LaMelo Ball’s return not enough to help Hornets halt losing streak

Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, right, drives the ball past Pistons guard Jaden Ivey during the game at Spectrum Center on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.

Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, right, drives the ball past Pistons guard Jaden Ivey during the game at Spectrum Center on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.

Dressed in gray sweatpants and a matching long-sleeved top, the guy who fills the most seats in the stands for the Charlotte Hornets was once again on the floor.

But this was different from the other appearances LaMelo Ball made of late, even if his routine was the same. Unlike on those occasions during the past two weeks when Ball warmed up on the Spectrum Center court, only to still sit the action out, this time the preparations were a bit more serious. Charlotte’s star guard returned after an 11-game absence nursing a sprained left ankle, finally feeling good enough to run the show for the struggling Hornets.

“Horrible, for real,” Ball said of his nearly monthlong absence. “I hate to be away from hoops and I’m glad to be back.”

It took Ball a bit to knock off the expected rust and his second-half spark ignited the Hornets against the Detroit Pistons until he fouled out in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. He was left powerless in overtime and could only watch from the bench as the Hornets got outplayed in the extra session and dropped a rough 141-134 decision to one of the league’s worst teams.

Ball rebounded from a slow start during which many of his shorts were short and posted 23 points a season-high 11 assists in 34 minutes. Having Ball in the mix again creates a certain dynamic that’s unmatched when he’s out.

“Basketball is a game where, my dad has said it all the time, whoever has the best player on the floor at a given time has a huge advantage,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “There’s only 10 guys out there on two teams. He’s a very talented player, and it’ll take him a little bit here to get back into rhythm, but it obviously changes our whole team.”

Here are some key takeaways from the Hornets’ sixth straight loss:

Phantom ‘D’

The scene kept playing over and over, repeating itself like a sequence in a bad movie.

Detroit’s big men – and its guards, too – had little resistance during drives into the paint, often throwing down rim-rattling dunks without the Hornets (7-21) contesting them. Isaiah Stewart had a pair of filthy dunks to punctuate consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter to break a tie.

Even Bojan Bogdanovic had an uncontested layup directly at the front of the rim late in the fourth quarter. That just can’t happen.

Too soon to call it

With the Pistons (8-22) in town, the Hornets got their first up-close view of the player they traded away in June after selecting him No. 13 overall. And while Jalen Duren didn’t torch the Hornets, he caused enough havoc in the paint to be effective.

Duren had a couple of nasty dunks, including a right-handed flush over Mason Plumlee, and snatched a team-best and a career-high 17 rebounds. Duren also swatted three shots, which is the most he’s registered as a pro. And since Mark Williams has spent the bulk of his rookie season shuffling between Charlotte and suiting up for the G League’s Greensboro Swarm, it gives off an illusion the Pistons are ahead in the trade and might have even won it.

But it’s still too early to determine who got the better end of the deal.

“I think it’s great for us because we needed that young, athletic inside player,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “I don’t look at the grades. I’m sure (Detroit GM) Troy (Weaver) and the office look at the trade and grades or whatever it is. I don’t think you can really grade that right now. I think his grade is going to come two or three years down the road.”

Casey compares the rookie to North Carolina native Bam Adebayo.

“What he brings to the table is rebounding, rim protection, his screening,” Casey said. “ … When we had our meetings we talked about him being a potential Bam Adebayo. People forget how raw Bam was when he first came into the league and J.D. is the same way. His future is going to be bright. So there’s going to be a grade from our standpoint down the road.”

Terry is tops

Perhaps no one is more thrilled to have Ball back than Terry Rozier.

Rozier is logging a hefty amount of court time and racking up more minutes than any other Hornet. His average of 37.1 per game is tops in the entire league, placing him just above Boston’s Jayson Tatum. Those minutes, and the manner they’re being distributed, come with a price.

“He is having to – this is the other part I talked to him about because it’s harder – the way we’re subbing with him is hard to play,” Clifford said. “It’s hard. Sometimes we have him play four minutes at a time just so we can keep one of those guys on the floor because we don’t have a lot of offense. And the more offensive players you have, the easier it is to sub.

“So it’s hard for him because he’s kind of being jerked in and out. … As these guys come back, I think it’ll be easier for him too. He’s been great. He understands and obviously we’ve talked about it. But it’s a hard way to play.”

Rozier hasn’t played less than a shade over 32 minutes in a game this season. He totaled 42 against Detroit.

“I’m just adjusting to doing whatever my team needs me to do,” Rozier said. “Coach always apologizes to me about the minutes, but it’s going to come with it. I’m not complaining. I love competing and I love going out there to do what’s best for the team. So, no complaints over it.”

Roderick Boone joined the Observer in September 2021 to cover the Charlotte Hornets and NBA. In his more than two decades of writing about the world of sports, he’s chronicled everything from high school rodeo to a major league baseball no-hitter to the Super Bowl to the Finals. The Long Island native has deep North Carolina roots and enjoys watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” endlessly.
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