‘How to lose an all-star before his rookie extension’: A Charlotte Hornets production

LaMelo Ball

LaMelo Ball
Photo: Getty Images

This year was supposed to be Zion Williamson season. Not Zion Williamson’s season. Zion Williamson season in the same fashion that it’s duck or rabbit season. Prior to missing all of 2021-22 to rehab a foot injury, the discussion heading into the year was “Will Zion forgo his max rookie extension to sign with the Knicks?”

We know how that played out, with Williamson smartly opting for the money and the security because his body might be the kind of sculpture that can’t be fixed once it’s shattered. New Orleans also acquired C.J. McCollum, made the play-in, then the playoffs, and looked frisky against top-seeded Phoenix.

Well, it’s a year before the final season of LaMelo Ball’s rookie deal, and the infrastructure in Charlotte looks as wobbly as New Orleans’ foundation did a year ago. Bobby Marks has reported that Ball would be eligible for a five-year, $202.5 million deal. If it happens, he would be the first rookie to receive a max extension from Michael Jordan. That says as much about the Hornets/Bobcats’ history of drafting during the Jordan era as it does about Ball, but the fact remains that whether Ball is worth that kind of money, it’ll be the going rate.

The designated rookie rule gives teams the right to offer a five-year extension in the final season of a rookie contract, essentially giving the player a six-year deal that they can’t get anywhere else due to the CBA. If a rookie is good enough to be offered one, they usually take it because the financial incentives can’t be topped elsewhere. Zion passing on it would’ve been a huge black eye for New Orleans as it basically signals they’re a dumpster fire bordering on an inferno.

I understand the apprehension from Ball’s detractors. Charlotte didn’t make the strides fans hoped for a year ago, going from 33-39 in Ball’s pandemic-shortened rookie season to 43-39 last year. The usual problems persisted, if not grew worse. It’s evident that Gordon Hayward’s body can’t hold up for more than 20-30 games at a time. The defense went from 13th in points allowed per game to 25th in James Borrego’s last year on the bench. It was the kind of aimless wandering that prompts existential questions from players.

During the offseason, the Hornets’ advances toward Kenny Atkinson were rebuked, and they ended up rehiring Steve Clifford. The move shows all the imagination of an auditor, and it’ll be interesting to see how long his team enjoys grinding out wins en route to maybe a play-in game.

The main focus from a roster standpoint over the summer was figuring out what to do with Miles Bridges, who was involved in a disturbing, heinous domestic violence incident during which he allegedly beat the crap out of his girlfriend. Bridges isn’t on an NBA roster and, if convicted, could face nearly 12 years in prison. (He’s pleaded not guilty.)

From a basketball point of view, that takes away Ball’s favorite alley-oop partner, and the Hornets’ leading scorer from a year ago. So, heading into the penultimate year of his rookie deal, Ball has a slightly used coach, no first option, a shoddy second option, and scary Terry Rozier. The team’s highest-paid players, in order, are Hayward, Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., and Mason Plumlee.

LaMelo twisted his ankle in the preseason, and though it’s not ideal, an injury-plagued campaign from Ball is probably the best hope for the Queen City to keep its crown jewel. Even then, they’ll still need the rest of their roster to display Pelicans-like potential. And that’s in addition to trading for a borderline, yet-to-be-identified all-star. Good luck convincing another franchise to take on the final two years of Hayward’s deal ($30 million this season, $31 million next year), or Rozier, who is in the first year of a four-year, $96 million deal.

Barring James Bouknight or Kai Jones breaking out in ways that no one can imagine, this could be a very long season for Hornets fans. Ball couldn’t get a more talented roster into the playoffs a year ago, and the team is objectively worse off.

Prevailing logic says all rookies sign their max extensions. That’s why people were nearing conniptions when Williamson was giving open-ended answers about New York. The would he or won’t he was rendered moot by health concerns and organizational competency.

Competency is not synonymous with the Hornets, whose biggest move was employing the desperate tactic of signing a star player’s not-NBA-worthy brother. It’s nice to see that LiAngelo walked away from that China dust-up OK; I just don’t know if it’s going to convince a guy who considers himself a brand to re-up with the club.

While it’s unclear if Ball is capable of being the focal point of a contender, he’s shown a rare kind of playmaking that general managers and coaches fall over themselves to sign. Could he become the transcendent point guard that people saw in their crystal balls? It’s a possibility in a good situation, but currently, Charlotte is worlds away from that.


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