Charlotte Hornets rookie LaMelo Ball’s fractured right wrist is healed, and there’s optimism he could play a significant portion of the remaining 16 regular-season games.
How much difference could that make for the Hornets’ playoff chances?
Plenty: Ball was the NBA’s top rookie before being injured March 20 against the Los Angeles Clippers. His loss, along with injuries to Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk, have deeply damaged the Hornets’ offense, as they try to break a four-season streak without a playoff appearance.
Ball was examined in New York Monday by Dr. Michelle Carlson, the surgeon who operated on his wrist March 23. Carlson had inserted a pin in Ball’s wrist -- a non-displaced fracture -- to aid healing.
A CT scan confirmed the wrist has healed. Ball is cleared to return to individual basketball activity.
The team’s announcement Monday night gave no projection of when Ball would be cleared for games. However, when Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak discussed the injury March 26, he indicated a relatively quick and simple recovery once Ball’s bone healed.
“At that point,” Kupchak said, “it’s a matter of just getting flexibility back in the hand.”
The Hornets are 28-28 entering Tuesday night’s road game against the New York Knicks. They have lost four of their last five and have slipped from fourth to eighth in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Hornets haven’t qualified for the playoffs since the 2015-16 season. If the Hornets finish top-six in the East, they would have automatic entry into a best-of-7 playoff series. If they finish 7 through 10, they would have to survive a play-in tournament to qualify for a best-of-7 series.
Ball’s wrist fracture was the first of a cascade of key injuries for the Hornets: Small forward Hayward suffered a right foot sprain against the Indiana Pacers April 2 that has him out at least a month. Shooting guard Monk sprained his right ankle April 1 which still has him out. Three other rotation players -- P.J. Washington, Terry Rozier and Devonte Graham -- have all missed games in April.
The effect on Charlotte’s offense has been dramatic: The Hornets scored 93 or fewer points in four of their last nine games, all losses.
Hornets coach James Borrego anticipated Ball’s absence limiting Charlotte’s offense. Ball’s court vision and look-ahead passes fueled a potent transition game. The Hornets are sixth in the NBA in fast-break points at 14.2 per game.
Ball’s return could address multiple issues in Charlotte’s last 10 regular-season games in May:
No one else on this roster can create the easy scoring opportunities Ball does, particularly in transition feeding leapers Miles Bridges and P.J Washington with lob passes.
Ball’s loss is further complicated by injuries to Hayward and Monk, who along with being primary scorers are complementary ballhandlers and facilitators.
Point guard options
The 6-foot-7 Ball, the third overall pick in the draft, had become the Hornets’ first option at point guard, adding size and depth at that position. Rozier and Graham were playing increasingly off the ball at shooting guard.
Ball’s injury started a run on point guard options. With Ball and Graham hurt Sunday, Rozier played almost all the minutes at point guard against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Hornets’ only other option at the position Sunday was Brad Wanamaker, who Kupchak acquired in a trade-deadline deal with the Golden State Warriors.
Ball’s absence has made it harder for Borrego to adjust to injuries at other positions.
With Ball, Borrego could have leaned on three-guard lineups of Ball-Graham-Rozier to mitigate Hayward’s and Monk’s absence. Instead, Borrego has had to reach deep into his roster, starting Jalen McDaniels and leaning heavily on Cody and Caleb Martin.