After LaMelo Ball become the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, even Hornets coach James Borrego — the man changed with having to mold the teenager and his raw talent into a future superstar — had to pause and admire how far Charlotte’s foundational player has already come.
“A 19-year-old rookie does not look like this,” Borrego said. “This is just rare what you’re seeing. I can’t get over this kid. He’s just a wonderful person to be around, he’s humble, he’s genuine, he’s coachable.”
Ball’s performance Jan. 9 — 22 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in just over 31 minutes of the Hornets’ 113-105 win — helped Charlotte even its record at 5-5. Now at 6-8 and about to play after a season-long three-day break, it’s an ideal time to look at Ball’s progress nearly a month into his NBA career.
The assessment? Ball is in rare company.
Through the first 14 games of his career, Ball is averaging 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists while playing just over 25 minutes a night. Individually, none of those numbers jump off the page, but when put together, they put the youngest Ball brother in elite company.
Only three other rookies age 20 or younger in league history have had at least 150 points, 75 rebounds and 75 assists in their 14 games — and the list is impressive.
This century, Chris Paul and LeBron James — two future Hall of Famers — did it. James came right out of high school in 2003 to take the NBA storm, while Winston-Salem’s Paul entered the league in 2005 after one season at Wake Forest and has been one of league’s top point guards since.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame and elite point guards, the third player on this exclusive list is both — Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Impressive indeed. Two of the three, by the way, won Rookie of the Year. Johnson lost out to the man who became his foil, Boston’s Larry Bird. The Celtics star got the individual trophy, Johnson got the NBA title — and also won the first of his three Finals MVP awards.
Like Johnson was compared to Bird, Ball will be measured against the two players who were picked in front of him: Atlanta guard Anthony Edwards and Golden State center James Wiseman.
So far, the ball is clearly in Ball’s court.
Edwards, the first overall pick out of Georgia, is averaging just under a point more per game than Ball with just 3.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists in his first 12 NBA games in similar floor time. Wiseman checks in at 10.7 points with 6.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in his first 13 games. He has just five total assists.
That Ball could emerge as the best of the three players is no surprise — he was considered by many to be the top the talent in the 2020 draft, but concerns about his lack of experience and the distractions his father, LaVar, created when the oldest Ball brother, Lonzo, entered the NBA made some take pause.
Borrego has brushed aside any worries about Ball’s attitude.
“I love the person, I love the kid and, more than anything, I love his spirit,” Borrego said following the triple-double. “I love what he brings to our locker room, our organization. Just proud of him, he was fantastic tonight.”
Another real concern was Ball’s play on the defensive end. Any 19-year-old can be expected to struggle upon entry into the league, but Ball’s lack of experience playing against top competition — he played just 12 games last year in Australia’s National Basketball League — was cause for concern.
Borrego says Ball is already taking steps in the right direction there as well.
“I’m seeing him improve, and especially on the defensive end,” Borrego said. “We’re still a work in progress here as a team, he’s still a work in progress there. … He’s a young kid but he gets it, and I expect him to get better. This is just the start for him. Nobody’s satisfied with where we’re at or where he’s at.”
For now, Ball is already leading the team in assists while ranking fifth in scoring and third in rebounding — an appetizer to the main course of what the Hornets and Borrego believe is to come.
“He wants to get better, I want him to get better, and we’re going to push him to do that.”