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NBA preseason: LaMelo Ball draws praise from D-Wade; James Harden as hot as trade rumors; Steph Curry cooking

The NBA’s 202-21 season opener is just a few days away, so it’s easy to dismiss the preseason in anticipation of the real thing. But, as franchises are so fond of reminding us, you can’t skip steps. The remaining preseason games are essential to get experience for young players (particularly without Summer League) and to build chemistry with new teammates.

We saw a little of both on Thursday, as No. 3 overall pick LaMelo Ball continued to impress with his flash and swagger on the court. Chemistry-wise, the Rockets got to see their newest free-agent signing, Christian Wood, on the court with their disgruntled superstar, James Harden. Perhaps surprisingly, things went very well.

Here’s a look Thursday’s scores, along with a few thoughts from the night’s action.

NBA preseason scores for Thursday, Dec. 17

  • Charlotte Hornets 123, Orlando Magic 115
  • Detroit Pistons 97, Washington Wizards 86
  • Houston Rockets 128, San Antonio Spurs 106
  • Memphis Grizzlies 128, Atlanta Hawks 106
  • Minnesota Timberwolves 129, Dallas Mavericks 127 (OT)
  • Golden State Warriors 113, Sacramento Kings 109
  • Utah Jazz 125, Los Angeles Clippers 105

LaMelo makes it rain

In his first two preseason games, we’d gotten a good look at LaMelo Ball’s impressive passing ability and entertaining style of play, but there’s one thing he hadn’t really done — make shots. Ball shot 3-for-15 from the field in his first two NBA appearances, including 2-for-9 from 3-point range, but that changed on Thursday night against the Magic. Ball looked much more comfortable shooting, making 4-of-9 3-pointers en route to 18 points — six more than he scored in his first two preseason games combined.

Ball’s effort was enough to garner the attention of former Miami Heat superstar and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Not bad for your third preseason game.

He doesn’t have the most traditional shooting mechanics so he’s bound to be a bit streaky, but making 3s consistently could raise Ball’s ceiling considerably, given his playmaking ability. It was also a good sign for Hornets fans to see Ball finish around the rim a few times on Thursday, as he used craftiness and English to find bank angles in crowded spaces. He’s far from a finished product, but Charlotte has to love what it’s seen from Ball so far this preseason.

Harden heats up, and so do trade rumors

James Harden looked understandably rusty in his first preseason action on Tuesday after showing up to Rockets camp late and probably not in the best shape of his life. He’s still not yet the offensive machine we’ve grown accustomed to over the past several seasons, but Harden looked much better in Thursday’s win over the Spurs. He put up 20 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in 27 minutes, going 8-for-14 from the field and 3-of-6 from 3-point range. He also endeared himself to new teammate Christian Wood with his patented between-the-legs pocket pass.

It’s going to be super awkward if Harden begins the regular season with the Rockets, considering he’s already made it known that he wants out of Houston and the team reportedly has more options on the table after recent discussions. We’ve seen players like Anthony Davis try to play through standing trade demands and it gets ugly quickly, but there’s no denying that if Harden is on the court, he’s one of the best in the game.

Curry gets cooking

His wife Ayesha may be the chef in the family, but Steph Curry heated things up in a hurry on Thursday night. After starting off 2-for-11 from 3-point range, Curry was suddenly 6-for-13 in the blink of an eye, as he scored 16 third-quarter points on his way to 29 for the second straight game.

Curry will shoulder the majority of the offensive load with Klay Thompson sidelined this season, and it’s going to be intriguing to see just how hot he can get on any given night. Warriors announcer Bob Fitzgerald predicted that Curry will set the single-game NBA record for both 3-pointers made and 3-pointers attempted this season, and you can see why. Depending on just how unleashed he is in Steve Kerr’s offense, Curry could have his second scoring title in his sights. 

Houston, meet Christian

Since he was hidden on a bland Detroit Pistons squad last season, casual Rockets fans might not have understood why Christian Wood commanded a three-year, $41 million contract this offseason — they probably do now. Wood’s tantalizing upside and unique skill set were on full display in his preseason opener on Thursday, as he put up 27 points, 10 rebounds, a block and a steal in less than 24 minutes.

Wood also hit two 3-pointers, showcasing the feathery stroke that allowed him to shoot 39 percent from deep last season. The Rockets abandoned the center position altogether toward the end of last season, but Wood might be the perfect compromise. He has the size and length to protect the rim, but also has guard skills and can space the floor offensively. It will be fun to watch him work alongside Harden, for however long that lasts.

Ja vs. Trae is a delight

It was just a preseason game, but it was impossible to watch the Hawks-Grizzlies matchup on Thursday without a smile on your face as two of the league’s best young point guards — Trae Young and Ja Morant — went head to head. Young finished with 15 points and six assists in 26 minutes, but struggled shooting the ball from deep (2-for-8). Morant got the best of him on this night, putting up 18 points and 13 assists in 27 minutes.

With Morant just 21 years old and Young 22, the league is going to be in great hands for the foreseeable future. We’ve seen dynamic young guards before, but the vision that both of them possess to go along with their scoring ability makes them must-watch programming.

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