Every timeout, every dead ball, whenever LaMelo Ball is subbed out, his body sends him a little reminder:
His right wrist may no longer be broken, but it’s not normal yet.
That was so apparent Friday in the Charlotte Hornets’ 122-112 victory over the Orlando Magic. Ball, the Hornets’ wondrous rookie, kept grabbing his wrist or flexing it or encasing it in a heat wrap whenever he wasn’t playing.
Seven weeks removed from the fracture, his wrist still aches.
“It’s a little sore,” Ball said after totaling 27 points, six rebounds and six assists. “I just keep it warm.”
There’s a ritual he observes each time he comes out. Someone from the training staff is ready with a heat pad, wrapped in a towel, and that wrist is immediately popped inside. Ball will jump up minutes later, make a few special passes or drives to the rim, then he repeats the maintenance process with the heat pad.
After Ball suffered this fracture March 20, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and coach James Borrego said Ball wouldn’t play if there was a danger to his health. Considering Ball’s long-term importance to the franchise, I’m sure that is the guiding principle.
Still, it’s obvious and a bit disconcerting just how often Ball grabs, manipulates and favors that wrist between plays. Once, when he came out Friday, he went out of his way to slap hands only with his left hand, probably about 10 times before reaching his seat.
Ball said there’s nothing elaborate about treating his wrist -- “mostly just heat” -- but that is one important joint.
If there was evidence of Ball’s wrist soreness on the box score, it was 3-point shooting: Ball missed all seven of his attempts from 3 Friday. But he more than made up for that by going 11 of 15 from 2-point range, plus 5 of 8 from the foul line.
Coach James Borrego knows he’s asking so much of Ball right now, but there’s no alternative: The Hornets are missing four rotation players, including the other primary point guard, Devonte Graham. So Ball played 34 minutes Friday, with heavy usage.
“It’s tough for any rookie, especially this time of year,” Borrego said of the final games of the regular season. “A lot of rookies are falling apart this time of year.
“Maybe because he he was injured there for a while, he’s fresh now. But his consistency is one of his strengths: When he has an off night, he finds a way to come back and respond every single time.”
Ball definitely had an off night Thursday, shooting 1 of 10 from the field against the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls roughed him up, bumping him and sending extra defenders his way. Friday, Ball had more freedom of movement. While he wasn’t making the 3s the Magic conceded, he was shredding Orlando’s defense with runners in the lane and driving bank shots.
The weight of expectation
There’s tension all around the Hornets right now. They are on the verge of clinching a post-season appearance for the first time in five seasons. One more Charlotte victory or Chicago loss and the Hornets have at least a spot in the play-in.
There’s expectation now. Fans and opponents view the Hornets differently. The Miami Heat was clearly sending a message with all the physicality it delivered Sunday, and the Hornets didn’t respond well.
Borrego was asked pre-game if his players had sufficient edge for this challenge.
“We need our players to be edgy,” Borrego said. “I’m edgy.”
He needs his players healthy. It got worse, rather than better, Friday, when shooting guard Malik Monk sat out the fourth quarter with soreness in the right ankle -- the one that was recently sprained.
The Hornets still have enough to make the play-in interesting, but not by much. So every time Ball grabs his right hand or wraps it in a heating pad, you wonder:
Will the most important wrist in the Charlotte sports stay well?