SAN FRANCISCO – A vocal segment of Dub Nation’s broad membership will get exactly what they want Wednesday night when LaMelo Ball, their man-crush of the moment, comes to San Francisco and takes the floor at Chase Center.
It’s LaMelo and the Hornets vs. Stephen Curry and the Warriors.
Meanwhile, James Wiseman, whose acceptance in this group can best be described as tepid, will be watching from the sideline, where he likely will spend another couple of weeks until he is cleared to play in a game.
It is around these two young players that debate has raged for nearly a year. Well, sort of a debate insofar as one side has reached a conclusion, while the other side has not.
In choosing Wiseman, a 7-foot center, second overall in the 2020 NBA draft, leaving the point guard Ball on the board, did the Warriors pick the wrong teenager last November?
There have been only two answers: 1) It’s obvious that they did, and 2) Possibly, but it’s premature to deliver a final verdict.
Very premature, we think.
Because big men almost always require the longest adjustment period. The last five players named Rookie of the Year are point guards or primary ballhandlers, and 13 of the last 20 fall into that category.
In the 22 years since Tim Duncan – a four-year collegian – earned the award (1998), only two centers, Amaré Stoudemire and Emeka Okafor, have gotten it.
Wiseman is at the embryonic stage of his career. He wasn’t ready to be in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
He has convinced few fans of anything more than his impressive wingspan and considerable potential. He played in 39 of Golden State’s 72 games last season, which pushes his total to 42 games since high school.
“We like Wiseman a lot,” Warriors president Bob Myers told NBC Sports Bay Area a couple weeks ago. “We haven’t seen that much of him, but we really like what we have seen. We think he has a bright future and we want him here for a long time.”
No doubt Ball, who came to the NBA after 12 games at the professional level in Australia, displays a clearer understanding and a fuller grasp of the game. Point guards, by nature of the position, are designed to see and feel the entire game. He has generated more highlights. He earned his Rookie of the Year award.
Which apparently was enough for LaMelo, in one season, during which he played in 51 of Charlotte’s 72 games, to convince some that he is destined to be an all-time great.
It’s not uncommon, however, for playmaking guards with uncommon vision and remarkable instincts to make a positive early impression. In the 1990s, there was Terrell Brandon and Penny Hardaway and Gary Payton and Jason Kidd. In the 2000s, there was Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis and Jason Williams and Baron Davis and Allen Iverson. Then came Gilbert Arenas and Deron Williams and Chris Paul and a man named Curry.
Some peaked early and declined, while others sustained their excellence.
Which is to say Ball remains, at age 20, very much a work in progress. He dazzles one night, frazzles the next – but generally is highly entertaining. Which Jason will he most closely resemble: Williams or Kidd?
Hornets coach James Borrego likes LaMelo but realizes highs and lows are part of the development – particularly on defense.
“His leadership, taking ownership of his defense needs to be significant for us,” Borrego told reporters last week. “Taking responsibility for guarding his man every single night. And he's placed much more value on that end of the floor this year, which is a major sign for me that he's committed to winning."
We’ve seen enough of Ball to believe could have thrived in Steve Kerr’s system. Could’ve played with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green and, eventually, with Klay Thompson.
LaMelo could have been a good fit, though the Warriors were uncertain of that.
Wiseman, they reasonably believe, is the better fit for what is needed today, tomorrow and many more tomorrows.
There may come a time when the Wiseman-or-Ball debate becomes a diminished version of Olajuwon or Jordan. As great as MJ was, perhaps the greatest ever, good luck finding someone who knows basketball and actually believes the Rockets blew it in taking Hakeem.