After missing 21 games with a wrist injury, Hornets rookie LaMelo Ball rejoined the starting lineup Saturday night against the Pistons — and didn’t take much time to make his presence felt.
Only a few minutes into the contest at Spectrum Center, Ball launched a preposterous underhand pass from the free throw line to the opposite baseline, gifting Miles Bridges an easy layup. The gorgeous dime elicited a “Welcome back, LaMelo!” shriek out of Hornets play-by-play announcer Eric Collins.
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But it wasn’t just Collins who received a shot of adrenaline from Ball’s return.
The 19-year-old filled up the stat sheet in Charlotte’s 107-94 win over Detroit, totaling 11 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, two blocks and one steal in 28 minutes. Ball’s teammates seemed to be invigorated by his activity and energy, a welcome addition for a Hornets team that had lost eight of its previous 12 games.
“It’s great to have him back because you know he’s a great passer. He gets everybody involved. His energy is infectious,” Bridges said after the game. “So, it’s great to have Melo back. The underhanded pass was crazy. You have to have top-notch confidence to pull something like that off. He threw it right to my pocket. It’s good to have him back.”
Hornets coach James Borrego didn’t necessarily anticipate Ball playing nearly 30 minutes in his first game back since March 20, but he thought Ball handled the initial workload “fairly well.”
“I think you never know how someone’s going to respond off that time off. If there’s a guy who can come back and not miss a beat, it’s Melo,” Borrego said. “He just has that instinct, that feel. That didn’t quite surprise me. I think I wasn’t sure about the conditioning until he got out there, but he looked pretty good out there.
“He’s got another gear, another level to get to in his conditioning, but if there’s one guy, Melo’s one of those guys who just has great instinct and feel no matter when he’s playing.”
Entering Saturday’s slate of games, the Hornets were clinging to the No. 8 seed with a small gap separating them from the No. 9 Pacers and No. 10 Wizards. The positioning matters ahead of the NBA’s play-in tournament, as the Nos. 7 and 8 teams in each conference could lose a play-in game and still reach the playoffs, while the Nos. 9 and 10 teams are eliminated with one loss.
Having Ball be, as Borrego put it, the “jolt back in the gym” could make all the difference for Charlotte down the final stretch of the regular season.
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