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Nylon Calculus: Comparing LaMelo Ball to the greatest NBA rookies ever

LaMelo Ball has had a fantastic rookie season, driving the Charlotte Hornets with his scoring, passing and creativity. But how does he stack up historically?

LaMelo Ball has been captivating the NBA in his impressive rookie season thus far. In a shallow draft that made evaluation difficult to uncover the scope of his talent, LaMelo is looking more and more like a gem by making plays like this:

But how good of a season is he actually having? In what historical context does he sit? To answer this, we’ll look at Box Plus-Minus 2.0 by Daniel Myers from 1980 to see where LaMelo stacks up among some of the greatest rookie seasons ever.

How does LaMelo Ball compare to some of the greatest NBA rookies ever?

More modern impact metrics (LEBRON, RAPTOR, RPM) are only available for the tracking era (back to 2013-14), whereas since BPM 2.0 is calculated only using box score statistics we can go back as far back as we like. We would prefer to look at one of the former metrics but in terms of looking for a proxy that can capture an estimate to how well a player is playing, less on the measured impact a player is having, BPM will serve its purpose.

Specifically, we’ll look at Offensive BPM due to BPM being less trustworthy on the defensive side, largely being driven by block and steal rates. Below is a plot of OBPM and usage rate for all rookies with at least 900 minutes played since the 1979-80 season.

While not in the upper echelon of all-time great rookies according to OBPM that include players like Michael Jordan, Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, David Robinson, and Vince Carter, LaMelo does find himself among names like Damian Lillard, Brandon Roy, Stephon Marbury, Grant Hill, and Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s pretty good company and all while maintaining an above-average usage rate.

While usage and OBPM are clearly correlated, maintaining that level of play with more usage flowing through the player is inherently difficult; especially for a rookie. This is the case except for unique situations, defined by Seth Partnow of The Athletic, in the heliocentrism era such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young. As Seth also points out, players are forced into more difficult “star” shots as their usage increases. They can’t rely on the easy looks generated by teammates.

The league has been trending in this direction as more high-profile rookies are taking on massive usage rates from the get-go. However, one fact remains the same; rookies are just not good. Utilizing OBPM again this can be illustrated below with the distribution showing the progression of rookies, sophomores, third-year players, and so on.

All in all, LaMelo has stood out amongst having one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory while maintaining a very high usage.

However, we have been looking through the lens of all-encompassing box score measures in OBPM and usage to measure how unprecedented it is for a rookie. The game has changed and more stylistic approaches are being made that signal how we value and perceive rookies. For a rookie guard entering the league, it’s important to have certain modern elements to their game, or else that can potentially cap their ceiling. Star players in the modern game need to be able to create their own shots; from pull-up jump-shooting to finishing effectively at the rim/drawing fouls.

They also need to maintain high passing usages and find good looks for teammates as the degree of shot difficulty goes up when they take on more usage. With this broad sense of ceiling-raising categories, below are rookie guards from the tracking era to see how LaMelo stacks up.

For passing usage, I take a similar approach to Seth’s playmaking usage, but instead add passes that are recorded as “hockey assists”, or in other words a pass that leads to an assisted pass. Self-created 3-point percentage is on shots after holding the ball for two or more seconds.

Well, hello, Tyrese Haliburton! It almost seems unfair to go through this whole article only discussing LaMelo in the context of great rookie seasons as Haliburton has also been fantastic so far. But it goes back to the point above; as you take on more usage, the harder it is to be an effective shotmaking and impactful player. And that’s no slight on Haliburton! From the table, he’s been great so far and has the makings of a star-potential career ahead of him. His usage is the lowest among the rookies he’s in company with above, but as we also saw, it’d be a big surprise to not see his usage grow over time. How he continues to improve and play while growing into a larger role as a secondary creator next to De’Aaron Fox is key.

Going back to LaMelo, he has the best pull-up 3-point percentage by far. This is a surprise given during pre-draft evaluations, his biggest swing skill was his jump shot. His form is still wonky, but it has improved and seems to be working right now. His passing usage is on par with Luka’s rookie season and while not at the level as Trae or Ja, his role context in Charlotte is the explanation for that. He has the potential to be one of the best playmakers in the league if he’s not already one. The one area of improvement he needs to make is finishing at the rim. With more aggressiveness will come a higher free-throw rate and he’s already showing flashes of absorbing more contact at the rim.

I didn’t touch on defense here, but so far LaMelo has looked ok. He’s generating steals at an insanely high rate. Per Cleaning the Glass, LaMelo has a 2.4 steal percentage, good for 97th percentile among all point guards.

He’s a rookie and he’ll continue to develop like one but what we’ve seen from LaMelo is special basketball this early. He grades out among some of the great rookie seasons and that’s a good indicator that the rest of his career has the potential to flourish.