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Growing Up Ball

What’s it like living in the shadow of the Big Baller Brand? Dre Ball was used to being overlooked while playing basketball alongside his cousins Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo. As a freshman at Pepperdine, Dre is getting a different kind of basketball education, free from any family drama.

Martin A. Folb/Ringer illustration

Lorenzo Romar was barely a week into his new job as men’s head basketball coach at Pepperdine University last March when he started receiving phone calls about a potential recruit. Dre Ball, a bouncy, athletic, 6-foot-7 wing, high on potential but raw in his development, was experiencing a breakout senior season at Chino Hills High School, 60 miles east of Pepperdine’s campus in Malibu, California. Romar, of course, was familiar with Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo Ball, the three brothers who were standout recruits at Chino Hills, and their father, LaVar Ball, but he was unaware that the brothers had a cousin, Dre, playing in relative obscurity and unattached to the family business of the Big Baller Brand. Dre had received little interest from Division I programs, making him the kind of recruit Romar was looking for as he set out to revive his struggling program: a diamond in the rough with the potential to blossom in the relatively small West Coast Conference. Romar traveled to Long Beach and watched as Dre scored 32 points to lead Chino Hills to a win in the regional finals of the California Division I playoffs.

“It took me about 10 seconds to realize his talent,” says Romar, who offered Dre a scholarship right after the game. Romar saw a late bloomer whose development in high school was hindered by injuries as well as the challenge of being overshadowed by his cousins. “The Ball brothers, his cousins, were the focus. [Dre] was never the first, second, or third option,” says Romar. “Once he was able to become a featured guy, it made all the difference in the world.”

Dre had grown accustomed to being overlooked when he was alongside his cousins. They grew up together in Chino, where Dre was often at the brothers’ house playing basketball. “We basically raised him,” says Lonzo, a second-year guard with the Lakers. “Out of all the cousins, he’s probably the closest to us. He’s like our fourth brother.” But Dre was always a bit player in the Ball family’s basketball drama. In 2015-16, when Dre was a sophomore, Lonzo a senior, LiAngelo a junior, and LaMelo a freshman, Chino Hills went 35-0, outscoring its opponents by 994 points. The team garnered national attention not only for the breakneck speed at which it played—a strategy predicated on high-volume 3-point shooting—but also for LaVar’s antics. He wasn’t on the Chino Hills coaching staff, but LaVar was a constant and towering presence at games and the driving force behind the team’s unique playing style. He became the subject of intense media attention, speaking confidently and, at times, bewilderingly about his sons’ prospects. Chino Hills often felt less like a high school basketball team than a promotional vehicle through which LaVar would advance his sons’ careers. Dre’s role on the team was to do little more than facilitate open looks for his cousins. “We didn’t have any plays at Chino,” says Dre over breakfast at Pepperdine’s campus café in November, a few hours before his first game. “I didn’t really have the ball.”

Dre missed his junior season with a shoulder injury, and it wasn’t until he was a senior in 2017-18, under new coach Dennis Latimore, that his role on the team changed. Latimore, Chino Hills’ third coach in three years, was intent on diminishing LaVar’s influence on the team—no longer would he have any say over the team’s playing style or personnel. Latimore’s goal was to have the team play inside-out and commit to a defensive scheme. There would be no more chucking 3-pointers; the days of the “circus” atmosphere surrounding the team were over. These changes didn’t sit well with LaVar; before the season began, he announced that LaMelo, a junior, would withdraw from Chino Hills. LaMelo and LiAngelo—who, soon after LaMelo left high school, withdrew from UCLA as a freshman while serving a suspension for shoplifting on a team trip to China—both went to Lithuania, where they briefly played professionally. “They did stuff their way, and I was never included in that,” says Dre, adding that he stays in touch with his cousins through text messages and when they see each other during the summer and on holidays. As the only Ball left at Chino Hills, Dre went from the fringes to a more prominent role, averaging 15 points per game as a senior while leading Chino Hills to a state championship. For the first time in his high school career, Dre had a purpose and an important role. “He showed he could be his own person and he could be his own player,” says Latimore.

LiAngelo went undrafted in 2018 and is still trying to make it onto a G League roster (he recently said he turned down an offer from a professional team in London). After returning from Lithuania, LaMelo enrolled at Spire Academy, a prep school in Ohio. Dre, meanwhile, is charting a much more traditional basketball path. He’s finishing up his first season at Pepperdine, at its picturesque campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where he’s learning the basics and fighting for playing time on a team that finished 13-17 in the regular season.

“He didn’t use the most high-profile path to get to where he’s at,” says Latimore, “but he just endured.”

Dre’s Pepperdine jersey fits loosely on his 190-pound frame—even when he tucks it in, it hangs over the back of his shorts like a folded cloth napkin. He’s played in all but one of the Waves’ games this season, averaging 3.3 points in 12.7 minutes, and still has to improve his fundamentals and court awareness. Romar says he’s confident that Ball can develop into a scoring threat, but the coach has stressed to Dre that it’s his defense that will earn him immediate playing time. “When we look at him he has the potential to make a significant impact by doing almost everything,” says Romar. “But he’s never had that role, so it’s a work in progress.” Romar says Dre has become more comfortable and talkative as the season has progressed. To the surprise of his teammates, who initially found him to be timid, he’s started to show the sense of humor that Romar noticed during the recruitment process.

“There’s less pressure here,” says guard Colbey Ross. “Some people know who he is because of his name, but it’s minimized at Pepperdine. You do hear it in the crowds sometimes when we go to away games—fans say stuff to him about the Balls—but then they also watch his dunks in awe.”

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Dre’s athleticism is what stands out most about his game. (His grandfather, Anderson Ball, says Dre “can jump higher than any of them,” referring to the Ball brothers.) Based on his length alone, he has the potential to be a resilient perimeter defender. For now, he’s learning the game in real time, whether that’s rotating to the right man on defense or unleashing a dunk that makes it look like he’s playing on a trampoline.

“We didn’t have any structure in high school, so it was frustrating at first, but I’ve been slowly finding my groove,” says Dre outside the Pepperdine locker room after a win over San Diego in early February. “Guarding people here from high school is completely different, but I’ve been trying to talk more on defense, be in the right spot for help, and I think my on-ball defense has gotten a lot better.”

Dre’s parents, Stephanie and Andre, have made the drive from Chino Hills to Malibu for every home game, and have gone to each away game within a reasonable driving distance. At Pepperdine’s season opener in November, Stephanie checked her phone during breaks in the action and relayed updates of the Lakers score that night and Lonzo’s stat line to Andre. They were both excited about the opportunity for Dre to stand out on his own. “[Pepperdine] was an opportunity for him to grow as a basketball player in a college atmosphere and to get an education,” Stephanie says. She chuckles when Andre describes Dre’s role at Chino Hills as “rebound and pass, rebound and pass.” They both say it was, at times, frustrating for their son, but now the experience of playing at Chino Hills High feels far away. They’re already making themselves at home in Malibu. Andre, unlike his brother LaVar, tries not to coach his son—or any players—from the stands, though he will mutter directions under his breath from time to time. Both he and Stephanie are effusive in their encouragement, and Romar appreciates their restraint.

“They are not a bells-and-whistles type of family,” says Romar. “They don’t make excuses for him and [they] hold him accountable. They’re really good people that are really involved, but are not telling you how to coach a team.”

Pepperdine has been the perfect incubator for Dre’s basketball growth. His reduced role with the Waves is part of a plan in his development, not a function of a playing style designed to get other players more shots and touches. He’s learning under an experienced coach in Romar, who was head coach at Washington from 2002 to 2017. And he doesn’t have to introduce himself, as he put it, as “Lonzo Ball’s cousin.”

“Everybody’s going to have a different path,” says Stephanie. “Even Melo, he’s going to a different path now, he’s going to a prep school, so he can go back and try to figure out what path is going to be best for them.” Stephanie and Andre are satisfied with the path Dre is taking now that he is untethered from his cousins’ basketball journey, ready to develop at his own pace at Pepperdine.

“It’s about letting him stand on his own,” says Andre. “Let him make his own name.”