CHARLOTTE, N.C. — That rookie guard LaMelo Ball would immediately be a great passer in the NBA was a given. That he’d score and grab steals at a high clip, likely.
That Ball would lead the Charlotte Hornets in rebounding? That’s quite a surprise.
Ball’s 7-rebound average over his first 11 games tops the averages of Charlotte big men Bismack Biyombo (6.7) and P.J. Washington (6.1). He leads all rookies in rebounds, after a career-high 14 boards against the New York Knicks on Monday.
“(As a guard), you’ve got to go help the bigs,” teammate Terry Rozier said. “But the level he rebounds at is crazy.”
The Hornets had two glaring flaws last season — overall shooting and defensive rebounding. General manager Mitch Kupchak didn’t do much in the offseason to address the rebounding, and Charlotte is still last in the NBA in defensive-rebounding percentage (74.7%), which is where they finished last season.
Imagine how much worse that would be, for an undersized team, if the 6-foot-7, 181-pound Ball wasn’t boxing out players taller, and sometimes 30 or more pounds heavier, under the boards?
Ball has had 10 or more rebounds in each of his last three games, including the triple-double he assembled Saturday vs. the Atlanta Hawks. Dallas’s Luka Doncic — who plays against the Hornets Wednesday night — was the last rookie to have three consecutive games of 10 or more rebounds in March of 2019.
Hornets coach James Borrego said you can’t teach Ball’s knack for rebounding — the timing, leverage and sense of angles to be in optimal position after a missed shot that allows a player to box out a bigger, stronger opponent.
This is of added benefit for Ball’s outlet passes. His one-handed look-forward playmaking ability can be key, as the Hornets look to play more transition basketball. The Hornets entered Wednesday ranked third in the NBA in fast-break points, at 16.6 per game.
The Hornets enter the matchup with the Mavs on a four-game winning streak, something they didn’t do all last season.
Veterans Rozier and Gordon Hayward, who were part of deep playoff runs with the Boston Celtics, don’t want a morsel of success morphing into complacency on a young roster.
At 6-5, the Hornets were tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference with the Orlando Magic. When asked about the possibility of breaking a four-season playoff drought, Rozier sounded an alarm Tuesday.
“If we worry about down-the-road, then we won’t take care of tomorrow. And that’s going to hurt us,” Rozier said. “It’s (up) to guys like myself to make sure guys stay in that mindset: Don’t worry about the playoffs.”
Hayward, the Hornets’ impact free agent acquisition, dominated Monday’s victory over the New York Knicks with 28 first-half points. He said that was a classic trap game: The Knicks playing for the second consecutive night, while the Hornets were off Sunday and riding a winning streak.
It was the sort of opportunity the Hornets would squander in the past.
“It’s something where (you see) the Knicks are on the second game of a back-to-back, and maybe you play kind of lackadaisical — you don’t come out and be aggressive,” Hayward said.
Maybe the most pleasant surprise of the Hornets’ early season is team defense: The Hornets are eighth among 30 teams, allowing 1.046 points per opponent possession.
That is a dramatic improvement from last season, when Charlotte was 24th, allowing 1.099 points per opponent possession.
The Hornets have done that while shaking up the rotation — adding Hayward and Ball, and moving Miles Bridges to second unit as a power forward. Also, the coaches changed some things tactically, including more use of a 2-3 zone.
“For me, the biggest surprise is that they’ve been able to (absorb) the different schemes in a very short time frame,” Borrego said.
The Hornets played better defense the last month of last season, which Borrego said was partially personnel-driven: Playing longer guys who were better equipped to guard. Rookies Cody and Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels all fit that description.
Also, adding Hayward and Ball — both 6-7 — provides more size on the perimeter, which the Hornets have lacked the past few seasons, particularly with backcourts of Rozier, Devonte Graham and Kemba Walker, who all stand 6-2 or smaller.
Borrego is relieved there will be a G-League season starting in February in Florida. Between this heavy schedule (10 games in 16 nights) and the truncated preseason, it’s been tough to find ways to develop end-of-bench rookies, like big men Vernon Carey and Nick Richards.
The Hornets seldom have full practices these days. That saves the rotation players’ legs for the games, but it limits what the other players can do to improve.
“You just can’t get them the live reps (in practice) that I would like,” Borrego said. “The G-League season that is ahead of us will hopefully help cure some of that.”©2021 The Charlotte Observer. Visit at charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.