The Charlotte Hornets never expected to spend the first two months of the 2022-23 season without their best player.
Following up his first two pro seasons — which included a Rookie of the Year award and an All-Star Game appearance, LaMelo Ball’s third season in the NBA certainly didn’t start as planned for the 21-year-old point guard phenom — or his struggling team that buckled under the weight of his absence.
In a preseason loss to San Antonio on Oct. 10, Ball sprained his left ankle when his foot was stepped on while driving to the basket, sidelining himself for the first 13 games of the season as the Hornets fell to a 3-10 record in their early Eastern Conference standings descent.
He returned to the court on Nov. 11, posting a 15-point game that was followed by 17-point and 26-point showings the rest of the week; Charlotte was still struggling to score but the team clearly enjoyed having Ball back out there.
“He’s an elite offensive player,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “One of the advantages of having a point guard with his size, shot creation and shot-making is that he can play with a lot of different players.”
In that third game back, however, the injury bug struck again in the same place. Ball reaggravated his left ankle sprain, accidentally stepping on the foot of a fan that was sitting courtside. From there, he was forced to sit out 11 more games to heal up once again as he watched the Hornets slide to a 7-20 record.
Making his second return almost a month to the day after his first one, Ball immediately reminded his team yet again of his talent, particularly his growing confidence in shooting from behind the 3-point line. In just four games back from that injury, Ball made 21 3-pointers, equaling the most in any four-game stretch of his career.
He also delivered 16 points in the fourth quarter versus Sacramento on Dec. 19 — the most by a Hornets player in any quarter this season — and added 12 assists, a season high for Charlotte.
Ball is already showing the signs that a dominant 2023 could be forthcoming — and that’s why he’s NSJ’s pick to be this coming year’s Comeback Player of the Year.
“You can just see what a terrific player he is. He’s in the paint, he puts a ton of pressure on the defense, and he has a great feel for where his teammates are,” Clifford said. “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 and get everybody comfortable when he’s out there. I think we’re getting a lot better very quickly.”
While the Hornets are trending toward their worst season in a decade, the magic and wonder of Ball’s playing style make Charlotte an entertaining watch even as the losses pile up.
His no-look passes, ferocious drives to the hoop and improving shooting stroke make him just as likely to dish out the game-winning assist as to make the game-winning shot.
In 2023, Ball should be at the height of his powers. While this season may already be lost, Ball should assure that at the start of next season that both he and the Hornets will be on the rise.