LAS VEGAS -- The chants from the packed crowd tucked into Cox Pavilion on Sunday afternoon began early in the first quarter, signaling this was no ordinary Las Vegas Summer League opener for the Charlotte Hornets.
Certainly not with LaVar Ball among the crowd, beaming with pride and drawing people seeking to snap selfies with the father of two current members of the organization. LaMelo Ball was there, too, viewing from court side while flanked by Miles Bridges and coach James Borrego.
LiAngelo Ball was in the spotlight, a place he's apparently all-too-familiar with. Long before he finally entered the game in the second quarter, the buzz reverberating around the gym was unmistakeable. Murmurs were prevalent nearly every time he got a touch in shooting rhythm. The interest he generated is unheard for an undrafted free agent at summer league. But Ball essentially shrugged it off, seemingly unfazed by any of it.
"I don’t get too caught up in the fans and what not, but it's some good energy out there," Ball said. "I will say that. As soon as I come on the court I feel the energy. I feel energetic, ready to go my hardest. So it feels cool."
Perhaps, but a hot stroke beyond the arc had Ball finishing second only to rookie James Bouknight in scoring in the Hornets' 93-86 loss to Portland. He posted 16 points in 16 minutes, knocking down 5 of 10 shots with all of his makes coming from 3-point range. That quick release was ever-present and he even tossed in a four-point play late in the game for good measure.
Some boos even cascaded from those yearning to see more when he was taken out with 2:37 remaining in the fourth and the Hornets trailing 76-73. The support for the 22-year-old who goes by the name 'Gelo' was off the charts.
"I heard everybody," Hornets assistant Dutch Gaitley said with a laugh. "But it was very impressive. I was thrilled for the kid. For everything with his brothers being starting point guards in the NBA. And for him to come out ... I’m thrilled for the kid and for him to have this moment right now. Anybody can have one game. Now, let see, hey can you do it again? Because he's just put himself in the scouting report. They had three (Sacramento) Kings coaches watching and they are saying, ‘Don;’t let this guy shoot.’
"Now how is he going to be able to find his shots and be able to be (like), ‘Alright, they take my shots away and not force it,' making plays for other guys? But I was thrilled for him."
He wasn't the only one.
"I was happy for him," Bouknight said. "I think he should be out there more. I’m with him at practice every day. We talk. He’s cool. He’s a cool dude. He played well out there and he understands his role. The best part about him is he knows his role and he’s willing to do that. He’s going to compete on defense and then when we get to 'O,' when he gets ball he’s going to make shots. I think he had a great game."
Ball considered it merely the first step.
"I just want to go out and control what I can," Ball said, "and play my hardest and hopefully get wins for this team and if I make the real team go from there."
In other observations:
• Bouknight had some good moments, but he also had a couple of costly miscues in the closing minutes that allowed Portland to pad its lead. He let George King steal the ball from him and score to the Hornets in a six-point hole, then thew an errant pass on the ensuing possession that led to another bucket.
Gaitley wants to see Bouknight speed the tempo up.
"We to get him to play a little bit faster," Gaitley said. "He’s used to playing with the ball in his hands. In the NBA, it happens like that. With the athletes, you can't dance with it. You have to be able to make quick decisions. In the second half, I thought there were some great opportunities where he did that and that’s why we were able to get downhill for some lobs and some kick outs."
School is in session for Bouknight and he appears eager for the on-the-job training session he's been steadily receiving since he was drafted. He's storing a few things in his mental Rolodex.
"I’m taking this whole week as just learning in the league and the type of (NBA) game," Bouknight said. "I wasn't happy about the two turnovers, of course. But I'm learning from these mistakes, and being more decisive with my moves and the passes I make and the plays I try too make."
• Here's a likely-way-too-early take on their other first-round pick, Kai Jones: He's ridiculously athletic and oozing with potential. The 10 points and 10 rebounds he amassed were definitely noteworthy.
Undoubtedly, he still has a lot grasp, just as one would expect from a 20-year-old. He had some monstrous throw downs that quickly made the rounds on social media, but also showed the typical growing pains expected from someone who hasn’t played a whole lot of organized basketball.
"We got on the guys to pass it a lot more in the second half," Gaitley said. "There were two great possession where he dumped it off to the big. To be able to do that at his age in his first game, that's impressive. Now, there’s still stuff you’ve got to build on."
Namely, not sprinting back on defense after a mental miscue. Jones had a 3-pointer blocked by Greg Brown III, and when didn't hustle to the opposite end of the floor Brown caught an easy alley-oop. Gaitley immediately called a timeout and broke it down to Jones so he could understand the error and correct it.
• Nick Richards received the starting nod at center and delivered a solid outing, which is something the Hornets' brass had to be pleased with. Richards, who tossed in 10 points, had a nice afternoon operating around the blocks, even throwing down a nifty alley-oop.
He hasn't had much time to develop, given there wasn't a true G League season this year. The Hornets would be ecstatic if he replicated some of the skills he displayed against Portland.
"The main thing that Nick will be able to carry over to get minutes with us in Charlotte," Gaitley said, "is energy defensively protecting the rim. He didn’t have any blocked shots (against the Trail Blazers), but he affected a ton. And running in transition, I think once we get more comfortable of throwing the ball inside to our bigs, I think his value will skyrocket once we get comfortable throwing it in. I think our guys weren't sure about throwing it in. Like, I don’t want to turn it over. But I think his energy defensively, and being able to protect the rim and then being able to put rim pressure with his roll and seals is something that if he performs consistently he'll be able to do with us."