LaMelo Ball was once written off as the youngest member of a family that sometimes strayed close to farcical. (Twitter: Illawarra Hawks)
One of the hottest young talents in world basketball will suit up for the Illawarra Hawks in their NBL season opener against the Brisbane Bullets in Wollongong today.
- LaMelo Ball’s play in the NBL preseason saw him leap into contention for the top pick in next year’s NBA draft
- His brother, Lonzo, is already in the NBA after being selected second in the 2017 draft
- The Ball family is something of a sideshow, with patriarch LaVar taking his son out of high school to play in Lithuania
Eighteen-year-old American point guard LaMelo Ball made such an impression in the preseason tournament that ESPN NBA draft analyst Jonathan Givony has touted him as a potential number one pick in next year’s draft.
“His feel for the game, his basketball IQ, his ability to make every pass in the book, passing with both hands after live dribble. He does some things with the ball that only a handful of players in the world can do,” Givony told the ABC.
“That’s just hard to find, a guy that the game comes so easily for him and makes the game so easy for his teammates. I mean, that’s what everybody’s looking for in the NBA right now.”
The 201-centimetre Ball is in Wollongong as part of the NBA’s Next Stars program, which is in its second season. The NBL contracts overseas players and develops their talent in Australia to prepare them for the NBA draft. Americans RJ Hampton (New Zealand Breakers) and Terry Armstrong (South East Melbourne Phoenix) join Brazilian-born Marcos ‘Didi’ Louzada Silva as the other members of the program in the NBL this season.
A high draft pick is a shot in the arm for the Australian competition’s credibility, and NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger is hoping Ball will match his Hawks singlet number and become the number one pick next year.
The NBL is pretty pumped about the arrival of someone with a global profile the size of LaMelo Ball’s. (Facebook: Illawarra Hawks)
“LaMelo has brought so many new eyeballs to the competition we could say regardless of how he performs, from an NBL point of view it’s probably already been a success,” Loeliger said.
“But we want him to be drafted as high as possible. It’s got to be successful from everyone’s point of view.”
The Ball family has a huge profile in the USA, including their own reality show. His father, LaVar, is outspoken and his brother Lonzo was selected second by the LA Lakers in the 2017 NBA draft.
At one point during his junior and senior years in high school, LaVar pulled LaMelo out of school and, along with older brother LiAngelo, moved the family to Lithuania to play professionally.
“Certainly there were reservations about the hype and the circus that follow him and it was one of the reasons that we collectively thought that Wollongong would be a suitable home for him, in that it’s a little bit quieter and out of the spotlight a little,” Loeliger said.
LaMelo Ball boasts nearly 5 million followers on Instagram and has attracted unprecedented American interest in the NBL.
“They’ve struck gold. Just the sheer amount of attention, the eyeballs that he’s bringing,” Givony said.
“I would say 99.9 per cent of people in the US had no idea what the NBL was three or four months ago.
“Now everyone who’s around basketball, that follows basketball even casually, they know what’s going on. The Balls, it’s almost like the Kardashians, it’s not just sports, it’s culture.
The Ball family, led by patriarch LaVar (right), have become something akin to the Kardashians of basketball. (Reuters/USA Today Sports: Gary A Vasquez)
“I went to get my haircut the other day and the guy — he doesn’t follow basketball, doesn’t know anything about it — and he said ‘LaMelo Ball, he’s in Australia right?’.”
The man himself ignores the hype and has been strictly business since arriving down under.
“I just came here to play basketball. I really stay away from the media and stuff,” LaMelo Ball said.
NBA scouts following Hawks closely
The presence of NBA scouts following Ball and Hampton at all their NBL games could have a spin-off effect for others in the competition.
“You only have to look at LaMelo’s teammates for example, guys like Dan Grida, Emett Naar, Samson Froling, Sunday Dech, all really young super talented Australian players,” Loeliger said.
“I’d be very surprised if we don’t see a few of those guys get picked up to go and play in the NBA summer league in 2020.”
Givony does not subscribe to the theory that if Ball and Hampton are dominating, they could be removed from the NBL mid-season by their agents to protect their draft prospects.
“I’ve asked both of their agents about this point blank and both said that thought hasn’t even crossed their mind and it’s not something that they’re entertaining right now and they seemed frankly surprised that it was even being mentioned,” he said.
The ESPN analyst said if Ball and Hampton failed to see out the season it could hurt their NBA draft prospects.
“NBA teams, they like to see a level of dedication to the organisation, to the team and their teammates and it’s a very short season anyway,” he said.
“But anything can happen at any point, you can’t predict the future.”
Early in the season, the NBL is already winning from its educated gamble on an American teenager with a small surname and a big reputation.
“To have that kind of spotlight being put on your league … that’s worth tens of millions of dollars, if not more,” Givony said.