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The amount of space between the signature red sneakers on LaMelo Ball’s feet and the 3-point arc is growing with each game, defying the skeptics’ predictions.
Give the Charlotte Hornets star guard enough room by sagging off defensively and it’s almost a sure bet he’s going to hoist a long-distance jumper. He’s that confident. Any lingering reluctance is gone and he’s making them at an eye-popping rate.
Ball drained a blistering 66.7% of his attempts behind the arc in the first two games, propelled by the 7 of 9 he connected on in the season opener. He made 8 of 12 overall, a sign his wrist is sufficiently healed and his stroke isn’t as bad as pundits suggested.
That increased range is a direct result of the extra shots he’s hoisted leading into his second season and it’s having a positive impact on the Hornets’ offense.
“When Melo is making threes, obviously it’s tough on defenses,” coach James Borrego said Saturday. “He can get to the rim, he can make plays at the rim or for his teammates. I don’t want him settling for the three, but the fact teams have to guard him out in space now really stretches our opponent’s defense. But he’s put work in all summer, he shot it well this summer. I know his preseason numbers didn’t prove it, but there is no doubt in my mind that that confidence is there. I saw that last year, I saw that this summer and he’s a fearless competitor.”
Forever self-assured, he doesn’t obsess over his deep shot.
“If it’s not hitting I can do other things,” Ball said. “If it is, that’s an add-on, I feel like.”
Jason Kidd was in a somewhat similar situation as Ball when he came into the league in 1994. Now the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Kidd received tons of criticism because he lacked a consistent jumper. Through a variety of factors, he evolved into one of the top 3-point shooters in NBA history and currently sits No. 12 with 1,988 made.
From his perspective, Kidd believes it’s premature to dissect Ball’s shot through a microscopic lens.
“I think he’s an incredible talent,” Kidd said. “I would let him play the game before we become critical of an area someone would say maybe needs improvement. He’s young, does a lot of great things on the floor. For me, to compare my change in jump shot, it was I was being moved from handling the ball to off the ball. And if you didn’t see that coming you would be out of the league. So that’s not the comparison here. He’s 20 something, he’s young, does a lot of good things.
“Sometimes we will label someone who can’t do something, but also finds a way to win, right? And so I would judge him on how’s he improving winning, how’s he improving less turnovers and that aspect. Because we always try to nit-pick on one of the things that we can’t do and that’s just not fair. He’s young, he’s going to get better and the jump shot will come.”
Maybe even faster than some people think.
Gordon Hayward is settling in.
Leading by example is Hayward’s style and that’s what he’s doing at the outset of his second season with the Hornets. Take Saturday for instance: He was one of the final players to finish his shooting regimen and subsequent weight lift at practice.
Second only to Ball in scoring average on the team, Hayward is getting it done on the court. He’s pleased with how he’s progressing, considering he’s not far removed from a rough battle with COVID.
“I think it’s been pretty good,” Hayward said. “I’m still out there trying to find my rhythm without playing much in the preseason, but I’m happy we’ve gotten two wins here.”
Hayward’s play following halftime is igniting the Hornets and catapulting them. His distribution has been stellar. Besides providing that powerful scoring punch, he’s second behind Ball in assists, averaging six through the Hornets’ pair of season-opening games.
“He’s finding his rhythm,” Borrego said. “He’s finding his legs in the second half. I think overall he’s very comfortable in those moments, second-half moments. He understands the situation at hand. He’s very comfortable in those stretches. Third quarter, fourth quarter, make plays for himself and his teammates.
“And that’s a special skill that he has and we are going to need that professionalism and that maturity in second halves. Physically, though, I think he’s just trying to find his rhythm and his legs. And that’s just going to come with time. I expect that to clear up as we go into the next week or two.”
That improved conditioning may allow Hayward to increase the number of 3-pointers he fires off. He’s not satisfied with it.
“I need to shoot more threes, continue to shoot more threes,” he said. “I think that opens everything up, drives and getting in the lane there, which is really my bread and butter there and then the mid-range in the paint. So, I’m just trying to be aggressive and look for the three.”
Knocking that down at an even more frequent clip would solidify yet another weapon in Hayward’s offensive toolbox. He’s eager to reach the point where everything will really completely come together for him in the fashion he wants.
“Hopefully, sooner than later,” Hayward said. “I think it will get better each game, so I just continue to work. Days like this are good. Just get some shots up, find some rhythm so you can be ready.”
Chalk up another first for James Bouknight.
With the Hornets in his native borough of Brooklyn on Sunday, taking on Kevin Durant, James Harden and the Nets, the rookie had a good dilemma on his hands: Dealing with ticket requests in his first trip back home as a pro. Family and friends all wanted to be in the house, cheering him on — even if he doesn’t come off the bench.
The very thought of peering up into the stands while wearing a Hornets’ jersey and seeing them gets a rise out of the 21-year old.
“Man, it’s great,” Bouknight said. “I’m not trying to be star-struck, but it’s definitely a surreal moment, being able to just play in the Barclays and where I grew up, my hometown. It’s a blessing.”
With Borrego going only as far as 10 deep in his roster early on in the season, Bouknight has been on the outside looking in. Cody Martin is ahead of him in the wing position pecking order and Kelly Oubre is also eating up minutes at shooting guard.
None of that is an indictment of Bouknight.
“He needs to know that we believe in him No. 1, that we are working with him and his opportunity is right around the corner,” Borrego said. “And he’s just got to stay ready for that. And that’s on him, but it’s also on me and us for him to know that we believe in him, we trust him and he’s here for a reason. And it’s just a matter of time before his opportunity is going to be in front of him and I believe he’ll be ready for it.”
In the meantime, Bouknight is soaking up as much knowledge as he possibly can. He’s watching the action unfold closely on the bench, paying attention to the small details. He said he’s noticed the importance of executing offensively and guarding with a sense of purpose.
Every bit helps, as does Terry Rozier’s trash talking.
“He said he’s going to kill me (in practice), so ever since then we’ve been going at each other’s head,” Bouknight said. “I’m not about to back down. I know he isn’t about to back down. There’s been a lot of competition and we are having fun with it.”
Rozier has even taken Bouknight under his wing, teaching him about the finer things associated with elevating his game. They are conversations Bouknight thoroughly enjoys — and needs — with Rozier as he waits his turn to show what he can do.
“He’s been a great vet for me,” Bouknight said. “Just helping me get through the weeks, get through the days. He’s an all-star in my eyes, just being able to have him on my team and he plays the same position. Being able to talk to him every day has been all love with us two.”