Hornets starters ran onto the Staples Center court to everything from polite silence (for Mason Plumee) to half-hearted boos (for Gordan Hayward) on Monday night, but there was one Charlotte player who received a much warmer welcome. LaMelo Ball’s introduction before Monday’s game against the Lakers earned cheers from fans, even those wearing purple and gold. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss even clapped for the former Chino Hills High star.
One night after struggling in a loss to the Clippers, Ball notched the second triple-double of his career Monday with 25 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists against the Lakers. But the effort was not enough to halt Charlotte’s losing streak, which stretched to five after the Lakers (6-5) survived to win 126-123 in overtime.
Back-to-back games against the Clippers and Lakers at Staples Center were Ball’s first time playing in front of his hometown fans as a professional. After the pandemic left seats empty for the Chino Hills native’s return last year, fans were eager to welcome home a favorite son.
Amid a sea of Lakers jerseys in the sold-out crowd, a handful of fans sported Charlotte’s teal No. 2 jersey. A fan near midcourt sported a white and green No. 1 Chino Hills jersey.
Ball first wore that jersey as a 5-foot-10, gap-toothed 13-year-old freshman who skipped a grade to play with his older brothers in high school. He returned to Staples Center at 6-foot-7 and 180 pounds with tattoos on his forearms and chest. The 20-year-old has played professionally in two other countries before he became the NBA’s rookie of the year last season.
It’s only the beginning for Ball, who has not only All-Star potential, but is quickly heading toward generational talent distinction, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
“He’s got a flair to his game that is very unique,” Vogel said before the game, “a confidence with how he distributes the basketball. [He] makes his teammates better, carries the threat of getting really hot from the perimeter, and he really has it all.”
Less than three weeks into his second NBA season, Ball is keeping pace with his rookie numbers. He averaged 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists last season and has similar rebounding and assist numbers this season at 5.8 and 6.6, respectively, with a jump to 20 points a game in scoring.
After captivating the league with his flashy passes and athletic dunks as a rookie, Ball is now tasked with maintaining his successful trajectory.
“He can swing for the fences any possession, but I need sometimes for him to just take a pitch, just take one,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said before Monday’s game. “A lot of the veteran point guards we see in this league today, they didn’t come in with that mentality. That mentality is learned over time — what wins in this league.”
Borrego said he thought Ball “took a step forward tonight as a professional” during Monday’s game, showing his resilience in the second game on back-to-back nights.
Ball scored 21 points against the Clippers but was eight-of-19 shooting with seven rebounds, three assists and five fouls. He was two-of-six shooting from the field in the second half with four points as the Clippers went on a 22-0 run in the fourth quarter.
Less than 24 hours later, Ball helped engineer a 14-point second-half comeback to push the Lakers to overtime. He scored nine points in the second half, including five straight free throws after the Lakers were called for a delay of game and back-to-back technical fouls. He had 11 rebounds in the second half and overtime.
“He’s special,” Hornets guard Terry Rozier said. “I looked up and saw all the rebounds and assists — it’s just crazy how he impacts the game. He’s going to be special once he keeps learning the game. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
If Ball didn’t draw enough eyes with his highlighter orange shoes Monday, he made his presence felt early with a corner three-pointer when he left his arm extended in the air for an extra flourish. After sinking another three-pointer in the first quarter, Ball looked toward the Charlotte bench and, taking a page out of Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony’s book, struck his temple with three fingers.
But in the matchup against Melos, it was the Lakers veteran who came out with the win. Anthony had 29 points off the bench, sinking seven of 10 three-pointers, each long ball eliciting louder and louder cheers from fans. His final one at the two-minute mark of overtime put the Lakers in the lead for the final time.
As purple and gold streamers fell from the rafters following the Lakers’ win, Ball shook hands with all the Lakers players, but lingered an extra moment near Anthony. The 19-year veteran wrapped the second-year dynamo in a hug.