LaMelo Ball and the best debut performances in a first signature sneaker
From Michael Jordan in 1984 to Kobe Bryant with two brands and Trae Young’s game winner, the Charlotte Hornets star’s debut of the Puma MB.01 is in elite company
In the 75-year history of the NBA, fewer than 85 players have earned the distinction of receiving a signature sneaker.
LaMelo Ball, the 20-year-old point guard for the Charlotte Hornets and reigning rookie of the year, became the latest to join that exclusive club during the first week of the 2021-22 NBA season. In Charlotte’s opening game against the Indiana Pacers, Ball debuted his first signature shoe, the Puma MB.01, while scoring 31 points, including a career-high seven 3-pointers, along with nine rebounds and seven assists.
Puma’s first signature athlete since the brand returned to basketball in 2018, Ball didn’t disappoint during his first official game wearing the MB.01. In the Hornets’ 123-122 win, Ball became the youngest player in league history to start a season with a performance of 30-plus points, five-plus assists and five-plus rebounds. In the third quarter, Ball even received “M-V-P!” chants from the home crowd as he toed the free throw line in the bright orange-red colorway of his sneaker.
“It felt great,” Ball told The Undefeated after his first game in the Puma MB.01. “You gotta love wearing your own stuff, your own hoop shoes. Blessings.”
There’s no question that Ball had one of the most exciting debuts of a first signature sneaker. From Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Trae Young, here’s a look at where his performance falls among the 15 best first signature debuts in NBA history.
Game: Nov. 17, 1984 — Chicago Bulls vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Shoe: “Chicago” Air Jordan 1
Stat line: 16 points (4-for-17), 7 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 steals in 109-100 Bulls loss
In his NBA regular-season debut on Oct. 26, 1984, Jordan took the court for the Bulls wearing the Nike Air Ship — not his first signature shoe, the Air Jordan 1. It was actually the Air Ship that led to the infamous policing of Jordan’s footwear during his first season in the league. Citing a particular preseason game during which Jordan was photographed wearing the Air Ship, an NBA executive vice president sent a cease-and-desist letter to the company based in Beaverton, Oregon, that officially barred Jordan from lacing up “certain red and black Nike basketball shoes.”
Nike responded by marketing his Air Jordan 1, not the Air Ship, to consumers as the sneaker the NBA “banned.” Yet, as detailed by longtime sneaker enthusiast Nick Engvall in a 2015 sneakerhistory.com story, Jordan didn’t debut his signature shoe for the first time until 11 games into his rookie season. On Nov. 17, 1984, against the 76ers, the Bulls’ then-21-year-old shooting guard unveiled the “Chicago” Air Jordan 1, scoring 16 points with seven assists, five rebounds and five steals. Following the debut, according to Engvall, Jordan played solely in the Air Ship until late December, after which he went to the Air Jordan 1 full time in the lead-up to the shoe’s March 1985 retail release.
Game: Nov. 6, 1992 — Orlando Magic vs. Miami Heat
Shoe: Reebok Shaq Attaq 1
Stat line: 12 points (4-for-8), 18 rebounds, 3 blocks in 110-100 Magic win
Two weeks before the Magic selected the 20-year-old O’Neal with the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NBA draft, his agent, Leonard Armato, denied reports that the 7-foot-1 center out of Louisiana State University had signed a footwear and apparel deal with LA Gear. Instead, O’Neal decided to roll with Reebok in a multiyear deal worth $3 million annually after the sportswear company based in Stoughton, Massachusetts, won a bidding war with Nike. The partnership made the big man the headliner of Reebok’s popular Pump technology and guaranteed his signature “Shaq Attaq” line.
Wearing a size 23, O’Neal debuted the Shaq Attaq 1 in his first NBA game, making him just the fourth rookie in league history to receive a signature shoe during his rookie season. He scored 12 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the shoe crafted by footwear designer Judy Close. Reebok promoted the Shaq Attaq throughout the 1992-93 season with a $20 million ad campaign, highlighted by a commercial that aired during Super Bowl XXVII that was co-written by O’Neal as he starred with former NBA centers Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Game: Nov. 3, 1995 — Orlando Magic vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Shoe: Nike Air Max Penny 1
Stat line: 28 points (10-for-17), 8 assists, 5 rebounds in 99-88 Magic win
In Hardaway’s mind, he played his way into a signature sneaker during his second year in the NBA. That 1994-95 season, the silky smooth 6-foot-7 point guard for the Magic emerged as a first-team All-NBA selection with averages of 20.9 points (on 51.2% shooting from the field), 7.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds a game. Throughout his prolific sophomore campaign, Hardaway laced up two Nike models — the Air Up and Flight One — before the swoosh decided he was deserving of a signature silhouette. “Nike was like, ‘You know what, it’s time to get your own shoe,’ ” Hardaway told Nick DePaula in 2008. “ ‘You’ve become a big enough name, and you’ve really earned it.’ ” The night of the Magic’s 1995-96 regular-season opener, Hardaway dropped 28 points in the Nike Air Max Penny 1. His debut shoe introduced the “1 Cent” branding that’s become one of the most recognizable signature logos in history.
Game: Nov. 1, 1996 — Philadelphia 76ers vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Shoe: Reebok Question
Stat line: 30 points (12-for-19), 6 assists in 111-103 Sixers loss
You’ve certainly seen the footage from March 1997 of a then-21-year-old rookie Iverson crossing up the greatest of all time, Jordan. On Iverson’s feet was a white, red and navy pair of the Reebok Question — the future Hall of Famer’s first signature shoe that kicked off what has since transformed into a lifetime partnership with the company. In June 1996, Iverson signed an unprecedented 10-year, $50 million contract with Reebok before he or the brand even knew where his NBA career would begin. “I deserve to be No. 1,” said Iverson the night before the draft, while wearing a gold Rolex and a Reebok lapel pin.
The 76ers selected the 6-foot, 165-pound point guard from Georgetown University with the top pick, making him Reebok’s second No. 1 overall signee in five years after O’Neal in 1992. Iverson made his NBA debut on Nov. 1, 1996, with a 30-point performance in his signature Reebok Question — a clever play off his nickname “The Answer,” which is tattooed on his left bicep. The Question has since become the most re-released basketball shoe in Reebok history.
Game: Oct. 31, 1997 — Los Angeles Lakers vs. Utah Jazz
Shoe: Adidas KB8
Stat line: 23 points (5-for-13), 5 assists in 104-87 Lakers win
Game: Dec. 25, 2005 — Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat
Shoe: Nike Zoom Kobe 1
Stat line: 37 points (12-for-30), 8 rebounds, 6 assists in 97-92 Lakers loss
One of the legacies of the late Bryant is the mark he made in sneaker history with signature lines for two different companies. He endorsed Adidas for six seasons before joining Nike in 2003 and repping the swoosh for the rest of his NBA career. While Bryant’s debut performances in his first signature for both Adidas and Nike were impressive, true to Mamba Mentality, of course he outdid himself the second time around. During a game against the Jazz on Oct. 31, 1997, Bryant, then 19, launched the Adidas KB8 with 23 points and five assists in 33 minutes off the bench. On Christmas Day in 2005, Bryant launched the Nike Zoom Kobe 1 by dropping 37 points, eight rebounds and six assists on the Heat. It’s worth noting that in late January 2006, less than a month after he debuted the shoe, Bryant delivered a career-high 81 points in the Nike Zoom Kobe 1.
Game: Oct. 29, 2003 — Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Sacramento Kings
Shoe: Nike Air Zoom Generation
Stat line: 25 points (12-for-20), 9 assists, 6 rebounds, 4 steals in 106-92 Cavaliers loss
No player in NBA history had a more anticipated rookie debut than the 18-year-old James. In May 2003, a month before the Cavaliers selected him with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, James signed a seven-year, $90 million contract with Nike, which is still the richest NBA rookie sneaker deal. Ahead of his career-coronating game against the Kings on Oct. 29, 2003, Nike released the “Pressure” commercial, featuring James in his first signature sneaker, the Nike Air Zoom Generation, built by the design team of Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar and Aaron Cooper. Come prime time at ARCO Arena, James was dazzling with the Zoom Generations on his feet. He scored 25 points, on an efficient 12-for-20 shooting from the field, with nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. He also threw down his first career dunk on a steal and breakaway that yielded an action shot belonging in a museum. James went on to finish his inaugural NBA season wearing the Zoom Generations as the first rookie since Jordan to average at least 20 points, five assists and five rebounds a game.
Game: Nov. 2, 2005 — Miami Heat vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Shoe: Converse Wade 1
Stat line: 23 points (9-for-18), 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks in 97-78 Heat win
Game: April 18, 2011 — Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Shoe: Jordan Fly Wade 1
Stat line: 14 points (4-for-11 FG), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 block in 94-73 Heat win during first round of NBA playoffs
Game: Oct. 30, 2012 — Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics
Shoe: Li-Ning Way of Wade 1
Stat line: 29 points (10-for-22), 4 assists, 2 steals in 120-107 Heat win
The three-time champion Wade is a part of an exclusive club of NBA players who received sneakers from three brands during their careers. The other members are Chris Webber (Nike, FILA, Dada) and Kevin Garnett (Nike, AND1, Adidas, Anta). That means Wade experienced three signature debuts — and he balled out in each one of them. On opening night of the Heat’s championship 2005-06 season, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard produced a stat sheet-stuffing performance with 23 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks in the Converse Wade 1. By April 2011, after he switched from Converse to the Jordan Brand, Wade overcame migraine headaches in a first-round playoff series to play in the Jordan Fly Wade 1 for the first time with a solid 14 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. The most Wade scored in a signature debut was 29 points, while wearing the Li-Ning Way of Wade 1 in 2012, when his partnership with the Chinese footwear company began. Now retired, the future Hall of Famer received eight more Way of Wade signature models and signed a lifetime deal with Li-Ning.
Game: Oct. 27, 2010 — Chicago Bulls vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Shoe: Adidas AdiZero Rose 1
Stat line: 28 points (12-for-31), 6 assists, 4 rebounds in 106-95 Bulls loss
The timing of the arrival of Rose’s first signature shoe couldn’t have been more perfect. Two years after entering the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick of his hometown Bulls, Rose began his third season by unveiling the Adidas adiZero Rose 1 on opening night in 2010. He scored 28 points in the shoe’s debut, and by May 2011 that season, he became the youngest player in league history to be named MVP, at age 22. “When you have a signature shoe, it boosts your confidence a little bit more,” Rose told ESPN in 2019. “When you’re out there, it gives you a little bit more swag. Back then, I just couldn’t believe it.” With 11 Adidas models to his name, Rose is one of eight players in league history, along with Jordan, Bryant, James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Iverson and Kevin Durant, to receive at least 10 consecutive signature shoes.
Game: Dec. 4, 2014 — Cleveland Cavaliers vs. New York Knicks
Shoe: Nike Kyrie 1
Stat line: 37 points (12-for-18) in 90-87 Cavs win
Irving caught the ball near half court and sized up his defender. He dribbled left, then right, then left again, driving to the basket and lifting a layup high off the glass at Madison Square Garden with 10 seconds left in the game. The go-ahead bucket in a matchup with the Knicks on Dec. 4, 2014, sealed a win for the Cavaliers and capped off Irving’s debut performance in the Nike Kyrie 1 with 37 points.
Game: Jan. 9, 2015 — Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Shoe: Under Armour Curry One
Stat line: 23 points (8-for-15), 10 assists, 2 steals in 112-94 Warriors win
After wearing swooshes on his feet for the first four years of his career, Curry took what many considered a huge gamble by leaving Nike to join Under Armour in October 2013. A signature line wasn’t in the plan for Curry at Nike, but Under Armour delivered. And by Jan. 9, 2015, at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, the Warriors point guard debuted the Under Armour Curry One with 23 points and 10 assists. “It’s a dream come true,” said Curry that night. “There’s a long line of players who have had a signature shoe before, obviously all different brands. But to bring the Curry One to life with Under Armour is something I’ve been looking forward to.” Later in that 2014-15 season, Curry was named league MVP and led Golden State to the franchise’s first title in 40 years. He’s now on his ninth signature model and the face of his own Curry Brand at Under Armour.
Game: Oct. 26, 2016 — Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Shoe: Adidas Harden Vol. 1
Stat line: 34 points (9-for-19), 17 assists, 8 rebounds in 120-114 Rockets loss
On Oct. 1, 2015, Harden’s 13-year, $200 million footwear and apparel deal with Adidas officially began, after Nike, the brand Harden endorsed for the first six years of his career, declined to match the massive offer. Adidas celebrated the moment — and its new signature athlete — by sending a truck full of sneakers with the tagline “The Wait Is Over” in bold red type, to Harden’s home ahead of the 2015-16 NBA season. A year later, at a VIP launch event in Houston featuring performances by rappers Travis Scott, Nipsey Hussle and YG, the NBA star, then with the Rockets, unveiled his first signature, the Adidas Harden Vol. 1. During an interview session that night, a member of the media asked Harden if he thought he had the best sneaker in the league. “I think I do,” Harden said. “I’m extremely excited about it. Everything I do is swaggy, you know.” Harden backed up his words when he stepped foot on the court for the first time in the Vol. 1s for Houston’s opener of the 2016-17 season. Playing against the Lakers at Staples Center in his hometown of Los Angeles, Harden flirted with a triple-double, scoring 34 points with 17 assists and seven rebounds.
Game: Sept. 1, 2019 — Greece vs. Montenegro in first round of FIBA Basketball World Cup
Shoe: Nike Zoom Freak 1
Stat line: 10 points (4-for-9), 8 rebounds, 2 steals in 85-60 Greece win
Game: NBA debut, Oct. 24, 2019 — Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets
Shoe: Nike Zoom Freak 1
Stat line: 30 points (11-for-17), 13 rebounds, 11 assists in 117-111 Bucks win
It was only right that Antetokounmpo, born to Nigerian immigrants and raised in Athens, Greece, unveiled his first signature sneaker on the global stage. The same week the “Greek Freak” was named the 2019 NBA MVP, Nike announced Antetokounmpo as the first international basketball player to receive his own shoe in brand history. “I wanted my shoe to basically introduce me and my family to the world,” Antetokounmpo told The Undefeated at the Athens launch of the Nike Zoom Freak 1. A few months later, he took the court in the Freak 1 for the first time at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China during Greece’s opener against Montenegro. Antetokounmpo only played 16 minutes, scoring 10 points and grabbing eight rebounds, in the sneaker’s World Cup debut. In his first NBA game wearing the Freak 1, he notched a 30-point, 13-rebound and 11-assist triple-double.
Game: April 20 — New Orleans Pelicans vs. Brooklyn Nets
Shoe: Jordan Zion 1
Stat line: 33 points (14-for-19), 7 rebounds, 4 assists in 134-129 Pelicans loss
In 2019, Williamson emerged as the most highly touted NBA prospect since James. That meant he also became the most sought-after rookie by footwear companies in more than 15 years. After the Pelicans selected him with the No. 1 overall pick, Williamson signed a five-year, $75 million endorsement deal to join the Jordan Brand. The partnership would ultimately make Williamson the seventh player since Jordan to receive a Jordan signature — and the first Generation Z (born after 1996) athlete to receive a shoe. “The opportunity to have the Jordan Brand give me a signature shoe was something I feel like I couldn’t pass up on,” a 20-year-old Williamson told The Undefeated in April, before the announcement of the Jordan Zion 1.
When he laced up his shoe for the first time against the Nets, the Pelicans star dominated with 33 points, on 74% shooting from the field, with seven rebounds and four assists. No player in Jordan history — from Russell Westbrook (20 points in the Why Not Zer0.1 in 2018) to Paul (16 points in the CP3.I in 2008) to Anthony (20 points in the Melo 1.5 in 2004) and even Jordan (16 points in the Air Jordan 1 in 1984) — scored more points in his signature debut than Williamson.
Game: May 23 — Atlanta Hawks vs. New York Knicks
Shoe: Adidas Trae Young 1
Stat line: 32 points (11-for-23), 10 assists, 7 rebounds in 107-105 Hawks win during first round of playoffs
Young couldn’t wait to debut his first signature sneaker — so he didn’t. The Adidas Trae Young 1 wasn’t set to release until October. But after the Hawks made the 2021 NBA postseason as the fifth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the All-Star point guard decided to lace it up ahead of schedule. “I just wanted to be able to play my first playoffs in my own shoe,” said the then-22-year-old Young, who broke out the shoe for Game 1 of Atlanta’s opening-round series against the fourth-seeded Knicks. On the hardwood at Madison Square Garden in the Trae Young 1, he scored 32 points, including a game-winning floater with 0.9 seconds left to lift the Hawks to a 107-105 win. Of all the debuts of a player’s first signature, Young’s performance was certainly the most clutch. He went on to average 28.8 points and 9.5 assists in 16 games during the 2021 NBA playoffs, all while wearing the Adidas Trae Young 1.
Game: Oct. 20 — Charlotte Hornets vs. Indiana Pacers
Shoe: Puma MB.01
Stat line: 31 points (11-for-23), 9 rebounds, 7 assists in 123-122 Hornets win
Four years ago, before the Puma MB.01, Ball launched a signature shoe called the “MB1” at the age of 16 under his family’s Big Baller Brand. Ball teamed up with SLAM magazine for a hilarious commercial to promote the shoe. And his older brother, Lonzo, had a rap song called “Melo Ball 1.” But there isn’t any record of Ball lacing up his BBB signature in a game. Ahead of the 2020 NBA draft, when the Hornets selected him with the No. 3 pick, Ball signed a multiyear deal with Puma to become the face of the company in basketball. Puma began teasing Ball’s signature shoe on social media in July, before he was spotted wearing a pair for the first time while sitting courtside at NBA summer league a month later.
By mid-October, the brand officially announced the MB.01, making Ball the fourth signature basketball athlete in Puma history, after Walt Frazier (1973), Ralph Sampson (1983) and Vince Carter (1999). “I live by the motto, ‘One of One,’ which means I am not like everyone else,” Ball said in a statement. “I stand out as being different and I’m 100% myself. The motto was really the inspiration behind the MB.01. I wanted to create a different kind of sneaker. One that is ‘Not From Here’ with a unique design, bright colors and the best technology for a better on-court performance.” With 31 points, seven 3s and a win in Charlotte’s season opener, Ball couldn’t have even imagined a better first game in his Puma MB.01.