The development of LaMelo Ball has been extremely eventful, to say the very least. He was fast-tracked into high school in order to play with his brothers – part of a team whose style of play was profiled by The New York Times and The Ringer.
He was one of the headliners of what was, arguably, the single most hyped AAU game of all time.
When his father, LaVar Ball, got into a disagreement with the coach at Chino Hills and his brother, LiAngelo Ball, was suspended during his first few months at UCLA, LaMelo Ball signed with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas – with the idea that he wouldn’t play in the more competitive Lithuanian LKL and only suit up in the less competitive Baltic League.
The plan disintegrated once Vytautas abandoned the Baltic League soon upon his arrival with his father and the team organizing a pirate tournament sponsored by his father’s apparel company to make up for the lost games instead. He eventually logged 102 minutes in the Lithuanian LKL but left the team to return to the United States prior to the end of the season.
After a few months playing in a pirate league organized by his father in the summer of 2018, he enrolled at SPIRE Institute to play his senior year of high school in Ohio and ended up the 21st-ranked recruit in the 2019 class.
Almost certainly expected to be ruled ineligible by the NCAA to play in college given his professional experience and shoe deal with his father’s company, he then signed with the Australian NBL through their “Next Stars” initiative and was assigned to the Illawarra Hawks – a team that finished seventh out of nine teams last season.
Incredibly enough, when you consider everything listed above, he only turned 18 last August.
Perhaps even more incredibly when you consider his path to this point, LaMelo Ball is now the top-ranked player in next year’s draft.
That’s the case because he’s had the most productive first couple months of any prospect in this class.
Said to be taking the experience in Australia a lot more seriously than the one he had in Lithuania, Ball has completely turned around the perception many had of him and refocused people’s attentions to his attributes on the court.
His team in Australia is arguably as bad as the one he played for in Lithuania. At the time of writing, Illawarra has lost 11 of its 14 games and ranks last in the NBL standings. That has probably played to his favor, though. The lack of top-tier talent around him has offered Ball the opportunity to run offense, log 27.2% usage, average 21.9 points per 40 minutes on 44.5% effective shooting and get good exposure.
This positive stretch has been put on pause by a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for another three weeks, but Ball seems to have done enough already to consolidate his status as a likely top five pick.
Ball has assisted on 36.9% of Illawarra’s scores when he’s been on the floor this season - which ranks second in the league.
He is the primary ball handler on the team, especially after Aaron Brooks tore his Achilles a few weeks ago – responsible for pushing the ball up the court in transition, Initiating actions in the halfcourt and running middle high pick-and-roll when things bog down late in the shot clock.
His court vision is his most impressive skill at this point of his development, which is made evident through his long outlet passes and his advanced reads off a ball-screen.
Ball can see over smaller defenders on the move and in traffic thanks to his six-foot-five height. He’s shown good patience manipulating his defender into re-screens and proven himself capable of hitting the roll man over the top consistently, besides launching hook passes against the momentum of his body to the opposite corner with either hand quite aggressively.
The cost of that aggressiveness as a shot creator for others is that Ball turns the ball over quite a bit as well as he’s averaged 3.2 giveaways per 40 minutes.
But the positives of his frequent attempts to thread the needle and the flair with which he plays mostly outweigh the negatives, as Ball has also impressed with the timing of his deliveries on pocket passes, behind-the-back bounce feeds to the roll man, lobs, drop-offs and skip passes to big men in the pick-and-pop.
His scoring is not as far along as his passing.
His 21.9 points per 40 minutes are coming on 20.7 field goal attempts and 4.9 free throw attempts per 40 minutes.
Ball does most of his work in middle high pick-and-roll. He has a tight handle and good feel for manipulating his defender into the ball-screen but doesn’t have an explosive first step or particularly impressive speed attacking downhill.
He can go up with some power off momentum if left unchallenged on his path to the rim, but is generally not an explosive leaper off one foot in traffic.
His finishing package is promising. Ball can hang and adjust his body in the air, is flexible enough to double clutch mid-flight, flashes his left hand as an asset on scoop finishes from time-to-time, shows impressive touch on right-handed finger roll finishes, leverages his length on extended finishes, unleashed a wrong foot-wrong hand layup at one point, and gets to the foul line a fair amount.
He doesn’t blow by his man one-on-one all that often, unless he gets a big on a switch and that guy completely bites on his hesitation move or his crossover. And though he does quite a bit of dancing with the ball, Ball has also shown only so-so shiftiness for the most part.
But he is pretty resourceful in his attempts to attack in isolation – able to go to a sick in-and-out dribble to get his defender to take a false step, maintain his balance through contact despite his lean 190-pound frame in the context of his height and pivot into a well-coordinated spin move to get into the lane.
Ball doesn’t get to the basket as much as he could, though.
Part of it is that he isn’t all that fast with the ball. Another part of it is that his team doesn’t offer him all that many clean driving lanes by tying up the help. Another part is that Ball has shown a strong preference for relying on his runner – most often seeming more comfortable snaking the pick-and-roll into setting up a floater rather than getting downhill on a straight line drive or turning the corner to get all the way to the goal or rising for an elbow pull-up.
And it has not proven to be a winning formula, as he’s shot just 46.4% on two-pointers so far.
Ball has also been a poor pull-up shooter, so opponents are not incentivized to try running him off his shot. Ball sets an unorthodox base and goes through unorthodox mechanics in his jumpers – a two-hand shot, released from in front of his face.
He has taken a few side-step pull-ups from time-to-time and his jumper off going between the legs in a pinch can look pretty sleek but it’s rare to see him attempt a step-back jump-shot or managing to create separation and elevating comfortably while going to his left. Ball also needs to get great elevation in order to shoot over contests, given the launch point of his low release.
If he can get his shot off uncontested, Ball has proven he is a capable shot maker, even from deep NBA range. But he’s shot just 27.9% from three-point range so far this season, at a pace of 8.4 such attempts per 40 minutes.
Ball tends to be a more reliable shooter off the ball, with his feet set. He has a quick trigger due to compact mechanics and gets a good arc on his spot-up three-pointers.
But, while he’s taken a few shots sprinting to the ball for hand-offs, it’s unclear for now if Ball can offer versatility as a shooter on the move.
Mostly perceived to be a disinterested defender in his mid-teens, Ball has improved that perception a lot on that end, at least in terms of defending on the ball.
He consistently bends his knees to get down in a stance, works to go over picks at the point of attack, moves his feet laterally to try staying attached to smaller players out in space and puts in the effort to contest pull-ups.
But despite his best efforts, he is mostly uneven, at best.
Ball struggles to get skinny navigating over picks and gets stuck quite a bit. He does try hustling in pursuit to try making plays from behind but rarely succeeds in blocking a shot, contesting effectively or discouraging an attempt. Opponents sometimes go out of their way to try putting him in the pick-and-roll to try opening the gates of Illawarra’s defense.
Ball has found himself switched onto bigger plays on occasion and has shown glimpses of tenacity trying to front the post and prevent an easy seal but that sort of feistiness on defense is usually hit-and-miss from him and he lacks the strength needed to be considered a reliable option to exchange onto these types regularly.
He’s been more effective defending in isolation - showing decent lateral quickness to stay in front of smaller players more often than not and leveraging his length into reaching around for some steals, though rarely playing with enough physicality to chest up and contain dribble penetration through contact.
Ball is a very good rebounder for someone at his position - having collected 22.2% of opponents’ misses when he’s been on the floor this season. He is pretty quick chasing the ball off the rim and has even shown some diligence boxing out whoever is close by, though he is not very physical with it.
Although he overdoes it some by misreading his chances and hunting for them when he shouldn’t, Ball has flashed a knack for jumping passing lanes and is averaging 2.0 steals per 40 minutes - ranking fifth in the league in total steals, at the time of writing.
But other than relying on his instincts to create events, he has not proven himself an asset in other areas of team defense, such as position and help.
Ball does not stay in a stance off the ball and rarely assists in packing the lane by clogging driving lanes. He has shown glimpses of being able to block a shot on basic help defense reads but doesn’t rotate in to pick up the roll man a whole lot.