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NBA Draft 2020 Player Profile: La'Melo Ball

La'Melo Ball
No family in modern basketball create as many headlines and as much intrigue as the Ball family. Lavar Ball's over-the-top personality and marketing antics with his brand, "Big Baller Brand", became a fixture on social media and sports talk shows, just as Lonzo Ball was breaking into the league with the Los Angeles Lakers. A few years later, Lavar has toned it down somewhat and Lonzo is in a brand new location, putting together a really good first season in New Orleans. But, the family remains in the headlines due to the introduction of the youngest of the Ball trio: La'Melo. La'Melo has taken a very unconventional route to the NBA, originally committing to UCLA at the ripe age of 13 before leaving his high school team and taking professional opportunities overseas. Most recently, he has played for the Illawarra Hawks of Australia's National Basketball League. His decision to enter the 2020 NBA Draft comes as no surprise, as NBA scouts have shown an interest in his skills since he was a middle-schooler. He has enough talent to be considered a legitimate contender for the No. 1 overall selection, but NBA teams must also be wary of the risks involved. Even with the NBA Draft likely to be pushed back a few months, Ball's name and game are going to be talked about endlessly over the coming summer months. It seems like the perfect time to further break down my view on the polarizing point guard, and where I think he could land in the Draft.

Quick Facts
La'Melo Ball
From: Chino Hills, California
Height & Weight: 6'7", 180 pounds
Position: Combo guard
Team: Illawarra Hawks (NBL)

Strengths

  • Elite-level passer, with a great feel for the game. La'Melo earned a reputation as a ball hog earlier in his career, but he has developed fabulous passing ability and instincts over the last few years. He has the strength to get the ball across the court, and he shows a tremendous understanding of passing lanes and timing. Ball can get really flashy in the open court, but he's also effective in the half-court at finding the open man and making the defense react. His feel for the position is also amazing for an 18-year-old. La'Melo understands where he needs to be on the court, and he finds ways to spring his teammates open. This is something I've always found extremely impressive about the Ball family; they make their teammates better. La'Melo recorded a 36.9 assist percentage rate in the NBL and his turnover rate was actually lower than Lonzo's at UCLA.
  • Prototypical NBA size. Size is always going to be an asset in basketball, and that seems to even more true in the modern NBA. Point guards have to be bigger and stronger than ever before, and teams haven't shied away from unconventional methods on offense (think Ben Simmons or Giannis bring the ball up and starting the offense). NBA personnel have to be in love with Ball's size and length. He measures in at 6'7", but also boasts an eye-popping 6'10" wingspan. That type of length is already a major asset, but there is also some thought La'Melo could not be done growing. He is still just 18 years old, and he's grown tremendously during his "high school" years.
  • Significant offensive potential. La'Melo's offensive game is far from rounded out at this point in his career. We know he's an excellent passer, but what about him as a scorer? His size and explosive first step allow him to get to the rim very efficiently, and he finishes pretty well around the basket. He still certainly needs to add bulk if he wants to do the same in the physical NBA, but I like his upside as a finisher. You'd love to see him get even better at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line, but that's often not something super developed at his age. As a shooter, there's work to be done and his mechanics are a little bit messy. I will say, his shot looks better than Lonzo's did at this age, and he should be able to adjust to the league a little quicker. Lonzo'z shooting form was extremely ugly at this point; La'Melo's is slightly better but still needs improvement. It still shouldn't take years for him to get better mechanics down.
  • Professional experience. This is actually a strength that I think is really important to consider when you look at La'Melo Ball. Players taking the one-year overseas route have met mixed results generally, namely guys like Emmanuel Mudiay and Brandon Jennings. Sometimes, an extra year of professional experience simply isn't that big of a plus, even when it's generally stronger competition than what most players see in the collegiate basketball ranks. With that being said, La'Melo has been playing against professionals since his before his junior year of high school. That isn't to say the competition he saw in Lithuania or in Australia is necessarily elite, but there's a certain amount of maturity you have to possess to play in these overseas leagues. This past season, Ball played on a good Illawarra team with a bunch of professionals, where he seemed to fit in and was well-liked. That may not matter to casual basketball fans, but I think it says something to NBA teams, especially with the questions surrounding Ball's immaturity early in his career.

Weaknesses
  • Defensive questions. La'Melo Ball certainly has the tools to be a really effective defender, but it doesn't always show up during games. Ball did boast 1.7 steals per game while in the NBL, but he too often had questionable defensive lapses that can't happen in the NBA. Ball doesn't move as well laterally as you would hope, and his defensive footwork overall is pretty suspect, even at his young age. La'Melo is a terrible pick-and-roll defender; he doesn't have the awareness or athleticism to defend them effectively, and that seems like it could be a real problem in the NBA. I do think that there is serious potential to grow on defense because of his length and natural feel. Lonzo had similar questions on defense coming out of college, and he has developed into one of the NBA's best perimeter defenders. 
  • Shooting consistency. The mechanics are definitely a bit wacky, and La'Melo simply did not shoot the ball very well in his lone season with Illawarra. He has the potential to evolve into a decent shot creator, but that will still need significant work. Ball sometimes can get a little too fancy with his offensive moves, and overzealous with his shooting range. His ability to catch-and-shoot is where I'm going to be the most interested in. Depending on where Ball falls in this Draft, there seems at least a decent chance he could end up on a team with an established point guard, such as Golden State, Atlanta or Minnesota. How does he react to playing off-ball more, and shooting straight-up? I think he can play off-ball pretty effectively when he needs to, but there will be some sort of adjustment period.
  • Family/personality concerns. Lavar Ball is among the most polarizing people in the basketball world, and it's no secret he clashed with the Lakers during Lonzo's time there. Even if NBA teams won't admit it, that has to be something at the top of their minds when discussing selecting La'Melo. There has also been talk about personality and work ethic concerns in the past for La'Melo. It hasn't seemed to be an issue during his most recent stint with Illawarra, and anybody in the public eye at a young age is going to have some personality issues. Ball is still a very young kid, and it will still be important where he lands. If he goes to an organization with a solid core of veterans, I don't think there will ever be any problems. Now, if he ends up in a more volatile situation, that is where some of these past concerns would become more important.
My Take
There were a few reasons why I wanted to start off this series with La'Melo Ball. First off, he's highly controversial, which always lends some intrigue into writing about a player like him. Secondly, he is my top player in this Draft. I've followed his career path from afar since he was a middle-schooler, and I'm really impressed with his growth. Not only is his physical transformation actually really impressive, he has grown so much as a player. Gone is the ball-hogging, half-court shooting teenager and replacing him is an intelligent, well-rounded basketball player. That isn't to say his shooting concerns and defensive problems aren't notable, but there is no perfect prospect at his age. In fact, this is a really imperfect Draft Class, and I would not rule out La'Melo going No. 1 overall. He truly has that type of talent, and he would pack the seats wherever he ends up. 

Where He'll Go
The NBA's decision to push back the lottery was an obvious one, considering the season is still technically going on. However, it means there is no real clarity at the top of this Draft right now, with teams sure to shuffle up and down the board. The teams with the best chance at landing high appear to be Golden State, Cleveland, Minnesota and Atlanta. The interesting thing is, most of those teams would likely prefer a big or a guard. But, team needs in the NBA are significantly different than how we view them in the NFL Draft environment, so I still think it is a safe bet La'Melo lands somewhere in the Top 3-5. The more teams watch his tape this past season the more they're going to be impressed, so I wouldn't put it past him to see him sneak into the No. 1 spot.

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