Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball laughs at the NBA basketball's...

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball laughs at the NBA basketball's team media day in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Credit: AP/Nell Redmond

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — LaMelo Ball went through his first NBA practice in more than seven months on Tuesday, returning to the floor with a new look.

Ball wore ankle braces on both legs.

The Charlotte Hornets’ 2022 All-Star point guard has turned to the protective braces after three serious ankle injuries last season that limited him to 36 games. Ball sprained his right ankle twice, then fractured it on Feb. 27, ending his season prematurely.

Ball hasn't worn ankle braces since coming into the league as the No. 3 overall pick in 2021, and he said it’s something he's still getting used to. He has been wearing them during workouts this summer and in pickup games and is hoping it won't impact his play.

The Hornets expect him to be at full strength for the start of the regular season, although Ball said he is still working his way back into shape.

“I'm trying to push myself to get over that hump and keep on conditioning and stuff like that,” Ball said. “I'm still trying to get there.”

The Hornets badly need him.

Charlotte Hornets center Nick Richards , left, interviews guard LaMelo...

Charlotte Hornets center Nick Richards , left, interviews guard LaMelo Ball for social media at the NBA basketball's team media day in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Credit: AP/Nell Redmond

Charlotte was 14-32 (.304) without Ball last season. Their record was a little better with him at 13-23 (.361), and their offense improved by 6.8 points per 100 possessions.

When healthy, Ball was terrific.

He averaged a career-best 23.3 points in 2022-23, along with 8.4 assists, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Ball shot 37.6% from 3-point range despite struggling while trying to return from the ankle injuries.

His career best came two seasons ago when he shot 38.9% from beyond the arc.

“Look, you can't lose one of your best players,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. "He's an All-Star caliber player and he has a chance to be a superstar. He works hard and he's a great teammate. No team wins when you lose guys like him."

The Hornets certainly didn't, finishing 27-55 and failing to make the playoffs for the seventh straight season.

Charlotte experienced several other injuries to key players, but Ball's was the biggest hit.

The injuries didn't keep the Hornets from signing Ball to a five-year max contract extension worth $260 million this past offseason, meaning the 22-year-old from Chino Hills, California, will be a cornerstone of the organization for the foreseeable future.

Backcourt mate Terry Rozier said it was great seeing Ball back on the floor. Ball's presence should allow Rozier to spot up and shoot more 3s.

“It's huge,” Rozier said. “We all know what Melo can do. We know what he's capable of. He's our leader. He's our go-to guy and it is huge to have him back. Now hopefully he can stay healthy; hopefully we all can stay healthy.”

Hornets veteran swingman Gordon Hayward said Ball's approach is a little different heading into his fourth season — and it's time for him and the team to take the next step.

“I don't think there is any more time to say ‘We are a young team’ or 'It's our first couple of years in the league,'" Hayward said. "It's about that time. I'm looking for big leaps for him and being someone our team and our coaches can lean on when we get into these tough situations throughout the year.”

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