LaMelo Ball had no idea what Miles Bridges was up to.
As his buddy played coy, pretending he was simply showing off some Charlotte Hornets gear in the team store inside Spectrum Center, Ball was impervious to what was transpiring the whole time. Bridges was about to surprise Ball with his KIA NBA Rookie of the Year award and Ball seemed more interested in the fashionable garb than anything else.
It didn’t hit him until he unveiled the trophy after pulling a jersey off the rack.
“I definitely did not know, because all of the stuff it says R.O.T.Y. — rookie of the year — it says that everywhere,” Ball said Wednesday. “So I’m thinking maybe (it’s) like a little campaign, ‘Oh, Melo, you are in the running, we want you to win.' And I’m like, ‘Cool, they gave me a little jersey.' You feel me? And then he got to start talking about some other stuff and the jersey was right there. I got to thinking like, 'You know what? I do play for this team.' And I’ve seen hella jerseys and hats and everything.
"So I’m like yeah, man I should have hella stuff from in here. I should just be straight coming in here. And then I got to start talking about that and he’s like, 'Bruh, you’re not even looking.' Then when he moved it again, I’m like wait, huh? And then I seen it and I'm like 'Oh, all right.'"
In turning in one of the most electrifying first-year performances in franchise history, Ball gave the Hornets new life and it didn't go unnoticed. He received 84 of 99 first-place votes, totaling 465 points. Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards garnered the other 15 first-place votes, registering a distant 309 points. Sacramento’s Tyrese Haliburton (114) finished third.
"It definitely feels great," Ball said. "It’s for sure a blessing. I really didn't know (it would happen). I always thought, but I really didn’t know didn’t know until today, right when I found out for real."
Admittedly, getting the first-year award wasn't in Ball's original script.
"My whole goal was just NBA, championship, Hall of Fame," Ball said. "So I didn't really start thinking about rookie of the year until I got in the league."
Among the impressive highlights in Ball's initial season:
— Being the youngest player (nine years, 140 days old ) in NBA history to post a triple-double
— Winning three straight Eastern Conference rookie of the month awards
— Leading all rookies in assists and steals
— Becoming the 12th rookie since the 1973-74 season to average at least 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals.
In his 51 appearances, which includes 31 starts, he posted 15.7 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 28.8 minutes per game. And he did that despite missing 21 games following surgery on his right wrist in late March.
Ball clearly wasn't himself upon his return in May, unable to have the same sort of flexibility with his wrist he did prior to getting injured. But he was on the floor for the Hornets during their final 10 games to close things out during their run to the play-in tournament berth, and his accelerated return likely aided his case for the award.
"I feel like there are both sides of the story," Ball said. "I could also say yeah and I could also say no. But at the end of the day I feel like me coming back just helped that much more. But I don't like missing games and I also want to help my team win. When I was able like I could play basketball again, I just came back."
Either way, Ball is the third player in franchise history to earn the distinguished honor, joining Larry Johnson and Emeka Okafor. His first-season journey was filled with more peaks than valleys, leading up to Wednesday's announcement co-starring Bridges.
"It was a big moment," Ball said. "Like I told him right when we was there, it’s probably something I’m never going to forget. It definitely was a nice moment."