Hornets’ LaMelo Ball faces hometown Lakers for first time as pro

Southern California native in Rookie of the Year conversation
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LaMelo Ball took a circuitous route to the NBA, leaving Chino Hills High after his sophomore year and living a nomadic lifestyle, with stops at a professional league in Lithuania, an Ohio prep school and an Australian pro league before being selected No. 3 overall in last year’s NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets.

The worldly experience allowed the 19-year-old Ball -- the youngest of loquacious LaVar Ball’s three sons -- to mature both physically and mentally before entering the NBA, where he hopes to make a long-term home after travelling the world playing basketball.

“I thought about that right after I left Australia,” Ball said about the potential for stability. “I’ll probably be in the States for a minute, instead of not knowing really where you’re going to go every year. So, that was big.”

The Southern California native returns home to play against the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time as a pro in the NBA. It will be bittersweet because his parents cannot attend due to state COVID-19 restrictions on fans attending pro arenas in California.

Ball said his family has not seen him play in person while playing for the Hornets. Still, Ball will have a chance to check in with family and friends before Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. tip-off at Staples Center.

The youngest Ball is of course intimately familiar with the Lakers, with older brother Lonzo Ball being selected No. 2 overall by Los Angeles in 2017 and playing two seasons there before being shipped to New Orleans in a trade.

“It was cool for him because I remember growing up I think that was his favorite player,” Ball said about his oldest brother Lonzo playing for a season with LeBron James. “So, to play with him was definitely cool.”

LaMelo Ball is forging his own path and making a strong argument for NBA Rookie of the Year honors.

In 39 games played, Ball is averaging 15.7 points, 6.2 assists and 5.9 rebounds a contest, leading the Charlotte Hornets to a surprising 20-19 record and fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

“Pretty much I feel like I’ve learned day by day, game by game, practice by practice,” Ball said about his performance so far his rookie season. “I feel like every day, you can take that as a learning experience and learn something from that day, even if it’s something very big, or something small.”

Lakers head coach Frank Vogel’s team already faced the other frontrunner for this year’s rookie of the year award twice this season in Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards. Vogel said it’s been fun to watch rookies like Edwards and Ball face James for the first time.

“There just always cool moments for young players the first time you get matched up with LeBron James,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said. “I think it is noticeable when you see those situations. I think Anthony actually cracked a smile after one of his first isos against LeBron when he played against him for the first time.

“I’ve seen that the last two years with young guys, and I think LeBron handled it by just competing. He tries to win that position, that’s as simple as it gets. It’s just one of those things that’s cool for young players.”

The Lakers will try to win their fourth game in a row since the All-Star break and get a boost with guard Alex Caruso available to play after clearing the NBA’s concussion protocol. Caruso missed two games after hitting his head chasing after a loose ball in last week’s win over the Indiana Pacers.

Center Mark Gasol Gasol and Kostos Antetokounmpo are both still out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocol. Anthony Davis remains with a right calf strain and Jared Dudley is rehabbing from a torn MCL in his right knee.