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Kyle Kuzma cocked his arm back like a quarterback about to hit a tight end on a go route. His target was LeBron James, and the Los Angeles Lakers ‘ star had a step on LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets.
Not many defenders in any sport are going to stop James when he gets a step ahead with a head of steam going downhill. But Ball gave it a shot, reaching his arm out behind him to try and slow James down while simultaneously pivoting and sprinting back on defense.
Ball had created the fast break opportunity by trying to fire the ball past James — who got a hand up and tipped it to Kuzma. So it was Ball’s responsibility to stop it — even if it meant drawing his fifth foul and ending the Hornets’ impressive second half comeback Thursday night in a 116-105 loss to the Lakers.
But the play spoke volumes about Ball’s mentality in his first NBA game against James. It was, as he’d 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 measuring stick he will learn from.
“It felt good,” Ball said of his first game against James, with whom his statistics in the first 20 starts of his career compare favorably. “But not too good, because we didn’t get the win.”
Thursday was Ball’s 20th career start, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, Ball has averaged more points (19.8 to 16.5) than James did through the first 20 starts of his career, shooting better from the field (46.8 percent to 39.9 percent) and from beyond the 3-point line (43.2 percent to 31.5 percent).
Of course it isn’t a perfect comparison. James started the first 20 games of the 2003 season in Cleveland, while Ball wasn’t moved into the Hornets’ starting lineup until his 20th game this season — Thursday was his 40th career game. James also had the weight of being the unquestioned No. 1 overall pick in his draft class, and being taken by his hometown team.
Ball entered the league as something of a mystery, having skipped his final year of high school and college to play overseas for two seasons before the Hornets drafted him No. 3 overall last fall.
But the youngest of the three Ball brothers has arguably lived just as much of his life in the limelight as James had, coming into the league. And had endured more doubters than James ever did, as he stumbled as a teenager in the Lithuanian league and goofed around in the family’s Facebook Live reality show.
Those struggles and experiences, Ball’s father LaVar 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. “‘I go, Lonzo’s the best right now. He’s the oldest. But Melo is gonna be the best, because he has the most experience… he’s getting the most experience and the most sh-t.'”
The elder Ball has been noticeably quiet as his youngest son has exploded 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 back from the media spotlight, where he often overshadowed Lonzo when he was coming into the league 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 wasn’t extra special.
“He don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, I’m playing this guy!'” LaVar Ball said on the “Mason & Ireland” show. “No, it’s competition. … How’s he gonna be in awe of another man and your daddy is LaVar Ball?”
The boast elicited laughs from the hosts. Indeed several of his statements went viral, as they usually do. But as has been the case all season, LaMelo’s talent and play has spoken for itself.
“He’s damn good to be his age,” James said of Ball. “His speed, his quickness, his ability to make shots and baskets in the paint … and he’s going to only get better. Every game is a learning experience for him. He’s going to get better as the season goes on and his career goes on.
“Him and ‘Zo are two very unique players in our league and they showcase that every night.”
James got the better of Ball and the Hornets on this night, finishing with a game-high 37 points on 14-of-22 shooting to propel the Lakers to their fourth straight win and drawing a new round of MVP proclamations from his coach and teammates.
But Ball looked every bit the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the second half as Charlotte rallied back from a 15-point halftime deficit to cut the lead to 86-85 on Ball’s 3-pointer with 10:13 to go in the fourth quarter.
LeBron and LaMelo after facing off for the first time 🤝 pic.twitter.com/wuZ9fMU6Db
— ESPN (@espn) March 19, 2021
“You could feel his excitement early,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “He wanted to play well and prove that he belongs in this league. … I think he was a little anxious at first, but he settled down and slowed down. … I thought he was fantastic down the stretch. I liked his fight and his competitive spirit.”
His mistakes were aggressive mistakes, not because of any extra pressure matching up with the four-time MVP. The clear path foul, which gave James two free throws and the Lakers the ball on the ensuing possession, showed Ball’s competitiveness to get back on defense after a turnover.
“It was just a little dumb mistake I have to learn from,” Ball said of the turnover (his sixth of the night) which sent him to the bench for the next five minutes, 27 seconds.
The Hornets stayed even with the Lakers during that stretch. But they didn’t have enough time left to mount any kind of a rally when Ball finally returned 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 rather easily. After the game Ball spoke to the media briefly, then returned to the team hotel.
Because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Ball’s first NBA game in his hometown was a lonely one. The Hornets will stay over in Los Angeles to play the Clippers on Saturday. In a normal year he would have been able to see hundreds of family members and friends, just as his older brother did during his time with the Lakers. But these are not normal times.
“Life weird right now,” Ball said with a shrug, when asked about the non-homecoming, homecoming. “Everything feels really normal to be honest. So I don’t really know what’s going on.”