As the Hornets Rise, LaMelo Ball Has Them ‘Playing Free’

BOSTON — The carnival ride known as LaMelo Ball was slowing to a merciful crawl with 7.3 seconds left on Wednesday when a teammate informed him that he was painfully close to his fourth career triple-double.

Ball is the hyperactive force who powers the Charlotte Hornets, and as soon as he learned that he needed one more rebound — just one more! — he cranked up the engine, chased down the final errant shot that the Celtics had tossed up and left for the visiting locker room with his stat sheet officially stuffed.

Was that last rebound gratuitous? Sure. Was it really necessary for Ball, by his own admission, to box out his own teammates in pursuit of it? Of course not. Was it a fitting postscript to another entertaining evening courtesy of Ball and the rest of the Hornets, the Eastern Conference’s resident fun bunch? Absolutely.

“I enjoy the process with these guys,” James Borrego, the Hornets’ coach, said after his team’s 111-102 victory over the Celtics. “They drive me crazy, and they’re going to put a lot of grays on me. But this is why we do it — just to see that growth.”

Many teams in the East have muddled through the first half of the season with mediocre records, a development diplomatically known as parity. The Hornets, though, who are eyeing their first playoff appearance since 2016, are finding some momentum. They share they ball. They run the court. They are learning to defend. They play with style.

“Everybody’s playing free,” Ball said.

And there is little question that Ball, the N.B.A.’s reigning rookie of the year, is the fresh face of the franchise, and has so much room to grow. That might be the scary part. On Wednesday, he collected 15 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 turnovers. It was impossible to know, or even predict, what he would do next. He was not dull.

“When Melo’s got the ball, you always got to be looking,” said the Hornets’ Terry Rozier, who had a game-high 28 points, “because if you ain’t looking, he’ll throw it off your head.”

In just his second season, Ball is one of the rare players who is impossible to miss, a magnet for attention all the way down to his toes. Against the Celtics, he broke out fluorescent footwear — a green sneaker on his left foot, a pink one on his right — with a design inspired by the animated television series, “Rick and Morty.”

And, of course, there was his colorful brand of basketball from the start. He blew past the Celtics’ Dennis Schroder for a layup. He curled a bounce pass through a maze of arms to Mason Plumlee for an uncontested dunk. He elevated for some sort of highly inventive (and arguably ill-advised) 360-degree floater and drew contact, sinking both free throws.

The game was only minutes old, and the ball seemed liquid coming off his hands. It was Ball at his mesmerizing best.

The Hornets, led by players like Ball, Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier, are 25-20 this season. Credit…Winslow Townson/Associated Press

The problem with Ball’s liquid basketball is that even he sometimes has difficulty controlling it. So there he was, heaving a pass the length of the court and out of bounds. And moving his pivot foot for a travel. And dragging a defender to the court after trying an errant 3-pointer. And dribbling the ball off his foot several ZIP codes from the basket.

“I have to live with some of that,” Borrego said, adding: “I’ve got to let him be Melo and be creative and live in that improve world. But there’s also got to be some awareness from him, as well: ‘OK, I just tried it. It didn’t work out. Be solid now.’ ”

As for Ball, he assessed the turnovers as correctable.

“Just little missed passes,” he said. “Not like legit turnovers where you get ripped full-court.”

The N.B.A. is populated by some very talented young point guards, a list headlined by two 22-year-olds: Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks and Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies. Doncic is already a two-time All-Star, and Morant has edged his way into the conversation as an outside candidate for the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award.

Even so, acclimating to the league’s nightly grind is a process for even the most precocious players, and Ball, 20, is no exception. Before the start of training camp, Borrego identified a few points of emphasis for Ball. Borrego wanted his point guard to improve as a leader, to approach his job as a professional every day. He wanted him to improve as a game manager, to understand time and situation. He also wanted him to improve as a defender, to anticipate rather than react.

Ball can sometimes be chaotic, but Coach James Borrego enjoys the complete package. “I have to live with some of that,” Borrego said, adding: “I’ve got to let him be Melo and be creative.”Credit…Paul Rutherford/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Ball’s jump shot remains a work in progress — he was 5 of 15 from the field against the Celtics, and he has not made more than half his shots in any of his last eight games — though his 3-point shooting has improved since last season. As for the turnovers? Well, Ball has worked to cut down on those, too, a difficult task considering how much he has the ball in his hands.

In a way, the Celtics should have been prepared for the Hornets’ up-tempo style, having recently played two other teams — the Chicago Bulls and the New Orleans Pelicans — who rank among the league leaders in fast-break scoring. But the Hornets “take it to another level,” Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said.

On Wednesday, Ball was at the center of it all. In the third quarter, he found Rozier for back-to-back 3-pointers — the second after Ball rebounded his own miss and spotted Rozier behind the arc. Later, with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Ball sank a 3-pointer of his own to essentially seal the win.

Before their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, the Hornets have won six of their last seven to improve their record to 25-20. Ball said he had outsize goals, which include “trying to change the culture, bring winning here.”

Fun nights? A playoff push? Everything, including one more rebound, seems within reach.

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