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LeBron James, Lakers, LaMelo Ball, Hornets

Lakers star LeBron James’ honest first impression of LaMelo Ball

Ahead of the Charlotte Hornets’ showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, rookie LaMelo Ball downplayed the significance of his first matchup with LeBron James.

“I mean, nah” Ball told reporters on Tuesday about if he was excited about facing James. “I grew up a little different. Not really on basketball like that. So, not really. I go to every game with the same approach – going in and try to get a win.”

Ball was also straight up when asked if he considered James a role model.

“It was my pops,” Ball admitted.” I was big on family and stuff like that. Not really with basketball.”

Fair enough. Can’t argue with family first. Either way, the Chino Hills native experienced a heavy dose of the LeBron James experience in the Lakers’ 116-105 win in downtown L.A.

After a slow first half, the electric Hornets guard showed why he’s the Rookie of the Year favorite. Ball dropped 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including 2-of-5 from 3. He added seven assists and five rebounds. But, until he settled down during a 19-4 Hornets third-quarter run, the league-best Lakers defense kept him out of rhythm, forcing the rookie into six turnovers and five personal fouls.

After the game, James had a little bit more to say about Ball than the rookie did about him.

“I think he’s damn good to be his age,” James said in his postgame Zoom. “His speed, his quickness, his ability to make shots at all facets in the paint. Floaters, 3s, he has the three tiers already, and he’s only going to get better. … Him and [his brother, Lonzo Ball] are two very unique players in our league, and they showcase that every night.”

Ironically, Ball may not consider James a role model, but the 6-foot-6 passing wizard has clearly been influenced by the greatest player of his generation.

Ball was impressive, especially once he got his swagger back in the second half.

“It felt good,” Ball said postgame about facing James, slightly updating his initial feelings. “But not too good, because we didn’t get the win.”

However, it was the 36-year-old James — a proud basketball historian — who dominated for four quarters.

James didn’t directly respond to Ball’s non-comment about their matchup, so whether he felt personally disrespected (as Stephen A. Smith believes) is unclear. But, as we see time and again with James, it doesn’t take much — a smirk, a tweet, a heckle — to fire him up.

Or, maybe James simply wanted to — for the third straight game — remind the world who still sits on the NBA throne after all these years.

L.A.’s three opponents this week — the Golden State Warriors (James Wiseman), Minnesota Timberwolves (Anthony Edwards), and Hornets — have each fielded a 19-year-old top-three pick from the 2020 Draft (none of whom signed with Klutch, FWIW).

Between wanting to make a statement against the youngsters — a la Michael Jordan on Kobe Bryant in 1998 — the fresh legs post-All-Star break, and the beginning of “Go Time,” the old man has ramped up his energy on both ends.

On Monday and Tuesday, he orchestrated his way to back-to-back triple-doubles. On Thursday, he was aggressive from the jump, resulting in 37 points on 14-of-22 shooting (4-of-9 from 3), plus eight rebounds and six assists. His defense, as it has been for much of the season, was supercharged.

After the win, Frank Vogel once again called James the MVP of the league and referred to him as “the best player to ever play the game.”

Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso campaigned on James’ behalf in their postgame remarks, as well. All three — plus James — acknowledged that The King should own more than four Maurice Podoloff trophies.

“He dominates the game in any way that’s needed,” Vogel said.

The Lakers coach specifically shouted out his defensive performance against Charlotte, which reminded him of James’ lockdown efforts on Jamal Murray in the bubble.

To the surprise of many, James has played all but one game this season, and his night-to-night commitment and brilliance on both ends have kept him near the front of the MVP race throughout his 18th season.

“I try to be [the MVP] every night for my ballclub. Being available to them and being the best player on the floor.”

Following his latest clinic, James didn’t sugarcoat his desire to win another MVP award.

“It means something, and for me to be able to win it a few times in my career has always been special,” James said. He added that “it would be an unbelievable thing for me personally” to win the award at this stage of his career.

One day, Ball will truly appreciate what we all continue to witness every day. After LeBron’s latest masterpiece, that day may have been Thursday, March 19, 2021.

When you come at, or anywhere near, The King, you best not miss.