LaMelo Ball needs to add some literal steak to the sizzle
If Ball becomes stronger, he can fix his reputation and lead the Hornets higher than they've ever been
LaMelo Ball is a polarizing player.
Fans are drawn to his aesthetics — the swooping crossovers, third-eye passing, and audacious threes. Critics are underwhelmed by his porous defense, lack of free throws, and inability to hit a layup if his life depended on it. They contend that LaMelo Ball is all sizzle, no steak.
One theme runs through all those flaws: a lack of strength and physicality. If LaMelo can literally add more beef to his 6’7”, 180-pound frame, he’ll be far better conditioned to become an engine of success.
LaMelo’s flash/substance ratio is mostly sunk by his defensive ineptness. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Ball’s defense is the number of times he gets shoulder-checked into oblivion by a driving ballhandler. Here’s Gabe Vincent in the first game of the season, giving him a little extra chicken wing and punting Ball into tomorrow:
Here’s Trent Forrest, a guy you might not have ever even heard of, running through LaMelo like he’s not even there:
Andrew Nembhard should’ve charged Ball admission after performing this Houdini act:
By the end of the year, Ball had gotten at least a little better at absorbing the contact, as this contest against Jaylen Nowell shows, but it’s still an exercise in futility:
I have a dozen more clips, but I hope my point is made. None of those guys are superstars or particularly large, yet none had the slightest problem sending Ball flying out of the picture. That’s…not great!
Lateral quickness can only be improved moderately, but strength can be developed quite far. LaMelo will always have a skinny frame, but there are plenty of coat racks of every height who have basketball strength: Patrick Beverley, Jaden McDaniels, Jayson Tatum, Chet Holmgren. LaMelo doesn’t have to turn into the Hulk to become a more robust defender at the point of attack.
Of course, there are other things he’ll need to do to improve. Ball will often make a first effort, but if he’s required to stay engaged in the play for more than a few seconds, it’s not difficult to flummox him completely. He gets caught looking for screens before they arrive as the ballhandler zooms past and is susceptible to overplaying simple ball fakes. I’m not sure he’s ever gotten over a screen.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take that much. I have zero idea why he let John Wall jog past him without the slightest exertion here:
Off-ball isn’t much better. Every pick-and-roll is an adventure in the Bermuda Triangle, even when Ball’s not directly involved. Playing next to mostly defense-deficient teammates wasn’t great for him, either, but that excuse only goes so far. He simultaneously avoids contact and commits far too many reach-ins. He got a little bit better over the course of the season, but there’s still a mansion-sized room for improvement.
Here, he is helping in (mostly) the correct spot after the Hornets force the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands. But he has zero idea where to go next, leading to Jusuf Nurkic literally giggling as he drains his fifth three-pointer of the night:
While he has much better feel for the game on the offensive side, Ball still needs to bulk up to draw more free throws and finish better at the rim. These two problems are related. When Ball gets near the hoop, he prefers high-arcing floaters or comically difficult contortions to simply putting a body into the defender’s chest and trying a layup. Defenders are obstacles to be avoided, not conquered.
Ball shot just 54% at the rack and 37% in the short midrange, both in the bottom quartile of all point guards. Ball is particularly bad driving to his left, where Synergy Sports says he averages just .65 points per possession. Those figures are abysmal when considering the size advantage Ball has over most of his peers. Fred VanVleet is a famous example of a point guard who can’t finish at the rim; he shot better there than Ball. Per Cleaning the Glass, only eight point guards who played at least 300 minutes were worse finishers than Ball; all are 6’3” or shorter.
Ball doesn’t have much burst laterally or vertically, but he does have a tall frame. If he could learn to initiate contact and go toward the basket instead of parallel to it, he could become both a better finisher and draw more free throws. Instead, he uses some beautiful moves to avoid contact with the defender…and wildly misses the layup:
To make matters worse, he’s constantly throwing his hands up at officials. Players don’t get foul calls when they move away from defenders, and he should know that. If he wants more whistles, he must put his head down and attack.
Bull rushes aren’t the only way to draw fouls, of course. Trae Young is one of the league’s leaders in free throws year in and year out, and he’s even weaker than Ball. He’s a pro at feeling contact and getting quickly into a shooting motion, punishing physical defenders for overreaching. Young has a quicker first step than Ball, but that’s not the key to his free throw drawing ability. Instead, he’s a master of angles, deceleration, and change of pace, and he uses those traits to manufacture points at the free throw line.
If Trae can do it, LaMelo can do it — and he can do it. Every once in a teal moon, we see Ball use the same strategies, and it looks so natural:
Those glimpses of Ball using skill and strength to beat defenders are so tantalizing, because here’s the thing: despite the thousand words I just spent on Ball’s developmental opportunities, he has real potential to be one of the best point guards in the league.
For one, Ball is quite underappreciated as a shooter. You’re more likely to hear complaints about shot selection than praise for his skill, and I’m not sure why. Last year, he had one of the league’s best combinations of accuracy and volume, hitting 37.6% of his jaw-dropping 10.6 attempts per game (tied with Klay Thompson for third-most in the league!). He’s more accurate and more prolific than Jayson Tatum, Paul George, or Luka Doncic.
Many of his off-the-dribble treys are extremely difficult. Ball tends to shoot off-balance, feet pointing any which way. He could become even more potent if he cleaned up his footwork. His actual shooting form is unconventional (to put it kindly) or hideous (to put it rudely), but it works for him. We have two (truncated) seasons now of Ball being a well above-average shooter from deep, and I believe he’ll get even better.
Another plus: his shot profile is relatively unique among high-usage ballhandlers. Unlike, say, Young, LaMelo is a willing off-ball shooter. He actually shot slightly more catch-and-shoot threes than pull-ups last season and hit 40% on them.
It’s funny. Most other point guards would dislike passing to themselves. When they catch the ball from a teammate, they either aren’t in a position to shoot, wasting the advantage, or they initiate another action, turning down an open shot. But Ball is always ready to launch the second the rock hits his fingertips. He’s not some manic off-ball mover like Steph Curry, but he is adept at finding open space and waiting patiently for the ball to come to him. Even terrific contests don’t bother him:
LaMelo’s touch data and ball dominance are pure point guard, but when he doesn’t have the ball, he appropriately acts how a shooting guard should act. That’s surprisingly rare, and it adds a level of flexibility to Charlotte’s roster-building strategies. (It’s also why I was so optimistic about LaMelo’s fit next to Scoot Henderson, but alas.)
Also rare: Ball’s ballhandling and passing ability. Not many people toy with the vertical dimension of a bouncing basketball as much as a Ball. His dribble can flow from tall, lazy bops to machine-gun patter two inches off the deck in an instant. He’ll routinely deliver high-arcing lobs to the clouds or skip a low bounce pass like a rock on a lake. This was technically a turnover but remains one of the better passes I saw all season (non-Jokic edition):
Anecdotally, it feels like a not-insignificant portion of Ball’s (many) turnovers are teammates not ready for his passes.
Melo can sling people open by putting the ball exactly where they need it to create an advantage, as he does by throwing it over Gordon Hayward’s shoulder on this pick-and-roll into just the right pocket of space:
Like all the best dime-droppers, Ball passes to space, not people. He has vision, of course, but utilizes some strange mechanics. He’ll throw with the wrong hand or mail the rock a beat earlier or later than defenders expect. This cross-court, no-look hook pass (?) is a great example:
Ball can do more than swing and shoot. He’s also a legitimate window washer. Melo doesn’t do much boxing out, but that doesn’t matter as much as you might think. He almost always guards a role player, often one stationed in the corner; those players, by and large, are instructed to sprint their rears back on defense instead of chasing offensive rebounds (and the ones who are allowed to crash in aren’t the players Ball typically guards).
Without having to worry about boxing out a body, Ball is free to roam into pockets of space and attack the ball. He has a Westbrookian tendency to get tunnel vision on the rim, which can backfire sometimes but more often leads to him snagging the board and initiating a transition attack.
It’s a feature, not a bug. When Ball gets the rebound himself, he doesn’t need to wait for a clumsy outlet pass. He can just go. The fastest team in the league last season, Golden State, averaged 102.5 possessions per 48 minutes. When LaMelo is on the floor, the Hornets averaged 104.4, about the same pace as Russell Westbrook. Getting into the action quicker leads to more transition opportunities and more time to move the defense around until they spring a leak. It’s almost always a good thing.
Ball also (slightly) mitigates the damage done by his poor finishing by averaging more than an offensive rebound per game. Most of those are off his own misses, but they still count for something.
Of course, all this talk about Ball is moot if he can’t stay healthy. Another reason to add strength is for injury prevention purposes. Ball had multiple ankle problems last season that limited him to just 36 games, and he’s had more injuries in the past. Given what we know about his intense training at a young age and his brother’s worrisome injury history, there’s legitimate cause for concern. Ball should carefully consider how best to add functional strength to help him stay on the court.
It also must be noted that Ball is not exactly surrounded by oodles of NBA talent. After Ball, the Hornets’ second-leading scorer last season was Terry Rozier, who shot 41.5% from the field and 32.7% from three. Kelly Oubre Jr. was right behind Rozier and similarly ineffective; he remains unsigned weeks into free agency. And their second-best player, Miles Bridges, missed the entire season due to a domestic violence charge. It’s unclear what sort of basketball shape he’ll show up in, and he still has 10 games of suspension left to serve.
Second-year big man Mark Williams assuming the starting center spot should help the team’s porous rim defense, and rookie Brandon Miller is an intriguing theoretical fit. Players that young rarely contribute to winning, but I want to see how they can help Ball in future seasons. Can Williams improve his screening and become the perfect pick-and-roll partner for Ball? (I’m optimistic.) Can Miller develop into an authentic scoring wing to assume some offensive load while guarding the other team’s best players? (Not as a rookie, he won’t; but I want to see the potential!)
The Hornets aren’t likely to be a playoff team this year, and that’s okay. But with Ball newly signed to a hefty max contract, the team will be looking for signs of positive development. Adding some actual heft would go a long way toward making him the star Charlotte so desperately needs.
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