Lowe: The 5 most intriguing NBA players this season

Illustration by ESPN

It's time for an annual preseason tradition: our five most intriguing players for the upcoming NBA season. We (mostly) avoid superstars, rookies and second-year players; everyone is intrigued by them! The goal is to find X factors whose development could swing how their teams perform today, and how those organizations approach key team-building decisions.

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

Two years ago, the debate over the league's best young point guards (below Luka Doncic) focused on Ball, Trae Young and Ja Morant. After a lost season due to injuries, several youngish point guards have vaulted ahead of Ball in the discourse: Tyrese Haliburton, De'Aaron Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Garland, Jalen Brunson.

"I don't care about that stuff," Ball tells ESPN. "I just want to lock in for the team. We are trying to make the playoffs."

That may sound ridiculous for a woebegone franchise that has cracked .500 once since 2016 and hasn't won a playoff series in 21 years, but the Hornets -- with a similar roster -- won 43 games two seasons ago. Ball was an All-Star.

Ball is a good bet to jump back up in that point guard conversation. Big ball handlers who can shoot are the NBA's apex player type. You just don't find many humans who are 6-foot-7 with genius vision and dangerous 3-point shots.

To get there -- and for the Hornets to sniff .500 again -- Ball has to tighten up a casual looseness in his game. It's most noticeable on defense, where Ball is an audacious gambler -- lunging wayward for steals. Steve Clifford, Charlotte's coach, has favored conservatism -- slow on offense, low-risk on defense.

Player and coach insist they are adaptable. "Your job is to understand your team and play in a way that gives you the best chance," Clifford tells ESPN. Charlotte played at the league's ninth-fastest pace last season. "This team was put together to run," Clifford says. Ball is a voracious grab-and-go rebounder.

Ball found a better balance on defense, Clifford says. "Stealing the ball is a good thing. But there are guys that want to steal the ball all the time, and it absolutely destroys your defense. [Ball] is not like that. He wants to defend."

Ball is 22; stouter defense comes with experience. The looseness on offense was more confounding. For a passing savant, Ball became a little shot happy; he was the only rotation player leaguewide to jack more than 20 shots per 36 minutes while earning fewer than four free throws.

His pull-up and step-back 3s are weapons, and Ball has unteachable guile in opening space for those shots -- faking toward picks and then rejecting them, tipping defenders off-balance with liquidy hesitation dribbles and snappy crossovers. But too many high-wire 3s early in the shot clock can be demoralizing for teammates.

The low free throws reflect Ball's reluctant, scattershot paint game. His attempts from the restricted area have decreased every season. He is one of the worst guard finishers in the league -- 54% at the rim, a stunning number given his size.