug off the bench and an adequate replacement for Hayward if injured, his $12 million salary could be very helpful in trades. The Hornets currently have a neutral amount of first-round picks going forward so they can offer some in a trade for a new center if needed, especially if Kai Jones, Vernon Carey, and Nick Richards aren’t ready to contribute yet.

— Yossi Gozlan

Salaries

Prediction

3rd in the Southeast Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference

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