LaMelo Ball returns as Hornets look to dig out of early-season hole

Charlotte snapped an eight-game losing streak Monday night in the point guard’s second game back

Hornets guard LaMelo Ball is defended by Magic center Mo Bamba and guard Terrence Ross during Charlotte’s win Monday in Orlando. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — A preseason ankle injury sidelined LaMelo Ball for the first 13 games of the NBA season as Charlotte slumped to a 3-10 start. Now with the Hornets’ best player back in the fold, there’s a sense of hope that he can turn around the team’s season.

The Hornets (4-11) split their first two games since Ball’s return, and his presence has sparked a Charlotte offense that struggled to score in his absence.

“It just felt good to be back for real. Defense, offense. It’s just basketball for real. It was just fun to be back,” Ball said after Charlotte’s 132-115 loss to Miami in which he finished with 15 points, six assists and six rebounds in 28 minutes in his season debut. He made 6 of 17 shots and was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range.

“I feel straight. We’re going to be straight,” Ball added. “More games, it’ll get easier. I think I’m in a good spot. … We’re getting people back now and we’re finally getting on the road.”

He looked a bit more like himself in his second game back as the Hornets finally stopped the bleeding, snapping an eight-game losing streak with a 112-105 win over Orlando.

In that performance, Ball posted 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes. The 21-year-old seems to still be knocking off the shooting rust — he made three more 3-pointers than his first game back but also attempted six more.

While Hornets fans are accustomed to Ball’s dynamic playmaking abilities, Charlotte’s reintroduced head coach is getting his first look at his star point guard.

“He’s an elite offensive player,” Steve Clifford said on Nov. 12. “You can just see what a terrific player he is. He’s in the paint and he puts a ton of pressure on the defense. He has a great feel for where his teammates are. It’s been five to six weeks since he’s played, so it’s great to have him back.

“Obviously, he makes a huge difference in our team and it’s good that we have him. Now we’ll get back to getting his offense in and get everybody comfortable when he’s out there. I think we’re getting a lot better very quickly.”

What is yet to be seen is how Clifford plans to mold Ball into the team’s leader. Earlier this year, Ball expressed a desire to control the reins of the offense, hinting to a reporter from Slam Magazine that his role had been limited while playing under former coach James Borrego.

On the court, Ball has made a case for being in charge.

He averaged 20.1 points and 7.6 assists per game last year and earned his first All-Star bid. In the season before that, he averaged 15.7 points and 6.1 assists on his way to winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award.

With Ball’s first two seasons in the league successful by almost any metric outside of team success, Year 3 seems pivotal in the star guard’s future.

Ball will be eligible for a five-year, $202.5M contract extension next offseason and would become the first Hornets player to receive a rookie maximum extension under owner Michael Jordan if that contract is agreed upon. Charlotte also holds a club option for the 2023-24 season worth just over $10.9 million.

After that, the Hornets’ front office can extend a qualifying offer to Ball for the 2024-25 season worth just over $14.3 million or allow him to become a restricted free agent.

For now, all Ball can control is the present, which means helping the Hornets climb out of the pit of the Eastern Conference standings. Charlotte is already seven games below .500, and the injury woes nagging the Hornets have not helped at all.

Gordon Hayward remains out of the lineup with an ongoing shoulder injury that has sidelined him for six games, while Dennis Smith Jr. (ankle) remains day-to-day. Additionally, Cody Martin underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee last Friday and will miss approximately six weeks.

If there ever was a time for Ball to take his game to the next level, the time is now.