Why LaMelo Ball will join Ja Morant, Anthony Edwards as the faces of the NBA

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (2) guards Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

It’s early, it’s empty and LaMelo Ball is tired.

Before his team took the court to practice for Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge, he began his media gauntlet through the back hallways of the Wolstein Center, the arena for Cleveland's G League team and secondary home of the NBA’s All-Star weekend.

He’d just arrived that morning after a double overtime game the night before against the Miami Heat and had even less to say than usual.

“Happy to be here,” he said.

Any must-sees?

“Nah, just pretty much stay safe, stay out of the cold and don’t get sick,” he said.

And getting to represent the Charlotte Hornets?

“Just blessed,” Ball said.

Yet just because All-Star weekend got off to a slow start for the 20-year-old sensation, there’s no reason to believe that’ll continue. On the court, Ball is all gas, and All-Star weekend rewards those bold enough to not slow down.

Beginning in the Rising Stars Challenge games Friday and culminating with his first appearance in the main event — the NBA All-Star game — Sunday evening, Ball and a group of young, fearless stars have their chance to grab their place among the league’s best on one of its most prominent stages.

Whether it’s Ball, Memphis’ fearless Ja Morant or Minnesota’s dynamic Anthony Edwards, this weekend in Cleveland is an opportunity for the NBA’s youth movement to take another step into the spotlight.

Ball was less shy Friday when he arrived at the arena for his first game of the weekend, walking past cameras in neon green sneakers, a winter blue outfit and a cream-quilted coat, carrying himself as if he's been an all-star forever.

Before he was 10 years old, maybe as young as 7 or 8, Ball made his first all-star team at “Phenom Camp,” he said.

“I was mad young,” he added.

He’s been playing in all-star games since then, adding the kind of creativity, showmanship, risk-taking and freedom to games whether they’re an exhibition or not.

The game plan for this weekend doesn’t sound that different from any that’s he used since barnstorming from Chino Hills to Lithuania to Ohio and to Australia before landing with the Hornets.

“Trying to pretty much put on a show for the fans,” Ball said.

He was named an All-Star as an injury replacement, though he’s averaging 20 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists for the Hornets, who were in great playoff position before losing nine of their last 10 heading into the All-Star break.

On his first touch in the Rising Stars Challenge, he launched a three-point shot (he missed). Later, he dribbled and wiggled his way through what passed for a defense to score his first points of the weekend. And later, he fell into the first row as he swished a corner three.

“With him, it’s just his ability to pass and get the crowd involved,” Edwards said. “Do everything.”

Ball is already going to get multiple cracks at it this weekend. Right now, Edwards, who is co-starring Friday night, is still waiting for the call to the big game.

Like Ball, he’s not only been incredibly productive, he possesses tons of flair and explosive athleticism.

“I just, flat out, score the ball,” Edwards said.

He’s got four games with more than 35 points this season, including a 48-point barrage against the Golden State Warriors in November. He’s also a violent dunker, willing to posterize at a moment’s notice if a chance arises.

Thanks in part to Edwards, the Timberwolves are at the top of the play-in picture in the Western Conference, seeded No. 7 with a chance to catch No. 6 Denver.

Then there’s Morant, who like Edwards, plays with an almost limitless set of skills. His missed dunks are highlights because of his bravado, and the Grizzlies have established themselves as one of the top teams in the West.

With an easy closing schedule following the break, Memphis can continue to provide the blueprint for teams like Charlotte and Minnesota who are trying to make it work with homegrown stars instead of free-agent talent thrown together.

While the big faces gracing the sides of the buildings in Cleveland belong to players like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ball is ready for the spotlight, prepared to loudly announce that he’s set for this stage.

“For me, I always expected it,” Ball said. “That’s who I am.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.