Just when the Charlotte Hornets welcomed a much-needed face with open arms, they watched their most exciting player exit with an injury in the second half.
LaMelo Ball sprained his left ankle in the third quarter and did not return, putting a somber damper on the Hornets’ final preseason home tuneup on Monday night. A 116-107 loss to Washington at Spectrum Center seemed inconsequential, though, with everyone wanting to know more about the fate of the Hornets’ All-Star point guard.
Ball came up gimpy during a drive to the basket when Wizards forward Anthony Gill stepped on his feet, immediately crashing to the court and taking a moment to collect himself. He stayed in to sink both free throws, but immediately limped slightly back to the locker room with director of health care and sports performance Joe Sharpe to get evaluated.
It certainly wasn’t the way the Hornets were hoping to close out the penultimate matchup of their five-game preseason schedule. They were already thin since they played without Kelly Oubre (left calf strain), PJ Washington (sprained right ankle) and Cody Martin (left knee tendiopathy).
“With Melo,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, “fingers crossed here that it’s not something serious.”
Ball’s injury comes a little more than a week before things count for real. After concluding their preseason in Philadelphia on Wednesday, the Hornets have a week to prepare for their Oct. 19 season opener in San Antonio.
Whether Ball will be healed and available by then remains to be seen.
“Man, it’s tough,” Terry Rozier said. “Just thinking back to last year. I got hurt in the preseason in practice and couldn’t be with the guys at the beginning of the season. I don’t think that’s going to happen with Melo. It’s just tough seeing your brother go down like that. Especially the franchise, a big part of this team. But we know things are going to be all right.”
Here’s what we learned in the Hornets’ fourth straight preseason defeat:
NO SETBACKS FOR GORDON
It was a sight six months in the making.
Roughly an hour prior to tipoff, Gordon Hayward stepped onto the court for warmups and worked up a lather while working on a few moves and firing off jumpers. The Hornets’ top paid player was officially back and playing for the first time since April 2 in Philadelphia, when he returned from a 22-game absence due to a sprained left ankle before getting shut down for the remainder of the season.
Hayward knocked off the rust against the Wizards, netting six points in 12 minutes. He had a couple of pull-up jumpers and a nice steal in the backcourt to set himself up for a subsequent bucket.
Having the veteran swingman in the fold excited Clifford.
“We did quite a bit of contact (Sunday) and he did all of it,” he said. “He felt good, he looked good. And he felt good this morning when he came back in. This part is exciting. He’s such a good player and obviously he impacts the game in every aspect. If he plays, you’re going to execute better, you’re going to play with more purpose.
“He’s a very good defender. He’s got a lot of aspects on offense. He’s a very good pick-and-roll player. He’s good at using screens. His decision-making is elite. He’s an All-Star caliber player. And he also plays the game in a manner that makes his teammates better. So there’s just a lot to what he can bring to a team.”
Terry Rozier had his stroke going and played as well as he has in the entire preseason, which is a good sign for the Hornets.
Rozier drained all three of his first-quarter attempts from behind the 3-point arc, conjuring up images of the guy who tied for second in the NBA last season with seven quarters sinking at least three 3-pointers without missing.
He totaled a game-high 24 points, connecting on 8 of 13 shots and clanking just one of his four 3-pointers.
“I’m just going out there playing ball, man,” Rozier said. “Just getting my wind all the way up, getting comfortable for our first game. I’m not a guy that comes in here and acts like the preseason doesn’t matter. It’s a way to build habits. So that’s what I’ve been doing slowly and it’s getting better. My wind is getting better, so it’s just slowly but surely things are going to come how I want them to come.”
BACKUP CENTER OF ATTENTION
Clifford raised some eyebrows a few weeks ago when he revealed he believed third-year big man Nick Richards was ahead in the pecking order for the reserve center role behind incumbent starter Mason Plumlee. Some assumed that spot was pegged for rookie Mark Williams.
But Richards, for the most part, has shown flashes, and he did again against Washington with 15 points and 8 rebounds — with 9 of those points coming in the first half. That eclipsed his regular-season career best of 8 points. Plumlee sat out the second half with a sprained left foot, giving Clifford more of an opportunity to put Richards and Williams on the floor. Richards started in Plumlee’s place and had a nifty alley-oop connection with Ball.
His five made field goals would also have been a career high if it were a regular-season game.
“Nick, he turned the game around with his effort, with his defense, his physicality and the way he ran the floor,” Clifford said. “He did because of the same thing in the second half. He’s given himself a chance to make progress here, he knows who he is and he plays to his strengths.”
Rozier is constantly in Richards’ ear, pushing him as head as he can to get the best out of the third-year pro.
“He’s been on me since I got here my rookie year,” Richards said. “He keeps telling me, ‘Stay patient, your time’s going to come, it’s going to come, keep doing what you do.’ He’s got my back and I got his back, so I feel like we work together and it’s going to be successful for both of us, plus the team.
“It means the world to me knowing my teammates believe in me, mostly because I’ve shown that I believe in myself. They’re all like brothers to me and it’s like a family thing for us.”
This story was originally published October 10, 2022 9:48 PM.