Kyle Kuzma drew his arm back like a quarterback about to hit a tight end on a one-way route. His target was LeBron James, and the Los Angeles Lakers star took a step over the Charlotte Hornets’ LaMelo Ball.
Not many defenders of any sport are going to stop James when he takes a head of steam downhill. But Ball took a shot, reaching out behind him to try to slow down James as he simultaneously turned and ran back on defense.
Ball had created the counterattack opportunity by attempting to shoot the ball past James, who raised a hand and handed it to Kuzma. So it was Ball’s responsibility to stop him, even if it meant making his fifth foul and ending the Hornets’ impressive second-half comeback Thursday night in a 116-105 loss to the Lakers at Staples Center.
But the play spoke volumes about Ball’s mindset in his first NBA game against James. It was, as he had mentioned earlier in the week, just another game for the talented rookie. Just another first time playing against one of the league’s all-time greats. Just another yardstick you’ll learn from.
“It felt good,” Ball said of his first game against James, with whom his stats in the first 20 starts of his career compare favorably. “But not too good, because we didn’t get the win.”
Thursday was the 20th start of Ball’s career, and according to ESPN Stats & Information research, Ball averaged more points (19.8 to 16.5) than James in the first 20 starts of his career, shooting better from the field (46.8% to 39.9%) and beyond the 3 point line (43.2% to 31.5%).
Of course, it is not a perfect comparison. James started the first 20 games of the 2003 season in Cleveland, while Ball wasn’t transferred to the Hornets’ starting lineup until his 20th game this season; Thursday was the fortieth game of his career. James also had the weight of being the undisputed number one overall pick in his draft class, and being chosen by his hometown team.
Ball entered the league as something of a mystery, skipping his senior year of high school and college to play overseas for two seasons before the Hornets selected him No. 3 overall last fall.
But the youngest of the three Ball brothers has arguably lived as much of his life in the limelight as James did entering the league. And he had endured more skeptics than James, having stumbled as a teenager in the Lithuanian league and taunted on the family’s Facebook Live reality show.
Those struggles and experiences, Ball’s father, LaVar Ball, once predicted, were what gave LaMelo the potential to be the best of his three sons.
“People ask me, ‘Who’s the best?'” LaVar said in an interview with ESPN the Magazine in 2017. “Come on, Lonzo is the best right now. He’s the oldest. But Melo is going to be the best. , because he’s got the most experience … he’s getting the most experience and most of the shit. ‘
Major Ball has been remarkably quiet as his youngest son burst onto the NBA scene this year. Some of that is a function of geography: LaVar still lives at his home in Chino Hills, an hour east of Los Angeles, while Lonzo is in New Orleans and LaMelo is in Charlotte. Another part is a conscientious decision to step away from the media spotlight, where he often overshadowed Lonzo when he started with the Lakers.
But LaVar has not been completely silenced. He did a radio interview with ESPN Los Angeles before Thursday’s game in which he doubled down on LaMelo’s comment that the game against James was not very special.
“He doesn’t see it like, ‘Oh, I’m playing this guy!'” LaVar Ball said on the “Mason & Ireland” show. “No, it’s competition … How can you be in awe of another man and your dad is LaVar Ball?”
The boast drew laughter from the hosts. In fact, several of his statements went viral, as is often the case. But as has been the case all season, LaMelo’s talent has spoken for itself.
“He’s damn good for his age,” James said of Ball after their confrontation. “His speed, his quickness, his ability to hit shots and baskets in the paint … and it will only get better. Every game is a learning experience for him. He will get better as the season progresses and his career progresses. It happens.
“He and ‘Zo are two unique players in our league and they show it every night.”
James edged out Ball and the Hornets tonight, finishing with 37 points on 14-of-22 shooting to propel the Lakers to their fourth straight win and earn a new round of MVP proclamations from his coach and teammates. .
But Ball looked like the favorite for the Rookie of the Year, scoring 20 of his 26 points in the second half as Charlotte rallied from a 15-point deficit at halftime to cut the lead to 86-85 on Ball’s 3-pointer with 10 minutes, 13 seconds to the end of the fourth quarter.
LeBron and LaMelo after facing each other for the first time 🤝 pic.twitter.com/wuZ9fMU6Db
– ESPN (@espn) March 19, 2021
“You could feel his excitement early on,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “He wanted to play well and show that he belongs in this league … I think he was a bit anxious at first, but he calmed down and slowed down … I thought he was fantastic down the stretch. I liked his fighting and his competitive spirit. “.
His mistakes were aggressive mistakes, not because of the added pressure he had with the four-time MVP. The lack of a clear road, which gave James two free throws and the Lakers the ball in subsequent possession, showed Ball’s competitiveness to get back on defense after a loss.
“It was just a silly little mistake that I have to learn from,” Ball said of the ball trade (sixth of the night), which sent him to the bench for the next 5:27.
The Hornets kept up with the Lakers during that stretch. But they didn’t have enough time left to put together any kind of rally when Ball finally came back with 1:43 to go and the Lakers were up 112-101. Ball scored four points in the remaining time, but James and the Lakers closed it out fairly easily. After the game, Ball spoke briefly to the media and then returned to the team hotel.
Due to NBA health and safety protocols, Ball’s first NBA game in his hometown was lonely. The Hornets will stay in Los Angeles to play the Clippers on Saturday. In a normal year, he could have seen hundreds of family and friends, just as his older brother did during his time with the Lakers. But these are not normal times.
“Life is weird right now,” Ball said with a shrug, when asked about homecoming that wasn’t homecoming. “Everything feels really normal, to be honest. So I really don’t know what’s going on.”