The waiting is over: Hornets to play first game since March in Saturday’s 2020 preseason opener

By Richard Walker

It’s only a preseason game, but you can hear and feel the excitement from Charlotte Hornets players as they prepare for the team’s first actual game since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.

And no one is more enthusiastic about starting the four-game 2020 preseason at 7 p.m. at home on Saturday against the Toronto Raptors more than rookie LaMelo Ball.

“I’ve never seen a rookie as happy as he is,” veteran Hornets guard Terry Rozier said of Ball. “He lights up the locker room. He’s just a rookie but he’s getting better every day.”

Due to COVID-19 protocols, no fans will be allowed into the Spectrum Center anytime soon for games but it’s certain Hornets fans can’t wait to see Ball, top offseason acquisition Gordon Hayward and the team’s other players make their 2020-21 debut.

“You can definitely feel it from the players and the staff that’s it’s been awhile,” Hayward said of the Hornets’ layoff since a 109-98 win at eventual NBA runner-up Miami Heat on March 11.

Haywood is the only player in training camp that played game in the NBA bubble in Orlando over the summer, his last game coming in Boston’s Eastern Conference finals loss to Miami.

Ball, a 6-foot-7, 181-pound rookie, was the No. 3 overall pick by the Hornets in last month’s NBA Draft.

His addition to the team is expected to aid a roster that finished 23-42 last season but wasn’t one of the 22 teams invited to the NBA bubble.

“I’ve been loving this training camp,” said Ball, who played overseas to hone his skills after playing high school basketball in California. “I’m definitely ready to start this thing up.”

Hayward was acquired in a sign-and-trade acquistion from the Boston after he opted out of the final year of his contract with the Celtics to sign a four-year, $120 million free agent deal with Charlotte.

“Camp has been good,” said Hayward, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound swingman. “We have a lot of room from growth. We’re wanting to play our best basketball at the end of the season.”

Coach James Borrego said this week he is determined to use the four preseason games to give playing time to his top 12 players and get somewhat settled on a rotation; Charlotte hosts Toronto again on Monday before travelling to play at the Orlando Magic next Thursday and Saturday.

That should mean lots of playing time for guards Rozier, Ball and Devonte’ Graham, forwards Hayward, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, Caleb Martin and Cody Martin and centers Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo as the Hornets try to round into shape for their Dec. 23 regular season opener at the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Fourth-year guard Malik Monk will be out of action on Saturday and possibly longer after he recently tested positive for COVID-19; Monk was medically cleared to return to team activities but Borrego was unsure of when Monk would be ready to play.

Others hopeful of getting playing time are second-year forward Jalen McDaniels, rookie centers Vernon Carey, Jr. and Nick Richards and rookie guard Grant Riller. Other training camp invitees are guards Keandre Cook and Nate Darling, forwards Javin DeLaurier, Xavier Sneed and Kahlil Whitney.