It would be impossible for an up-and-coming prospect to replicate LaMelo Ball’s journey to the top of NBA draft boards. That is, unless somebody revives the Junior Basketball Association—the defunct league founded by Ball’s loud and eccentric father, LaVar, in which every team was named the [insert city here] Ballers. The JBA pitched itself as an alternative to college hoops for those who wanted to be professionals instead of amateurs, but it reportedly didn’t pay its players the money that they were promised. The JBA folded in 2018 after one season; LaMelo and his older brother LiAngelo won the league’s only championship, carrying forth a long tradition of sons winning contests organized by their dads.
LaMelo’s winding path then took him overseas, to two stops 10,000 miles apart. The first stop was Lithuania, where in 2018 a 16-year-old Ball was too young and undeveloped to keep up with fully grown professionals. The second stop was Australia, where last season he played with the Illawarra Hawks of the National Basketball League. Ball was part of a larger group of college-aged prospects, including RJ Hampton, who signed in Australia, and the move helped Ball’s stock soar. Last May, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz projected Ball to go 33rd in the 2020 NBA mock draft. After Ball played a couple games in Australia, Givony bumped him up to the top three, with an executive saying that Ball “completely changed my perception of the type of prospect he is.”
On Wednesday, the Charlotte Hornets took Ball with the third pick in the draft. He becomes the highest-selected American-born draftee to bypass college ball for overseas play, a distinction previously held by Emmanuel Mudiay (the no. 7 pick in the 2015 draft). It’s now clear that the oddest parts of Ball’s path didn’t affect his development in the eyes of NBA teams, and his stint in Australia allowed him to showcase his talents in a way he may not have been able to do as a college player. While it’d be impossible to replicate Ball’s exact journey to the top of draft boards, his rise isn’t an anomaly. It’s the most prominent case study in how prospects don’t need to follow the conventional development blueprint to become coveted by the NBA.
Why do elite prospects play college basketball? Since 2006, it’s at least partly because they have had few other appealing options. When the NBA increased its age of entry from 18 to 19, top prospects in the United States stopped being eligible to jump straight from high school to the league. As a result, virtually all of the nation’s best prep players have gone on to play college hoops, with the hope of using their time on campus to improve their draft stock. This aligns with how many Americans view higher education in general: College is the place to prepare for a professional career, and in the case of NBA hopefuls, that professional career is playing basketball.
However, not everyone sees things this way when it comes to basketball players in the one-and-done era. This group includes NCAA president Mark Emmert, who in 2016 said the notion of top prospects spending a year in college “makes a farce of going to school.” “If you just want to play in the NBA … you can go to Europe or play at a prep school until you’re 19,” he said. Emmert doubled down on this stance following a 2017 international incident in which LiAngelo Ball was arrested for shoplifting on the UCLA team’s hoops tour of China. (It’s a long story.) When asked whether LaVar Ball was good for college basketball, Emmert responded by posing two questions of his own: “Is it about someone being part of a university and playing basketball or any other sport with that school’s jersey on? Or is it about preparing me for my career, my professional career as a ballplayer?”
This was a ridiculous framing from the NCAA president. Emmert is the head of an organization that makes more than $1 billion each year off of TV rights deals to March Madness, an event that generates massive ratings when ready-made stars like Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball participate. The NCAA also could have benefited financially if LaMelo—who emerged as one of the most famous basketball players on Earth by the time he was just 16—had played college hoops. Thanks to his family’s fame and his own charisma, Ball has amassed more than 5 million Instagram followers and drawn ridiculous viewership numbers at every level of his journey. (His JBA games even got hundreds of thousands of viewers, despite the extremely low quality of play.)
The Ringer has covered LaMelo Ball for as long as the site has existed; the very first Ringer feature was Danny Chau’s story about the Ball brothers, and my first Ringer story about LaMelo was published in February 2017. The latter came after Ball scored 92 points in a high school game with a cherry-picking strategy designed to pad LaMelo’s scoring total. I wrote at the time that scouts had widely differing evaluations of him given the unusual nature of his situation.
This inability to properly evaluate LaMelo because of his circumstances persisted in the next few years. After LiAngelo left UCLA and LaMelo forfeited his college eligibility by releasing a $400 pair of sneakers (it’s another long story), the brothers signed with Vytautas BC Prienai, a Lithuanian team willing to clothe itself in Big Baller Brand merch to fix its financial woes. Vytautas didn’t provide a great basketball environment for them, as LaMelo played sparingly in league games against competitive opponents, but he shined in exhibitions that got tons of views on Facebook live streams. He scored 52 combined points in eight league games—and 43 in a single game against a second-division Lithuanian team that was part of an event called the “Big Baller Brand Challenge Games.” (The refs also had to wear Big Baller Brand merch for these games, which makes clear how legitimate they were.)
After leaving Vytautas in 2018, LaMelo and LiAngelo played in the JBA, which featured few talented players and almost no structure. In one 48-minute game, the Ball brothers teamed up for 89 shots and 96 points. Although finding Ball’s exact JBA statistics is near impossible because the league’s website is now down, ESPN says LaMelo averaged 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists. Once the JBA folded, LaMelo played for a season at the SPIRE Institute in Ohio—but the team struggled to find top-tier opponents, as other high schools feared that LaMelo’s past professional experience would render them ineligible.
Those who caught glimpses of LaMelo during this stretch said similar things about his game: Ball was ridiculously talented as a passer; he barely tried on defense; his environments made it tough to get a sense of his skill. After watching Ball’s Lithuanian debut, ESPN’s Schmitz wrote that “scouts would like to see him in a more meaningful setting.” SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell attended one of Ball’s JBA games and noted “evaluating players is difficult within this context.” When Ball went to SPIRE, ESPN’s Paul Biancardi wrote that Ball had improved as a player since his Chino Hill days but concluded that he “needs to establish himself against the nation’s best.” After watching Ball at SPIRE, Schmitz wrote that “if Ball were eligible to go to college next year and had taken a similar path as Lonzo, it would be much easier to slot him in as a sure 2020 first-rounder.” After all, while hundreds of thousands of viewers watched LaMelo’s games on Facebook, scouts didn’t pay him much attention—Schmitz noted that no NBA-affiliated scouts went to see him play in Lithuania.
LaMelo’s coach at SPIRE, former NBA player Jermaine Jackson, said in 2018 that LaMelo could develop into a future no. 1 NBA draft pick—a statement that sounded absurd at the time, when most mocks didn’t project LaMelo going nearly that high. But Jackson believed in LaMelo so much that he quit his gig as SPIRE’s coach to become LaMelo’s manager and trainer. Jackson traveled to Australia with Ball, and an ESPN story from a few months ago detailed how Jackson put Ball through rigorous one-on-one workouts, even on the days that Ball also had full-time pro practices.
The NBL positioned itself as a destination for future NBA players through something called the Next Stars program, which sets draft hopefuls up with Australian teams in an effort to bolster their draft stock. Ball went to the Illawarra Hawks, who served as an incubator for his NBA dreams. Ball struggled defensively in Australia and still had a dodgy jumper, but he showcased how his tantalizing playmaking ability could be put to good use in a league with real competition. Ball posted triple-doubles and was a key factor in Illawara’s ability to win—the Hawks went only 3-9 with LaMelo, but finished the season 5-23 after going on a 10-game losing streak after he was forced out with a foot injury.
Ball’s few months in the NBL did wonders for his draft status. His performance proved that he could be an effective leader of a professional team playing against other professionals. That alone is something he never could have achieved in college, by the nature of the fact that college basketball players are not professionals. If Ball’s bizarre journey cost him in the eyes of scouts, he erased any doubts about his value by playing against a higher level of opponents than he would have in college.
It has never been clearer that college basketball is not the only way for players to develop into prized NBA prospects. The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti outlined how this year’s strange draft process has highlighted prospects’ ability “to manage their development outside of the traditional college system” through focus on one-on-one skill work with trainers rather than on team-based five-on-five action. Kevin O’Connor broke down how Tyrell Terry has improved more as a prospect through off-court work in his six months since leaving Stanford than he did in his five months playing for Stanford. Scouts advised Terry to return for his sophomore year, but he instead spent this summer improving his vertical leap and getting more comfortable finding new ways to get his shot off—things he might not have been able to hone as much in traditional settings. Terry went to the Dallas Mavericks with the first pick of the second round on Wednesday night.
In the past, when players like Brandon Jennings and Terrance Ferguson pursued professional gap years instead of playing in the NCAA, they were considered outliers who broke the mold. But now there are multiple options open for players interested in going pro instead of playing in college. In addition to the NBL’s program, the NBA’s G League is set to vie for top prospects coming out of high school. NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted in 2019 to being “a little jealous” when Hampton chose to play in Australia, and says it caused him to ask G League commissioner Shareef Abdur-Rahim “what should we be looking at differently?” with regard to convincing young stars to play in the G League. So they raised their contract offers—the league now pays select prospects $500,000—and launched “G League Ignite,” which will be a developmental team for prospects outside of the league’s preexisting structure. The team has already landed Jalen Green, widely considered the top prospect in the 2021 class, as well as Jonathan Kuminga and Daishen Nix, who are ranked as top-20 prospects by recruiting services.
College hoops, of course, will remain a path to the pros. One of Ball’s childhood friends took that route: Onyeka Okongwu transformed from the guy responsible for blocking shots and rebounding so LaMelo could cherry-pick baskets into an elite NBA prospect of his own. Okongwu stayed at Chino Hills for four years, won a state championship without the Balls, and then played for one season at USC. The Atlanta Hawks took him sixth in this year’s draft. That Ball and Okwongu both became lottery picks is a testament to how talent always wins out, no matter where it comes from.
Emmert has said for years that prospects shouldn’t use college basketball primarily as a means to make the NBA. It always seemed like a taunt, knowing that players didn’t really have many other options. But LaMelo called the bluff, and now the floodgates are open. No one will ever follow LaMelo’s path exactly—but the fact that he was able to go where scouts weren’t and climb draft boards anyway proves that the most talented young players don’t need to stick to the traditional route. As high schoolers carve their own paths to superstardom, the NCAA needs them more than they need the NCAA.