Selecting in the top five of the NBA Draft hasn’t been particularly kind to the Charlotte Hornets.
In the early years of the franchise, the team hit the mark with players like Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, and the 1999 selection of Baron Davis at No. 3 was one of the best picks of that year’s draft.
Since then? It’s been a parade of underachievers and disappointments. Emeka Okafor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist never came close to living up to being second overall picks. Like Davis, Adam Morrison was picked third by Charlotte — and played just 161 games in the league, 122 of them with the Bobcats.
Cody Zeller, fourth overall in 2013, has proven to be a serviceable complementary player from a draft that’s best player wasn’t selected until 15th, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Raymond Felton, the fifth pick in 2005, played the first five years of a solid 14-year career in Charlotte but was never an All-Star.
There’s reason to believe things will be different this time.
The Hornets jumped up in the lottery and landed the No. 3 pick in this year’s draft. With three players — LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman — all considered potential first overall picks, Charlotte was poised to get a top talent regardless of who fell to them after Minnesota and Golden State made their selections.
As it turned out, it was Ball — the 6-foot-7 point guard who spurned college to play in Australia — who was still on the board when the Hornets went on the clock.
“He’s a playmaker. He’s confident,” Hornets coach James Borrego said after seeing Ball in action during the preseason. “He sets the tone for our pace, our energy, our ball movement. He was confident in his shot. … He just oozes confidence.”
That endorsement coupled with the fact that the 19-year-old brings the type of energy, style, playmaking and excitement not seen from a Hornets first-rounder in ages led to Ball being North State Journal’s pick to be the 2021 Newcomer of the Year.
There are, however, hurdles Ball will have to overcome.
There are concerns that Ball, while considered by many to be the best raw talent among this year’s draft-eligible players, hasn’t played enough against top condition. He was named Rookie of the Year in Australia’s National Basketball League, and his numbers were impressive: 17 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game.
The problem? He played just 12 games for the Illawarra Hawks, missing time with a foot injury before deciding to depart from the team to prepare for the draft.
He also shot just 37.7% from the field, highlighting a second concern — Ball’s shot.
It’s not just the numbers that indicate flaws in Ball’s shooting. His unorthodox release has been a concern of evaluators leading up to his draft year.
Like any young player, defense is a work in progress. Oh, and there’s the noise always surrounding dear old dad…
But these are the criticisms that come with being an immensely talented young player — and the positives will surely outweigh the negatives.
As previously mentioned, Zeller has proven to be a useful player. But he’s not going to bring many jaw-dropping plays — and that’s where Ball thrives.
“Drafting LaMelo Ball gives the Hornets a prospect who will define their style,” The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor said. “They’ll be an up-tempo team with his passing wizardry and unselfishness.”
So while there will certainly be head-scratching decisions, forced passes, bad turnovers and missed shots at times, Ball will also provide electricity and charisma that hasn’t been seen in teal at Spectrum Center since Kemba Walker left for Boston.
And that means something in today’s NBA. You can succeed in Major League Baseball using shifts and openers, win in the NHL with the trap, and build an NFL team around defense.
But the NBA, first and foremost, is about entertainment and skill. If you have the former, you can attract more of the latter.
Ball has a long way to go to reach that level, and if the start of the season is any indication, he will be eased into the league by coach James Borrego.
The potential, however, is there, and as the 2020-21 season goes on, Ball will get more and more opportunities to make good on his promise. And even if his shot is a bit wonky or his father LaVar insists on a 1-on-1 with team owner Michael Jordan, the Hornets should get a clearer picture of how good Ball can be.
And chances are, by the end of 2021, it will be pretty good.