- LiAngelo Ball has gotten a lot of attention over the last few weeks, but none of it has come from NBA teams. In this week's Draft Dispatch, we examine LiAngelo's future, the best Bridges in college basketball and more.
Welcome to the biggest draft non-story of the season to date: LiAngelo Ball is out of Westwood and diving headfirst into the pool, for better or worse.
News of the middle Ball brother’s departure from the UCLA program broke on Monday, registering a small blip on the college hoops radar and an even smaller one in the greater scheme of the draft. LiAngelo’s NBA prospects were minimal even before his suspension for shoplifting in China became a national controversy, and while it seems he’ll be draft-eligible this spring, don’t hold your breath.
As it stands, it appears the Ball family is trying to package LiAngelo and LaMelo (who is still just 16, unlikely to be NCAA-eligible and a more substantive NBA prospect) to play professionally somewhere overseas, but they’re likely to encounter similar skepticism. You’d be hard-pressed to find an NBA front office seriously considering the middle brother for next season, period. LiAngelo, considered a three-star recruit, comes without the luxury Lonzo enjoys, where the talent can outweigh the growing sideshow surrounding their family.
Unlike his older brother, Ball is a boxy, undersized power forward who relies on others to create open looks. He was often reliant on his strength at the high school level and would have lacked much of an athletic advantage in the college game. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have helped the Bruins somewhat, but the talent discrepancy at the next level is simply evident. If you look around the G-League, even bench players tend to come with substantive résumés. Without any minutes at UCLA and coming up through high school within a funhouse style of basketball at Chino Hills and in AAU games, Ball has no competitive track record of playing, much less producing, within a system any NBA team would value.
The situation is unfortunate for Ball, who could certainly have had a four-year college career at UCLA or elsewhere and perhaps separated himself from his family's sideshow. Beyond the shoplifting fiasco, he doesn’t deserve additional ire. But at this point he’ll have to hold out hope for a flier in another country, or perhaps a courtesy spot in Summer League with the Lakers. Something tells me we haven't heard the last from LiAngelo.
The Best Bridges in the NBA Draft?
In more important news, The Crossover's Front Office was in attendance Tuesday night as Villanova ably handled Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden, due in large part to a gargantuan effort from Nova's Mikal Bridges. The junior forward turned in his most impressive performance of the season, with 28 points, six rebounds, five made threes, two blocks, a steal and several highlight-worthy plays, to boot.
After operating as a secondary player within head coach Jay Wright’s program the last two seasons, Bridges has taken a star turn in the earlygoing and emerged as Villanova’s bell cow on both ends of the court. Able to defend five positions with his quickness, burst and an unfair 7’0” wingspan at 6’7”, Bridges covered Gonzaga’s top interior and perimeter players in Killian Tillie and Josh Perkins. One sequence saw him follow up a massive dunk on Zags center Jacob Larsen with a block on Perkins the other way, barely breaking stride and showcasing how effective he can be in the transition game.
With his strong start, Bridges has gone from defensive specialist to two-way star and has begun to answer NBA scouts’ questions about his assertiveness. A 50% three-point clip surely won’t hold, but his high release, consistency in spot-up situations and ability to attack closeouts all bode well for Bridges as a floor-spacer long term. Even if he’s not a go-to scorer at the next level, sharpening his strengths will make him eminently valuable just the same.
“He probably could have done more of this last year and the year before, but he just gradually got better and better and he knows it this year,” Wright said after the game, discussing his star’s workload and growth into his role. “Last year he would pass up a lot of those shots just to get it to Kris [Jenkins] or Josh [Hart], not because he wasn’t confident, he just knows it’s his turn and he’s ready for it.”
At this stage, Bridges is tracking as a potential lottery pick (No. 23 on last month's Big Board) whose star should continue to rise as the undefeated Wildcats continue to roll. The more he stays engaged, the easier sell he becomes. Believe it or not, there’s a chance he’s the first Bridges drafted in June.
Lonnie Walker, Finally
While sophomore Bruce Brown sat out with a hand injury against Boston U, Miami’s other lottery-caliber guard enjoy the best game of his young career. Highly-touted freshman Lonnie Walker stepped into the starting lineup and more than doubled his season-high with a 26-point performance, including seven boards and five treys. “My confidence exploded to 100 percent,” Walker said, according to the Miami Herald. “The rim got huge, and the ball got smaller. Everything was going my way.”
It’s a welcome sight from Walker, a talented scorer who’s occasionally struggled amid the Canes’ undefeated start as he worked to establish a role within a deep backcourt. This game certainly doesn’t mean he’s figured it all out, but it does offer a nice flash of the perimeter shooting and ability to attack the basket that earned him a five-star rating coming out of high school. Walker has the tools to be a plus on both ends of the floor, but still needs to put production behind the concept.
At the least, a game like this might make it harder to use Walker’s preseason knee injury as an excuse if his struggles continue into conference play. Miami will continue to try and figure out how to get Walker and Brown going at the same time, and if it happens, they’ll be must-see TV. Brown is set to miss at least one more game, and we’ll see if Walker can do enough to earn a permanent starting spot as the season continues.
Three Players to Watch
• Khyri Thomas, Creighton: Shouldering a larger portion of the Bluejays’ offense has been no problem for Thomas so far, as the junior guard is shooting 54% from the field and a highly impressive 44% from three-point land through his first eight games of the season. Thomas has been a nice complement to senior backcourt-mate Marcus Foster, proving to be dangerous as a floor spacer while averaging 17 points per game. He shot close to 40% last season and is emerging as one of college basketball’s top perimeter shooters and defenders.
As a 6’3” off-guard, Thomas profiles as more of a specialist, doing the majority of his damage in transition and spotting up around the arc. His athletic ability and defensive range round out nicely and give him valuable 3-and-D upside. Thomas boasts a 6’10” wingspan, has consistently generated turnovers over the last year, and now dogs opponents game to game while maintaining quality offensive production. Thomas stands to improve as a ball-handler and scorer off the bounce, but has shown plenty for a chance to carve out a role at the next level.
• Quinton Rose, Temple: Only a sophomore, Rose has emerged as a prospect with real upside and has stepped forward as a scorer, averaging 19 points to pace the Owls on a 52.9/40.0/66.7 shooting slash. The Front Office caught a 24-point showing from Rose at Madison Square Garden last week and came away duly impressed. As a mobile 6’7” wing, he can ably maneuver off the bounce, find teammates and attack the basket. While his shooting is likely due for some regression, Rose could conceivably play his way into the draft if he maintains a high level of production.
As he cuts down on turnovers, Rose profiles as a nice secondary playmaker well-suited to fill out an NBA attack. He needs to add some muscle and isn’t overly long, so physical limitations could eventually come into play, but he is a good baseline athlete who looks comfortable getting up and down the floor. He may benefit from one more year of college, but continued success might force the issue.
• Kameron Chatman, Detroit: A former Jordan Brand All-American and five-star prospect who transferred from Michigan, Chatman has made the most of his first eight games for Detroit. A cousin of NFL lineman Ndamukong Suh, Chatman has averaged 19.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game and showcased what looks to be an improved three-point stroke. The lefthander has a soft touch, and while he’s not a guy who blows by people on the outside, his crafty handle lets him create space to shoot over defenders. Now a junior, Chatman’s versatility at either forward spot and ability to handle an increased scoring load have brought him back onto the NBA radar.
While the level of competition hasn’t been great, Chatman managed 23 and 18 points in blowout losses to Virginia Tech and UCLA, respectively. It’s a very small sample size, but Chatman’s 46% from outside on nearly five attempts per game (mostly off the catch) is a notable clip for a guy who never shot above 30% from outside at Michigan. It looks even better when you remove a 1-for-9 stinker against Houston Baptist. To win an NBA role Chatman will need a lot of improvement defensively, where his slow foot speed has been exposed. He’ll turn 22 next year, and a full season with this kind of output would mean a good opportunity to test the draft.
Highlight Tape of the Week: Brandon McCoy vs. Arizona
McCoy showed up to college with less hype than many of his fellow freshmen, but has hit the ground running at UNLV and more than held his own against former AAU teammate DeAndre Ayton in a head-to-head matchup over the weekend. He’s now averaging 20.4 points and 11.9 rebounds, and though he’s offensively limited outside eight feet, McCoy’s overall activity level is encouraging. He shoots free throws well, can run the floor, and has the ability to become a useful rim protector. The Arizona game, in which he put 33 and 10, offered a nice feel for his strengths.