LaMelo Ball’s Game Is An Uncut Gem

Updated: February 18, 2020
NBL Rd 9 – New Zealand v Illawarra

The NBA is in a liminal state – pushing towards its future and yet clinging to the past. While LeBron is on a quest to disprove the old adage that “Father Time is undefeated” rising stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic stand ready to carry the torch into the next generation. But while a few of the mainstays for the next decade of basketball have revealed themselves, there are many more presumably yet to be drafted players waiting in the wings that will soon be household names. Fans look to the draft not only for hope but to try and imagine what the NBA could look like in a few years’ time.

However, questions have been raised as to the quality of this year’s particular draft and how much it will contribute to the next generation of NBA stars. With so many top prospects missing time due to injury (or institutional incompetence in James Wiseman’s case) there has been a growing sense of pessimism about the players expected to go in the top 10. This isn’t to say that players like Anthony Edwards aren’t immensely talented, but alongside their talents come glaring flaws that could inhibit their impact as NBA players.

No one in the 2020 draft class embodies this idea better than LaMelo Ball.

Melo is the youngest brother of Lavar Ball’s Lion’s Brood also including brothers Lonzo and Liangelo. Despite Lonzo catapulting all the way to the number two pick on the back of an outstanding UCLA freshman season, there have been persistent whispers that LaMelo is the most talented of the three.

Having now watched LaMelo’s work on the Illawarra Hawks of Australia’s National Basketball League extensively – I can confirm this talk is not unwarranted. But is LaMelo destined to struggle at the NBA level due to his familial flaw, or does he possess unique characteristics and strengths that will allow his game to blossom into stardom?

LaMelo is taking an unorthodox path to the draft, more akin to a star European player than the typical American teenager. He’s been playing professional basketball since he was 16, first in the much-publicized leap to Lithuania, then in his father’s failed Junior Basketball Association, and then most recently he was running the show for the Hawks – a bottom-dwelling team in the NBL.

Whether a player succeeds or not in the NBA is still alchemy, even to the best scouts and front offices – the combination of opportunity, chemistry, fit – many things outside the player’s immediate control, go a long way to determining their ultimate success. But LaMelo has to this point demonstrated dedication and maturity – under extreme public scrutiny – that most prospects have not. I consider his path, circuitous as it has been, a mark in his favor rather than a demerit.

The NBL itself has grown greatly in quality and esteem in recent years, though still not on par with the best European competition, LaMelo found himself playing alongside and across from many who have at least flirted with NBA experience (prior to a season-ending injury he shared a backcourt with 10-year vet Aaron Brooks). The NBL is not a scrub league and nepotism did not hand LaMelo the keys to the Hawks offense. He won his spot as the floor general for a team of basketball playing lifers and over the course of the season he clearly earned their respect. No mean feat for a kid 18 as of August.

So what then, is LaMelo’s game? It is predicated on 2 strengths that buoy every other thing he does on the court and one flaw that threatens to sink his potential as an NBA prospect. To whit, his handle and his passing are outstanding, but his shot bears all the mechanical awkwardness that one so associates with the Ball family name.

LaMelo, as has been well-documented has been hoisting deep 3-point shots since before he was in primary school. At that age, the only way to generate enough force to make a shot at that range is to essentially shoot like your making a chest pass. And while LaMelo doesn’t shoot quite like that, he does sport mechanics singularly unsuited to a guard that in the end may grow to be 6’8”. His form is rough. It’s a stiff, multi-action thing with a low release point, one that without major reconstruction will be bothered easily by the elite athletes he’ll see on a nightly basis in the NBA. I do not think it is incurable, but I do think needed shooting technique adjustments to his shot will turn him into a potential high-level scoring/shooting threat that will make him a perfect fit in today’s game.

And unlike Lonzo who despite a similarly ugly shot managed a remarkably efficient year at UCLA (FG% 55.1 FG3% 41.2 eFG% 66.8). LaMelo was not an efficient player as a Hawk, he shot only 25 percent from behind the arc in Australia, and had a very poor 46.16% True Shooting Percentage.

Further dragging down his efficiency is his questionable shot selection and the high volume of off the dribble 3-point attempts that make up a steady part of LaMelo’s diet from the field. He might be forgiven for simply taking this time in the NBL to grow his game, but the fact remains that it’s a bad shot that hurts his team offensive effectiveness and efficiency when he’s not making those shots.

So while Lonzo managed outstanding efficiency at UCLA despite his wobbly form – giving hope to many draft analysts that with some refinement it would translate to the NBA. LaMelo may face an uphill battle given his inability to be efficient even against NBL competition.

While a 36% 3 point mark is nothing to sneeze at, in the past what truly held Lonzo back were his struggles from the free-throw line. He’s made needed shooting improvements while playing for the pelicans, but when playing for the lakers he was shooting free-throws at a terrible 50% rate. And while playing for the lakers,  his difficulties at the line at times polluted his overall game, as he would avoid contact and not take advantage of opportunities to get to the rim – essentials for any efficient guard, let alone a lead ball handler.

This is where there is some room for optimism with LaMelo, who has always shot decently if not exceptionally from the stripe. It’s a popular notion that free throw percentage is a better indicator of future 3 point effectiveness, but sadly this does not apply to LaMelo as he shoots free throws and 3 pointers with completely distinct mechanics. But a guard as crafty as LaMelo that can work his way into the paint, finish around the rim with elite creativity, and hit free throws at a reasonable rate definitely has a chance to develop into an efficient player, despite his other difficulties. Based on the reality that his strengths may be far greater than the limitations caused by his weaknesses, and if he focuses on being overly reliant on his strengths, then he will help himself play efficiently by focusing on what he does well.

It would be generous to call LaMelo’s outside shot questionable, I fear in truth the answer is well-decided. What remains in question is if his collection of other skills can overcome this particular difficulty.

So, let’s talk about what the kid does well because when he shines it is something special to see. Like Lonzo, he is a daring and effective passer. He makes passes that most guards can’t see or won’t attempt on a consistent basis while keeping turnovers low, something that is the bane of young guards.

He offers a complete floor game. He rebounds at a high rate and pushes the ball down the opponent’s throat when he does so. The hit-ahead full-court pass to a transition layup is his signature play.

LaMelo works like a veteran out of the pick and roll, drawing in the defense and makes passes over the top to the roll man. He particularly loves to make a one-handed overhead pass out of the pick and roll, made possible by his height and touch. He makes otherwise average roll guys look otherworldly as he hits them right in the pocket allowing them easy finishes at the rim.

Watching LaMelo dribble is a downright enchanting experience, he sprinkles in crossovers and hesitations in a dynamic manner, and he goes behind the back on the fast break with every confidence that he’s in control. It’s impressive to watch but it’s not merely for show – LaMelo primarily gains advantage on the court on the strength of his dribble. This is important because he is not the most explosive player, his ability to get into the paint is predicated on his exceptional handle and fluidity. He has excellent height at the point guard position. Following a recent growth spurt, the existing consensus is that he has already grown to 6’ 7” with no reason to think he’s done there.

Basketball IQ is another strong mark for Melo. He sees the floor well on both sides of the ball. Clyde Frasier is fond of saying that basketball is a game founded on improvisation, and that game is one that Melo thrives in. His movements are fluid and unpredictable and yet he looks utterly in control running an offense.

His creativity extends beyond passing but also to his finishing and dribbling. He has advanced/elite touch around the rim and loves to go reverse and use the rim to guard against getting blocked. He’s developed a running floater that allows him to attack bigs off the dribble if they try to back off and wall off the rim.

On the defensive end, he has room for improvement, he’s skinny and gets pushed around on picks quite easily. He is not the best on-ball defender and like many other lead guards, he struggles fighting over screens, allowing opponents to “get middle” against him with too much ease. But he’s not so bad as to require any kind of unconventional team defense.

The Hawks blitzed the pick and roll semi-regularly, probably to press LaMelo’s height advantage, but they otherwise play a conventional defense and didn’t do anything to hide LaMelo. I recall numerous instances where he would anticipate an opposing dribble handoff and completely blow up the play, resulting in a steal and a transition bucket. LaMelo would thrive on a transition team and one that uses the defense to ignite the offense.

In addition to that, he has a keen sense of positioning, which is something that allows him to rebound effectively for his position. As Rob Mahoney noted recently for The Ringer, the changing responsibilities and roles of frontcourt players will put a premium on wing-sized players that can rebound – LaMelo seems set to fit neatly into this new archetype.

LaMelo is a difficult prospect to project. His outside shooting has been highly inefficient that it would be easy to see how he fails. And yet his craftiness, creativity, innate improvisation, passing, ball handling, and high-level talent are just that good that you want to believe he can transcend his flaws. He truly and uniquely possesses a tantalizing array of skills for one so young.

Lamelo might have some roughness to him, but his game is a diamond at its core. Taken with his unusual path to the NBA, it’s difficult to see Lamelo going #1 overall, but some team in the lottery is going to pluck a gem in this kid, and I won’t be surprised that a team in love with his potential decides to take him as the #1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

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2 years ago

Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂

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