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With LaMelo Ball sidelined, Hornets have tall task. ‘Yeah it’s tough, no matter how you cut it’

This wasn’t something the Charlotte Hornets envisioned when they packed their bags last weekend, bound for a three-game road excursion taking them from the Sunshine State to the Big Apple.

Seeing LaMelo Ball maneuvering with one crutch tucked under his left armpit — stabilizing himself since his right foot is in a walking boot — while they practiced in preparation for Thursday’s game in Brooklyn conjures up their emotions. Undeniably, Ball’s ankle injury is quite a downer.

“It’s tough, it sucks,” Gordon Hayward said Wednesday. “It is what it is. But it’s the NBA and certainly I know more than most that injuries happen and it’s unfortunate. Hopefully, he’s back sooner than later.”

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (1) pushes the ball up court against the New York Knicks during the first quarter at Spectrum Center.
Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (1) pushes the ball up court against the New York Knicks during the first quarter at Spectrum Center.

No specific timetable has been given for Ball’s return and the Hornets haven’t provided a full medical update on his diagnosis beyond listing him out with a right ankle strain for their matchup with the Nets.

Ball is expected to be out for multiple weeks, per reports, and reportedly avoided another fracture similar to the one that ended his season prematurely in 2022-23. Given how much he means to the team — Charlotte did give him the first rookie max extension in franchise history — and knowing Ball was averaging 33.8 points in his past five games prior to getting hurt in Sunday’s loss in Orlando, his teammates are ensuring they do what they can to keep his spirits up.

“They support him,” coach Steve Clifford said. “He’s a great teammate, They all love having him. We all love Melo and so I think he knows that he has a great support system. He comes to practice, he’s in the film session. He does everything. He’ll be at shootaround and he’s just got to continue. He’ll do the same stuff that he did last year, the same stuff that he did with his rehab before.”

That includes sitting down and discussing the previous game with Clifford, which is no different than what Clifford does with Cody Martin and Frank Ntilikina while they work their way back from their respective injuries. Keeping Ball and the others engaged is key, allowing them to be better prepared when they fully rejoin team activities.

While their main floor general is sidelined, though, the Hornets’ biggest task centers around filling the playmaking void. Replacing the team-best 8.2 assists Ball is averaging per game is difficult and Charlotte isn’t as organized without him — something distinctly noticeable in the second half of their loss to the Knicks.

“Yeah it’s tough, no matter how you cut it, it’s tough,’‘ Mark Williams said. “But at the same time that’s what the league is. You’ve got to be able to adjust. You’ve got to be able to cooperate well with different lineups and you’ve just got to find a way. But of course it’s tough. It’s tough not having your guys out there. But guys know they’ve got to step up and you’ve got to figure it out.”

In other words, don’t get derailed by the exhaustive nature of the Hornets’ non-stop ailments.

“Mentally, it’s definitely challenging when guys keep getting hurt,” Hayward said. “I think you’ve got to try just to compete out there and have ‘next man up’ mentality. If you immerse yourself in the game and try to compete hard and be active and have energy, the other stuff usually takes care of itself. So, I think that’s what we’ve got to try to do.”