Updated 2021 NBA Rookie Ladder: Does LaMelo Ball Still Have Best ROY Case?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 25, 2021

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, wearing a cast on his fractured right wrist, shoots before an NBA basketball game between the Charlotte Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, April 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Nell Redmond/Associated Press

NBA and Charlotte Hornets fans received some good news earlier this week when ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that rookie guard LaMelo Ball could return to action by the end of April.

It'll be a welcome boost to a Hornets squad that's eighth in the East and on track to participate in the play-in tournament. Catching the Boston Celtics or Atlanta Hawks (both 3.5 games up) may be unlikely, but having Ball in the rotation should help in a potential play-in game (or play-in games).

And that's not the only race that will be impacted by Ball's return. He's currently the betting favorite for Rookie of the Year, but Minnesota Timberwolves wing Anthony Edwards was gaining some ground. Had Ball missed the remainder of the season, holding off Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton may not have been possible.

Now, it looks like he'll at least have a handful of games to solidify his spot atop the ROY ladder.


1. LaMelo Ball

Ball's wrist injury has pushed him all the way down to 12th in this rookie class in minutes played, but he's still provided more value than anyone else.

He leads all first-year players in box plus/minus (BPM is "...a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court, according to Basketball Reference) and wins over replacement, the cumulative version of BPM (think points rather than points per game).

His basic numbers are nothing to sneeze at either: 15.9 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds, 2.0 threes and 1.6 steals, with an above-average three-point percentage. And even those are suppressed a bit by his starting the season as a reserve. As a starter, he's averaging 19.5 points and 6.2 assists with a 58.5 true shooting percentage.

Beyond the numbers, Ball is a highlight waiting to happen. His vision and creativity as a passer helped to make the Hornets a League Pass darling (shout out to play-by-play commentator Eric Collins on that front too). And his flair for the daring or dramatic pass doesn't come at the expense of the team. Charlotte's point differential is slightly better when Ball is on the floor.

Shooting is another area where Ball is ahead of schedule. His release appeared to be erratic in Australia last season, causing scouts to wonder about his ceiling as a shooter, according to Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman. Two makes a game with above-average efficiency seemed like the longterm, best-case scenario. Getting there in his rookie year feels like a huge win.

If he keeps knocking down jumpers and creating for teammates the way he did before the injury, it'll be tough for voters to deny him Rookie of the Year.


2. Tyrese Haliburton

For now, we might be able to think of Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton as the steadier, less flashy version of Ball.

Several of their basic numbers are within shouting distance of each other, with Haliburton going for 12.6 points, 5.1 assists and 2.1 threes per game. He just hasn't had as many of the imagination-capturing performances or dimes.

Where Haliburton does have an edge over Ball is efficiency. He's not just above-average from the field and from three, he has the fourth highest effective field-goal percentage ever for a rookie who attempted at least as many threes as he has.

Traditionally, voters for this award have favored scoring over just about all else, regardless of efficiency. Haliburton deserves credit for his relatively mistake-free brand of basketball. With his IQ and feel for the game, he wouldn't look out of place in many lineups around the league.


3. Anthony Edwards

As just noted above, points are often the driving consideration for Rookie of the Year. And Anthony Edwards may establish enough of a cushion on the points per game leaderboard to snag this honor from Ball.

Right now, he's putting up 18.3 per game, but that doesn't really capture the run he's been on recently.

  • Pre-All-Star: 14.9 points, 37.1 field-goal percentage, 30.2 three-point percentage
  • Post-All-Star: 23.3 points, 43.5 field-goal percentage, 34.5 three-point percentage

As the old cliche goes, the game seems to be slowing down for Edwards. He's no longer forcing the issue like he was earlier in the season, but that doesn't mean his attempts are down (in fact, they're up). He's just taking the good looks that come his way and figuring out how to create clearer openings for himself.

Being able to spend more time on the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns has certainly helped too. And the former No. 1 pick sees plenty of upside in his new teammate.

"For me, Anthony Edwards is special," Towns told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. "He's the most special player in that draft. That's what we believe. And that's what I believe wholeheartedly. And I'm going to defend him and his name as long as I can."

When you see highlights like those above, it's hard to fully disagree with Towns. Even if inefficiency and advanced numbers like BPM put Edwards in the bottom half of this class, his size and explosiveness are hard to ignore.


4. Immanuel Quickley

Even with New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau's reputation to bring rookies along slowly, late-first-rounder Immanuel Quickley forced his way into the rotation with heat-check scoring and an above-average three-point percentage.

In just 19.5 minutes, Quickley is averaging 11.8 points and 1.9 threes. Adjust for pace and playing time, and Quickley's 22.6 points per 75 possessions leads this crop of rookies. He's also third in wins over replacement and second only to Ball in BPM.

His individual production is having a profound impact on the playoff-bound Knicks too. Derrick Rose is the only player on the team with a better net rating swing (the difference in the team's net points per possession when a given player is on or off the floor) than Quickley's.


5. Jae'Sean Tate

AT&T SportsNet SW @ATTSportsNetSW

👀Jae'Sean continues to make his case for @NBA Rookie of the Year @o_tate_ TONIGHT vs Orlando 14 POINTS 7-10 FIELD GOALS 7 REBOUNDS 6 ASSISTS 3 BLOCKS 1 STEAL Rockets beat the Magic 114-110 @HoustonRockets I #Rockets I AT&T SportsNet https://t.co/wq6hK6KyLJ

From James Harden's blatant mail-it-in performances at the start of the season to now, it's been a whale of a campaign for the Houston Rockets, who have had 27 players step on the floor.

Jae'Sean Tate, though, has been an undeniably bright spot. After averaging 16.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists and making Australia's All-NBL first team last season, Houston signed the undrafted 25-year old to a multiyear deal. And with his versatility, he already looks like a keeper.

"Defensively, we feel comfortable with him guarding everyone. He's very multidimensional," Rockets general manager Rafael Stone told The Ringer's Mirin Fader. "He has post skills that are unusual and he's a good passer. He handles the ball so well that he plays with his head up, which is unusual in a wing or a big guy. He makes life easier for his teammates."

His basic numbers may not leap off the page, but they do demonstrate what Stone's talking about. With 11.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals in 29.1 minutes, Tate gives the Rockets a little bit of everything. And that has made him, arguably, Houston's most positively impactful player.

When he's on the floor, the Rockets are minus-4.1 points per 100 possessions, compared to minus-14.0 when he's off. That 9.9-point swing is Houston's biggest and trails only those of Rudy Gobert, Stephen Curry, Harrison Barnes and Robert Covington among players with at least as many minutes as Tate.