Sports

LaMelo’s full-court dime highlights winning return

The LaMelo Ball campaign for Rookie of the Year is officially back on.

The Charlotte Hornets point guard dazzled in Saturday’s 107-84 home win over the Detroit Pistons, his first game action in six weeks while recovering from a fractured right wrist.

Ball finished with 11 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds, and Charlotte outscored Detroit by 19 points in the 28 minutes he was on the floor.

It didn’t take long for the 19-year old to make his impact felt as he found Miles Bridges with an assist just 21 seconds into the night.

But that was just the beginning.

His skeeball-style outlet pass to Bridges later in the quarter — an underhand lob that sailed about 80 feet before falling perfectly into Bridges’ hands near the basket — caused the Hornets’ excitable play-by-play announcer, Eric Collins, to reach a level of hysteria rare for even him.

“What a pass, finds Bridges! Welcome back, LaMelo!” Collins bellowed on the game broadcast.

“Maybe we should be teaching the Melo underhand flip,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “He’s the only guy I know [who can do that]. Maybe [Manu] Ginobili would have thrown that as well. I’ve seen Manu throw some crazy stuff out there. I put Melo in that same Manu category.”

The pass set up Bridges for an easy deuce en route to a 27-point outing on 11-for-16 shooting.

“That underhanded pass was crazy,” he said. “You got to have top-notch confidence to pull something like that off.”

Or, if you’re Ball, you just have to play the way you always have.

“It kind of felt normal, I’m not even going to lie to you,” Ball said.

Normal, really? A parabolic pass dropped from the heavens and delivered on a dime?

“Facts,” Ball said. “Definitely. Just playing, when we was young, it was pretty much passes like that every play.”

Ball started in place of Devonte’ Graham, out with a bruised knee, and helped the Hornets to a crucial win with the playoffs just nine games remaining before the postseason.

Charlotte went 10-11 in Ball’s absence, falling to No. 8 in the Eastern Conference standings, but things were trending south as the Hornets were just 3-8 in their past 11 coming into Saturday.

“It’s been a minute since I’ve been out there,” Ball said. “So it definitely felt new again.”

His presence, along with Malik Monk‘s — who scored 11 points in his return from a month-long layoff because of a right ankle sprain — should boost the Hornets’ hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in five years.

“You never know how someone is going to respond off that [much] time off,” Borrego said. “If there is a guy that can maybe come back and not miss a beat, it’s Melo. He just has that instinct, that feel. That didn’t quite surprise me.”

By the time Ball attempted his first shot — a pretty, driving left-hand layup that he put in the hoop with 20.4 seconds remaining in the first quarter — the first-year point guard had already filled the stat sheet with four assists, two rebounds, a block and a steal in the opening frame.

“It was a breath of fresh air just to have that jolt back in the gym for us,” Borrego said. “They love playing with Melo. You could feel it. The first quarter, the second quarter, it just naturally came back to us.”

Charlotte led by 16 at the half and pushed its lead to as many as 21 before the Pistons cut that cushion to three, at 83-80, with 9 minutes, 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Charlotte outscored Detroit 24-14 the rest of the way, with Terry Rozier putting up 14 of his team-high 29 points in the fourth. When Ball, the third overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, went out in late March he was widely presumed to be a lock for Rookie of the Year, but his extended absence allowed Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Tyrese Haliburton of the Sacramento Kings to make headway for the hardware.

“LaMelo is deserving of that [award],” Borrego said before the game. “I’m glad and I’m thankful that he gets a chance to continue that season in the stretch run. … So, I’m thrilled for him. But, us as an organization, this is a wonderful time for Melo to be centerstage of this thing.”

When asked if the ROY trophy was something on his mind as the season winds down, Ball balked at the idea of placing any emphasis on any individual accolades over team success.

“Mostly winning,” Ball said. “Definitely it would be playoffs first. But mostly, just winning.”

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