Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego is certain LaMelo Ball should be NBA Rookie of the Year, even if Ball doesn’t play another game this season.
The media members who will decide that award aren’t so convinced: Ball is still the front-runner to win, but nothing like the lock he was in March before fracturing his right wrist.
Ball could be overtaken by the Sacramento Kings’ Tyrese Haliburton or the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards. The longer Ball is out, the more strongly some voters will consider Haliburton and Edwards as this season’s top rookie.
Those were the findings of an Observer poll of likely voters for Rookie of the Year. About 100 media members are selected by the NBA to vote on various awards, based on regular-season performance. The Observer contacted a dozen Rookie of the Year voters from last season, all of whom anticipate again being selected to vote on this season’s award.
The Observer posed two questions: How would you have voted had ballots been due Thursday (with about five weeks left in the regular season)? Also, will the length of Ball’s absence, after he suffered a broken wrist March 20, impact how you might vote when the regular season concludes May 16?
The NBA system requests a first-, second- and third-place vote. Of the 12 voters who shared their current ranking, nine gave Ball their first-place vote. Haliburton got two firsts and Edwards received one. One other rookie — Immanuel Quickley of the New York Knicks — got a third-place vote.
The consensus: Ball was cruising to Rookie of the Year before his injuries: He’d won the first three Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month awards, was among rookie leaders in most statistical categories and had raised the Hornets’ playoff chances before being injured on March 20.
LaMelo Ball’s 41 games compelling evidence?
Were Ball’s first three months so dominant that it doesn’t matter whether he plays again this season? That’s the divide among Rookie of the Year voters.
“I think it’s going to be difficult for anyone to take this award away from Ball, who has been everything Charlotte could’ve hoped for — and then some — as a rookie,” said ESPN reporter Tim Bontemps. “For as good as Haliburton has been this season, Ball has been on another level.”
However, Ball has played in 41 games and might not return before the end of a 72-game regular season. For some voters, that’s not enough.
“I think 41 games out of 72 is not a sufficient sample size to honor a player with one of the league’s annual awards,” said Steve Aschburner, who writes nba.com’s weekly rookie ladder column and will have a vote.
Aschburner notes that Patrick Ewing won Rookie of the Year in 1986 after missing 30 games of what was then an 82-game season. So Ewing played in 61% of that season’s games. Ball, if he doesn’t return, would play in 57% of the regular season.
“I don’t think we need to establish a new floor for participation,” said Aschburner, who currently has Ball “parked” at No. 6 on his rookie ladder because Ball is unavailable.
“If Ball were to return to play three more games to boost his participation to 61%, then he’d have precedent to persuade us voters. Otherwise, I’m likely to have him a respectable third on my ballot, behind the two-way consistency of Haliburton and the raw, athletic play of Edwards.”
There’s a middle ground to those two perspectives. Josh Robbins, who covers the Orlando Magic for The Athletic, says Ball’s injury opened the door to consider what other rookies do in April and May.
“Had he not gotten hurt, and if the Hornets went on to finish fourth in the East, he would have reaped the benefits in Rookie of the Year votes,” Robbins said.
“Anthony Edwards now has a chance to enhance his candidacy. If Edwards plays well the rest of the season, he could supplant Ball.”
Ball has ‘clearly impacted winning’
This will be the second straight season that an extended injury absence influences Rookie of the Year balloting. Last season, top pick Zion Williamson missed the season’s first 44 games while recovering from a torn meniscus.
Ball’s situation is similar but not parallel. Ball dominated this rookie class before being injured, while Williamson didn’t make his NBA debut until far into last season.
When Ball had surgery March 23, the Hornets said his wrist would be immobilized for four weeks, then the injury would be re-evaluated. General manager Mitch Kupchak said there’s hope Ball is cleared to play again this season, but that the team would avoid anything that might risk Ball’s long-term health.
Borrego argues that if Ball never plays again this season, he already has made a compelling case for Rookie of the Year. Beyond Ball’s statistics — averaging 15.9 points, 6.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds — Borrego said Ball’s impact on the Hornets’ record is rare for a rookie and should be a key factor in the voting.
“He has clearly impacted winning, more so than I even expected,” said Borrego. whose Hornets are 27-24 — fourth in the East — entering Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks. “He put us in position to be a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference.
“When you can impact winning and put up those numbers, you are clearly Rookie of the Year.”
This ‘aberration’ of an NBA season
The Observer’s polling showed a wide variance among voters on the importance of Ball’s games played.
Numerous factors play into that — the truncated season caused by the pandemic, the inevitable player absences tied to COVID-19 testing, and the minimal preparation this rookie class had between the draft and training camp.
Doug Smith of the Toronto Star called this whole season an “aberration” that requires a level of subjectivity beyond stats to evaluate who deserves these awards.
For Joe Vardon of The Athletic, that’s already enough to carry Ball to Rookie of the Year.
“LaMelo made a major impact on winning for the Hornets over a majority of the season, he’s the only rookie to do that, and he was leading rookies in virtually all major categories before the injury,” Vardon said.
“So, he wins.”
Rookie of the Year poll
The NBA has about 100 media members who regularly cover the league vote on each of the six major individual season awards, including Rookie of the Year.
For Rookie of the Year, voters pick a first, second and third place, with first place worth five points, second place three points and third place one.
The Observer polled 12 media members who had ROTY votes last season and are expected to again this season. Based on that poll, Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball is still the favorite to win ROTY, despite a broken wrist that could cost him the final 31 games of the regular season.
Voting (based on the 5-3-1 points system)
LaMelo Ball, Hornets: Nine first-place votes, one second-place, two third place = 50 points
Tyrese Haliburton, Kings: Two firsts, six seconds, four thirds = 32 points
Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves: One first, five seconds, five thirds = 25 points
Immanuel Quickley, Knicks: One third = 1 point