The Kings and Charlotte Hornets concluded their regular-season series last week, leaving the NBA Rookie of the Year race as the last venue for talented first-year pros Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball to square off.
A major wrench was thrown into that battle Sunday, as the Charlotte Hornets announced Ball is out indefinitely with a fractured bone in his right wrist. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the 19-year-old is seeking a second opinion, but that he is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season.
Ball entered Sunday second in points (15.9), rebounds (5.9) and first in assists per game (6.1) among rookies. The point guard was on pace to become only the ninth rookie in NBA history to average at least 15 points, six assists and five rebounds per game.
All but one of the eight rookies to precede him with that stat line (Penny Hardaway) won at least a share of NBA Rookie of the Year. If Ball has played his last game this season, he will have played fewer games (41) than any of those players, as well as a lower percentage (56.9 percent). Each of those eight rookies played at least 70 games in their first NBA season. No rookie has won the award after playing fewer than 50 games.
Could that open the door for Haliburton in consideration for the award? The 21-year-old is fourth among rookies in points per game (12.4) and second in assists (5.1) while averaging the third-most minutes (29.6).
The Hornets (20-21) entered Sunday eighth in the Eastern Conference, and three games clear of the 11th-seeded Toronto Raptors (17-24), giving Charlotte a fairly firm hold on one of four play-in spots. The Kings (17-25), meanwhile, are 3.5 games back of the 10th seed in the Western Conference.
Helping Sacramento end the NBA's longest active playoff drought would go a long way for Haliburton's chances, but the Kings have a significant hill to climb to even make the play-in tournament. A postseason berth wouldn't ensure a Rookie of the Year win, but it couldn't hurt.
Even before Ball's injury, Haliburton was all but assured to become the first King since DeMarcus Cousins in 2010-11 to finish in the top three of NBA Rookie of the Year voting. If he continues to play strong down the stretch, perhaps Ball's injury ensures Haliburton is the first King to win the award since Tyreke Evans in 2010.