LaMelo Ball is back, just in time for a playoff run and a shot to claim Rookie of the Year

 By Chase Whitney

May 3, 2021

Photo: Nell Redmond / AP

The moment that Charlotte Hornets fans have been patiently waiting for since the dreadful night of March 20 is finally here; LaMelo Ball has returned to play, and Malik Monk came back right alongside him.

When Ball originally fractured his right wrist just over a month ago, it was feared that he’d be sidelined for the remainder of his rookie campaign. It seems the bone healed quicker than expected and since he was able to keep up with his conditioning in a cast, Ball’s return mostly hinged on when he was able to regain flexibility in his shooting hand.

In Monk’s case, the Hornets took their time letting his ankle sprain heal, and as a result he looked like himself from the get-go. In 22 minutes against the Detroit Pistons, Monk posted a line of eleven points, two rebounds and two assists on 4-8 from the floor and 2-3 from long-range. Ball’s return is going to take the headlines, but Monk’s explosiveness, rim pressure, playmaking and shot creation were all sorely missed on the second unit over the last month or so.

To put it simply, a lot has happened for the Hornets in Ball and Monk’s absence; they ripped off an impressive 7-3 stretch (including a 4-2 road trip) in the 10 games immediately following his injury, and then went 3-8 in the next 11. Miles Bridges has exploded onto the scene with improved playmaking and pull-up shooting and PJ Washington has found his stride as a two-way small-ball center. Jalen McDaniels and Cody Martin have also both been valuable rotation players and starters. It wasn’t always pretty, but the Hornets dug deep and found ways to stay afloat minus not only Ball and Monk, but Gordon Hayward, too.

Charlotte maintained a high level of ball movement and off-ball cutting without them, but the Hornets struggled to play at a fast pace. Losing a 6-foot-6 guard that averages 5.9 rebounds per game that plays faster than nearly anyone in the NBA will do that to a team. Prior to Ball’s injury, the Hornets ranked ninth in the league in pace (100.84 possessions per game), and since he got hurt they’ve plummeted all the way to 29th (95.89). Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier aren’t as good at making plays in the open court as Ball, and head coach James Borrego compensated for that by slowing things down and playing more half-court offense.

If Ball didn’t have the Rookie of the Year race in the bag before he was injured, it’s almost certain that he’ll cement himself as the league’s best rookie in the final weeks. Anthony Edwards averaged 21.6 points per game in the month of April as Minnesota straightened themselves out a bit, but his efficiency isn’t close to Ball’s and the Hornets are a much better team. Edwards has built himself an argument over the last month or so, but with Ball back, playing as his normal self, the trophy belongs in Charlotte.

The Hornets are all but out of the race for a top-six seed, currently three-and-a-half games back of sixth-place Miami after Sunday night’s loss to the Heat. The Hornets could play well upon the return of Ball and still end up in the play-in, which is fine. Few pegged the Hornets as a top-two seed in the play-in tournament prior to this season, and the firepower they have on offense combined with Borrego’s malleable zone defense makes for a tough matchup in a postseason setting.

Hornets fans lost Ball, and it wasn’t long after that Monk and Hayward were gone, too. At the time, it seemed like the team would slog through the remaining regular season games and hope that not only would the Hornets be in the play-in, but they’d have three key rotation players back in time as well. Although it’s still unknown when Hayward will be back, there’s two less things to stress about. For a franchise that’s only won three playoff games since 2004, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to worry about health and playoff seeding at this point in the year. 

Check out the remaining Charlotte Hornets 2021 schedule.

To celebrate Melo’s return, we’re giving away another jersey!


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