Jordan found his saviour in Australia
Michael Jordan has never stepped foot on Australian soil but he may have found the answer to the one sporting challenge he's never solved on the NSW south coast.
Jordan, whose competitiveness as a player had no limits, has been a basketcase as an owner and needed a saviour after winning just 23 of 65 games in 2019-20.
It was Wollongong where Jordan's NBA franchise the Charlotte Hornets looked ahead of last year's NBA Draft, selecting young American star LaMelo Ball with the third pick after he'd spent a season with the Illawarra Hawks in the NBL.
It was the highest selection Jordan had secured since picking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012 and had the potential to consign his team to several more years of suffering - or pull them out of the mire.
At the halfway mark of the NBA season, the signs are incredibly promising.
Ball, 19, has been a sensation in his first 35 games, soaring to Rookie of the Year favouritism after averaging almost 16 points, six rebounds and six assists in under 29 minutes per game.
The Hornets, who are also enjoying strong seasons from two players the league mocked them for signing on expensive contracts in Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
But it's Ball who has Jordan dreaming of sustained success as he displays the exceptional passing and vision that made him a highly-touted prospect before opting to spend a year Down Under instead of the American college system, but also produces shooting percentages many thought he was incapable of.
"I think Melo has adjusted to the NBA game better than any of us ever thought this early in his career," Jordan told The Associated Press in an email this week. "He has exceeded our expectations so far this season."
Just as importantly Ball has added swagger to Charlotte.
Jordan has had an All-Star talent before in Kemba Walker, who made the annual showcase of the league's best talent each season from 2017-19. But Ball brings a level of showmanship and pizzazz to a ball club that has been largely overlooked despite being owned by the most famous name in the game.
"He's the real deal," Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said. "I'm not going to lie, I'm very impressed with his playmaking ability, his competitiveness, but his joy … he's very talented; he can do many different things."
Warriors forward Draymond Green recently tweeted "LaMelo is a problem!"
"Right now, with the way things look, he looks like NBA rookie of the year to me," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "He's getting it done statistically, their team is winning. He's got energy, he's got a vibe, he's got swagger. If you like watching players that play with flair, he's right up there."
Despite becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double in just his 10th NBA game, Ball wasn't inserted into the starting line-up until 20 games into the season.
Since then he's upped his scoring average to 20.6 points per game in 15 starts and been named NBA rookie of the month twice.
"Me being me, I'm never going to say putting me on the bench was something smart or good to do," Ball said. "It always feels like when I'm on the court I'm helping. … But I think one of the reasons is because we didn't have no summer league, so he probably wanted to ease me into it."
Hornets coach James Borrego said: "His growth, his fearlessness, his ability to bounce back even when things don't go his way on one end of the floor … he's a special kid."
Perhaps the most stunning development has been his marksmanship from long-range.
Ball attempted almost seven three-pointers per game in Australia but only connected on a quarter of them.
But he's lifted that to 37.8 per cent in the NBA without making any major changes to his form.
"I always said, 'This is how I shoot,'" Ball said. "I'm confident in it. I feel good letting it go. Even coming here (to the Hornets), they low-key tried to adjust it a little but I said, 'No, this is how I shoot' and I just stuck with it."
"I think people wondered at the beginning: was he a good enough shooter?" Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "I don't think that's a concern."
Ball's ability to sustain those numbers will play a huge part in whether the Hornets drop out of playoff contention (they only have one more win than 11th-placed Atlanta) or position themselves for a home series (they're only a game and a half behind fourth-placed Boston).
Then it's about winning a playoff series for the first time in 19 years.
"Our goal is to build a consistent winner and have free agents look at our program, just like Gordon (Hayward) did this off-season," Jordan said. "It's not just about Melo. It's about our group of young, talented players, our coaching staff and our entire Hornets organisation. All of those factors, along with Charlotte being a great city, will make us become a destination."
Originally published as Jordan found his saviour in Australia