If you, basketball fan, haven’t taken the time to watch a minute of the Australian NBL this season, you’re probably not alone. But recent developments necessitate you pay attention, particularly if your favorite NBA team is scuffling. Although 18-year-old LaMelo Ball’s fame often precedes him, in this case, it’s worth emphasizing that there’s real substance behind it. With triple-doubles in his last two games for Illawarra, Ball has begun to bolster his case as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. He’s forcing the issue not by riding excess hype, but with his remarkable play.
The looming scenario in which LaMelo is the first player off the board in June is not altogether a surprise—the hoops industry has been keyed in on Ball with a straight face since the summertime, and top decision-makers have continued making the pilgrimage across the Pacific to see for themselves. As a big point guard with an unusually intrinsic aptitude for facilitating offense, it was little secret that he was well ahead of the curve in all facets for a player his age—teams had an understanding he’d be a lottery-caliber prospect—but there was little thought given to exactly how productive he would be already.
In NBA circles, not much of a consensus has formed with regard to the top spot. A strong performance from Anthony Edwards at the Maui Invitational certainly bolstered the Georgia guard’s case. While Memphis center James Wiseman remains suspended until January, teams in dire need of a big will look at him closely. Both are very much in the running, and the general feeling about the top of the draft remains lukewarm. As one Eastern Conference executive put it: “We can only draft what’s there.” And as December begins, the situation is legitimately still evolving, in dire contrast to last season, when it took approximately a week for Zion Williamson to make things easy for everybody.
With all that in mind, it’s getting harder to ignore what Ball is doing. It has to be noted that Illawarra is just 3–9 in league play and in last place, with all three wins coming against one opponent, Cairns, against whom Ball posted last week’s 32-point, 13-assist, 11-rebound triple-double. Still, he’s been one of the most productive players in the entire league of late: in five November games, Ball averaged 23.2 points, 8.4 assists and 9.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals. He’s shouldering a heavy diet of Illawarra’s possessions, even moreso with former NBA guard Aaron Brooks sidelined by injury, and the fact that there’s been visible improvement in a short period of time is going to work in his favor. He’s even made strides defensively, where he’ll have a chance to at least be competent. He’s not an elite athlete, but he’s so good at such a young age that history suggests it may not matter. We’re witnessing real big-boy stuff at a competitive pro level from someone who turned 18 a few months ago. It’s hard not to be optimistic about his profile, and his proclivity for uptempo play in a fast-paced NBA that’s been redefined in recent by elite perimeter shot-creators.
While it’s clear Ball will end up an early selection in a relatively thin lottery, there are echoes of skepticism tied to his candidacy at No. 1. “[The No. 1 pick] shooting sub-40% from the field and sub-30% from three? That’s crazy,” one Western Conference executive emphasized. For all his highlight-caliber plays and big totals, Ball is shooting 38.9% from the field and just 27.9% on threes as of Monday, in addition to 70% on less than four free throw attempts per game. He shot 1-of-11 from three during Saturday’s triple-double against the Breakers and fellow projected lottery pick R.J. Hampton. Watch Ball play and you can tell he’s improved, but the greater statistical sample at the end of the season will tell a big part of the story.
Optimistically, Ball’s natural maturation as a player leads to a gradual uptick in efficiency, and playing with more talent leads to easier scoring opportunities. He’s still figuring out how to strike the delicate balance between being scoring-oriented and being selfish, but it’s obvious that his feel for playmaking is going to translate in potentially elite fashion. But he’ll have to make himself a perpetual scoring threat to maximize it, a transition that that’s troubled his older brother, Lonzo in his adjustment to the NBA. LaMelo is capable of making every pass, but when it comes to jump shooting and finishing, the results have simply not been there on a regular basis. He’s bigger, can get downhill and create space much more effectively than Lonzo at the same stage, plus his mechanics are cleaner. So it’s possible that LaMelo’s superior ball-handling may just be more cosmetic than functional when it comes to getting him better shots, and the statistical sample supports that case. It’s nice that he’s a great passer who’s also wired to score, but if the shooting splits don’t improve, it’ll be too much for some teams to stomach.
Another mitigating aspect for some front offices may be the lingering sticker shock from LaVar Ball’s Laker-adjacent antics, which undeniably damaged the early part of Lonzo Ball’s career to a degree. At some point, that noise shouldn’t matter. The nascent Kardashianism of youth basketball is going nowhere, as evidenced by the fact LeBron James Jr., now a high school freshman at Sierra Canyon in California will have 15 of his games broadcast or streamed by the network. Dwyane Wade’s son Zaire also plays for the team, as do potential lottery picks Brandon Boston and Ziaire Williams. Viral fame is the new normal for teenage players, and at some point, teams just have to get over it. It does seem positive that LaMelo has begun to redefine himself after bizarre few years underscored by his father’s aggressive, public chicanery. If a front office genuinely decides he’s the top prospect, they’re going to take him anyway.
When you watch Ball play, it’s sometimes hard to temper the enthusiasm. He plays with flourish and intelligence, even when the results aren’t always there. The idea of building an uptempo attack around a 6’6” playmaker is something both coaching staffs and fans can get behind. His massive following seems sure to impact ratings. Draft him, and you probably have to commit to playing fast in order to get the most bang for your buck. There are athletic limitations, but the talent remains substantial, and he’s really just scratching the surface in terms of physical maturity and on-court consistency. Ball’s efficiency struggles point to serious risk, but it’s hard to argue in earnest that anyone else in the draft has the innate basketball chops to match his upside as a shot creator if things click. Picking atop this draft might be an unenviable task, but if Ball’s trajectory continues, he might make the decision easier for everyone involved. If nothing else, he’s offering us a valuable shred of clarity.