When Rookie of the Year front-runner LaMelo Ball takes the court against LeBron James for the first time in his young career later this week, he says he doesn’t expect to feel any added excitement competing against the 18-year veteran.
“I mean, nah,” Ball, 19, told reporters on a videoconference Tuesday ahead of the Charlotte Hornets‘ game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday. “I grew up a little different. Not really on basketball like that. So, not really.”
Ball’s statement wasn’t a slight against James. He added that “it will be cool” to face the Lakers’ star but said he keeps his focus steady no matter the opponent.
“I go to every game with the same approach — going in to try to get a win,” he said.
While his older brother, New Orleans Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball, modeled his game after James, looking up to the four-time MVP in his Biddy Ball days before eventually teaming up with him on the 2018-19 Lakers, the younger Ball said his basketball idol was his dad, LaVar.
“It was my pops,” Ball said when asked if he had a role model the way his brother looked up to James. “So, I was big on family and stuff like that. Not really with the basketball.”
Selected with the No. 3 pick, Ball leads all rookies in points (15.8 points), assists (6.3), rebounds (6.0) and steals (1.6) per game, leading the Hornets to one of the surprise success stories this year as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
He’s outpacing the production of his brother, the former No. 2 pick of the 2017 draft by the Lakers, but it’s not as if Lonzo Ball’s time in L.A. was without highlights. Before his 2018-19 season was cut short by a severe ankle sprain, the Lakers went 20-14 in games both he and James played together (they were 17-31 in all other games that year). And James and Lonzo Ball became the second pair of teammates in Lakers history with a triple-double in the same game, joining Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who achieved the feat in 1982.
The younger Ball initially hoped that his Staples Center debut, some 35 miles west of his hometown of Chino Hills, California, would give his parents an opportunity to see him play an NBA game in person for the first time.
“Obviously you want your family to come see you, and then growing up, they always watched me, so it would kind of be like going in the past,” Ball said.
That will have to wait. While California officials announced earlier this month that fans will be allowed to attend live sporting events in limited capacities starting in April, the rule applies to only open-air venues, not indoor basketball arenas.
“I didn’t even know that,” Ball said, when informed of the ordinance. “I mean, I know my people. They’ll be cool watching it on TV, too. We really like chilling at the house, more with the comfortable stuff other than being out. Like, I honestly would rather watch a game at home, chilling, than going to one.”