For fans of rebuilding teams like the Knicks and the Cavaliers, the most interesting basketball news during the first week of the NBA season might be happening half a world away. LaMelo Ball, who has been playing in Australia’s National Basketball League for the past month, has become one of the most fascinating NBA draft prospects in recent years.
LaMelo could end up going as high in the 2020 draft as his older brother Lonzo did in 2017, when he was the no. 2 pick. He has just taken a completely different path to get there. Lonzo didn’t become a celebrity until college. He had a relatively normal high school career, or at least as normal as any son of LaVar Ball could have. LaMelo, on the other hand, has been a household name since middle school and has spent the past five years bouncing around from Los Angeles to Lithuania to Lake Erie to now Australia. And that doesn’t count his one season in the Junior Basketball Association, LaVar’s ill-fated professional high school league.
But nature may have trumped nurture when it comes to the Ball brothers. Despite everything that has surrounded LaMelo off the court, he plays a lot like Lonzo. The question is whether the issues that have hurt Lonzo in the NBA will hold back his younger brother, too.
LaMelo came to Australia as part of the NBL’s Next Stars program, which is designed to draw attention to the league by making it a place for NBA prospects to wait out the one-and-done rule. The NBL is considered a midtier league worldwide by NBA front offices. The competition is tougher than in China, where fringe NBA players can put up MVP-caliber numbers, but below the EuroLeague. There are a lot of NBL players who hardcore fans would recognize: LaMelo shares a backcourt on the Illawarra Hawks with Aaron Brooks, a 10-year NBA veteran, and runs pick-and-rolls with Josh Boone and David Andersen, who combined for six seasons in the NBA.
LaMelo isn’t the only American teenager to take a gap year Down Under. Three other notable prospects have participated in the Next Stars program: Terrance Ferguson, who was taken by the Thunder with the no. 21 overall pick in 2017; Brian Bowen II, who signed a two-way contract with the Pacers after going undrafted in 2019; and RJ Hampton, an elite recruit in this year’s high school class who was choosing between Memphis, Kansas, and Kentucky before heading overseas.
Draft Prospects Down Under
|NBL Rising Stars
|Season in NBL
|NBL Rising Stars
|Season in NBL
|Brian Bowen II
LaMelo’s situation in Australia is far different from those of his peers. Ferguson and Bowen came off the bench, while Hampton starts but has a complementary role in the offense. Ball has been given the keys to the offense. He and Brooks take turns playing off each other and dominating the ball when the other is out, in the same way that James Harden and Chris Paul did in Houston.
The amount of trust that LaMelo has earned from his teammates and coaches is one of his most impressive accomplishments in Australia. The NBL wants to showcase its American prospects, but the teams those players are on are still trying to win. That’s why Ferguson, Bowen, and Hampton weren’t given as much offensive responsibility as they would have received in college. It’s different with LaMelo. He turned 18 in August, making him one of the youngest prospects in this year’s draft class, yet he’s already a difference-maker in a league with players more than a decade older than him.
It’s easy to see why. He’s a supersize point guard (6-foot-7, 190 pounds) with elite playmaking ability who can make every pass in the book:
But everyone already knew that LaMelo could fill up a highlight reel. Whether he would fit within a team concept was a big concern as he entered the NBL. That has not been an issue. He is third in the league in assists this season (5.7 per game) and rarely turns the ball over (2.1 per game) despite making so many difficult passes. LaMelo makes fewer mistakes than most veteran point guards. He controls the tempo and rarely gets rattled by the defense. He’s third in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4-to-1) among the players in the top 10 in assists in the NBL.
There is little doubt that his playmaking will translate to the NBA. What the teams picking at the top of the 2020 draft will have to figure out is whether he will have the same scoring issues that plague Lonzo, who has averaged 10.2 points per game on 38.1 percent shooting in his first three seasons.
The brothers share many of the same strengths and weaknesses: They are brilliant passers with average athleticism and unorthodox jumpers. Lonzo used to bring the ball around the side of his head, and painstakingly rebuilt his shot this offseason. LaMelo shoots from his chest:
Multiple scouts have suggested to me that one explanation for their mechanics is that LaVar Ball had his sons shooting long-range bombs as if they were Steph Curry from the time they could walk; LaVar told Ringer colleague Danny Chau back in 2016 that LaMelo was shooting 40-footers at 7 years old. The only way for a kid that age to do that, scouts say, is to chuck the ball with both hands.
NBA front offices are closely tracking LaMelo’s shooting percentages in the NBL. He has been up and down in his first eight games, shooting 28-for-62 from 2 (45.2 percent), 11-for-43 from 3 (25.6 percent), and 18-for-26 from the free throw line (69.2 percent). (The NBL uses the FIBA 3-point line, which is closer to the basket than the NBA line.) A player with a form like LaMelo’s won’t get much benefit of the doubt, even if he starts hitting 3s. Lonzo shot 41.2 percent from 3 on 5.2 attempts per game from the shorter NCAA 3-point line in one season at UCLA, but has shot only 31.8 percent from 3 on 5.4 attempts per game in the NBA.
One of the biggest problems in evaluating LaMelo is the lack of data. He never played in the NCAA or EYBL, the top AAU league for American high-schoolers, and accurate stats from his time in the JBA and the SPIRE academy in Ohio are hard to come by. As a 16-year-old for Vytautas Prienu in Lithuania, he shot just 7-for-24 from 2 (29.2 percent), 8-for-32 from 3 (25.0 percent), and 14-for-19 from the free throw line (73.7 percent) in eight games.
The most important number for LaMelo in Australia may be his free throw shooting, as those numbers were the canary in the coal mine for Lonzo. For all his great 3-point shooting at UCLA, Lonzo shot just 67.3 percent from the free throw line on 2.7 attempts per game. Research has shown that free throw shooting at lower levels of the game tends to be the best predictor of 3-point shooting in the NBA. Shooting from the charity stripe isolates touch and form without the compounding factors of shot selection and the role a player has within an offense.
LaMelo is the perfect example. He might have better shooting percentages if he didn’t take so many difficult shots. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he has taken more shots off the dribble in Australia (19) than in catch-and-shoot situations (17), even though he’s averaging almost twice as many points per possession on the latter (1.235) than the former (0.632). Not many players in the world can make a living on these types of shots:
Ball’s jumper will determine both his ceiling and his floor at the next level.
LaMelo’s offensive game is built on his ability to make off-the-dribble 30-footers. But he doesn’t have the burst to beat elite defenders off the bounce if they can play a step off him. Luka Doncic is a good comparison. Like LaMelo, he’s an average athlete by NBA standards with an otherworldly combination of size, basketball IQ, and playmaking ability. But Doncic still needs the threat of his 3-point shot to be a primary scorer in the NBA. The Mavericks guard is shooting 32.6 percent from 3 on 7.2 attempts per game in his NBA career. Those shots open up the rest of his game. If LaMelo can’t at least match those percentages, then he will be only so effective with the ball in his hands.
If LaMelo can’t be a primary option, then he must at least be able to knock down spot-up 3s in an off-ball role. Not doing so was one of the biggest things that held Lonzo back in his two seasons with the Lakers; he struggled to mesh with Brandon Ingram and LeBron James because he couldn’t threaten the defense when they were playing with the ball. While both Ball brothers are deadly when attacking closeouts, it doesn’t matter if defenses don’t have to close out on them.
LaMelo and Lonzo aren’t carbon copies of each other, though. LaMelo is a smart team defender with great instincts for jumping passing lanes, but he’s far behind his older brother as an on-ball defender. Illawarra does everything it can to hide him on that end of the floor. Becoming stronger will help, but he has to start making more of an effort. Where LaMelo has an edge on Lonzo is as a scorer. He already has a decent floater, which allows him to score off the dribble when he can’t get to the rim, something that Lonzo has never been able to do consistently.
LaMelo can be a dominant offensive player when he’s making pull-up and stepback 3s. The 3-point shot has been weaponized in ways that few people would have even thought possible a generation ago, creating opportunities for different types of players to become superstars. LaVar, whatever your opinion of him, was one of the few who did. The irony is that by pushing Lonzo and LaMelo to take those shots at such an early age, he may have made it more difficult for them to make them as adults.