2020 NBA Draft: Getting to Know LaMelo Ball
Prospect research associate Grant Aqui took a deep dive into NBA prospect LaMelo Ball, who most recently played for the Illawarra Hawks of Australia’s NBL. Grant outlines Ball’s roller-coaster career and unorthodox path, from being a young kid at Chino Hills High School in California, to making quick stops around the world, to ultimately emerge as one of the top prospects in the 2020 NBA Draft.
First of all, writing a background piece on a 19-year-old that has been in the national spotlight since he was 14-years-old as a result of being a member of basketball’s equivalent of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” in and of itself is naturally oxymoronic. LaMelo Ball has been a lightning rod of a human being since being a diminutive freshman laden with braces and a high top mohawk at Chino Hills High School alongside his older brothers, Lonzo and LiAngelo. His path in the basketball world has been unorthodox, to say the least, and it has perhaps been the most bizarre of any lottery prospect in recent memory.
Here’s how LaMelo’s story has unfolded thus far.
Born to LaVar and Tina Ball, LaMelo is the youngest of the family, his two older brothers being Lonzo and LiAngelo. As is well known, his older brothers both attended UCLA, with Lonzo eventually being drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. LaMelo grew up in a ferociously competitive backyard in never-ending games of 1-on-1 versus his brothers. It would be those backyard games where LaMelo would get his first experience playing against older competition, a common theme in his career. Basketball was a massive emphasis for all three boys from a young age, as they showed a penchant for the game early on. LaMelo would first rise to prominence as a middle schooler playing U-17 grassroots basketball with his older brothers playing for Big Baller Brand, founded and coached by Lavar. The team didn’t play on any of the three major shoe circuits but did compete in the Adidas Uprising Championship in 2015, finishing 2-2 in the tournament. LaMelo averaged 20 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists per game despite being three years younger. Admittedly, the majority of his attempts came from three-point range, as his lack of physical maturity hampered his ability to create his own shot consistently. Following that AAU season, LaMelo reclassified in school so he could play for Chino Hills High School for his brother Lonzo’s senior year, continuing the pattern of playing against much older competition. LaMelo would be a high scoring bucket getter with Lonzo setting the table for his brothers LiAngelo, Lamelo, and future USC big man and 2020 NBA Draft prospect Onyeka Okongwu. Chino Hills cruised to a state title in the 2015-2016 season after a meeting with De La Salle high school in which LaMelo went for 14 points and 5 assists in a 20 point victory.
His sophomore year was a bit more tumultuous, as the infrastructure would begin to fall apart. Chino Hills’ state championship-winning coach and architect of the undefeated season, Steve Baik, resigned from his position in order to be closer to his family. Dennis Latimore would take over at the helm, which led to conflict between him and the Ball family over how much power Lavar would have within the program’s hierarchy. Chino Hills saw its 60-game winning streak snapped as they lost to an Oak Hill team loaded with high major talent, featuring Billy Preston, David McCormack, Ty-Shon Alexander, and Lindell Wigginton. With Lonzo gone, the Huskies slowly devolved from a dynastic winning machine to a stage displaying the Ball family’s reality show-esque drama, punctuated by LaMelo’s 92 point performance, that included plenty of cherry-picking and near half-court distanced shots. Despite all of the challenges they faced, Chino Hills still made it to the state semifinals, where their season ended in an overtime game against powerhouse Mater Dei High School, led by 5-star recruit and future Denver Nugget Bol Bol. LaMelo scored 28 points but on 8-33 shooting with 28 of his shots coming from three-point range.
Following his sophomore year, LaMelo’s story went from unorthodox to downright bizarre. LaMelo led the Big Baller Brand AAU team as the last standing Ball brother, with Lonzo already in the NBA and LiAngelo on his way to UCLA. The Big Baller Brand squad would again compete off of the three major shoe circuits and opt to play one-off tournaments. At the 2017 iteration of the Adidas Uprising tournament, LaMelo led his team with 37 points a game. They had the opportunity to play South Carolina Supreme led by future number one draft pick Zion Williamson. In a 12 point loss, Ball recorded 36 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists, while Zion went for 31 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 steals. As alluded to earlier, there was a division between Chino Hills’ program leader Dennis Latimore and Ball family patriarch Lavar. That fissure grew even further to a point beyond reconciliation. Lavar wanted to have input over the players on the Huskies’ roster which was seemingly a deal-breaker for Coach Latimore. He later said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “It was really nothing for me. I came in and my mission was to coach the team. I wasn’t going to have a parent tell me what to do. Period. Or I wasn’t going to take the job. I had that conversation with the administration…” As a result of their untenable relationship, Lavar opted to pull LaMelo out of school and began to home school him. In November of 2017, LiAngelo, now a Bruin, would pick up a suspension from UCLA as a result of shoplifting allegations on a pre-season trip to China. He ultimately left the team and school. With no basketball in sight for either of the two youngest Ball brothers, the stars aligned perfectly for Lavar when he was able to take both of his sons overseas to play professionally. In December of that year, both of the Ball brothers signed with agent Harrison Gaines and headed to Lithuania to play for Vytautus Prienai of the LKL.
In Lithuania, Lavar reached a crescendo, as he had more autonomy with regards to LaMelo and LiAngelo’s playing situation than ever before with his installation as head coach. The team participated in the first and only Big Baller Brand Challenge. The competition featured Lietuvos Rytas U-18 as well as Zalgiris U-18 teams with legitimate NBA prospects like Deividas Sirvydas and Rokas Jokubaitis. LaMelo led the Vytautas to an undefeated record, as he averaged 28 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists per game during the event. With the senior-level team, however, LaMelo only averaged 13 minutes per game over the course of 8 games. During that time, he played against older competition and some players who were literally twice his age. The lack of playing time for LaMelo would once again result in a clash between the senior-level team’s head coach and Lavar, ultimately leading to him removing his kids from the team and heading home. In an attempt to gain even more control over their situation, Lavar announced the foundation of the Junior Basketball Association (JBA) while the family was still in Lithuania in December of 2017. Upon the end of their six-month stint in Eastern Europe, the Ball family returned to their native California. Less than two weeks after their return stateside LaMelo signed a contract with his dad’s newly created JBA League. LaMelo’s Los Angeles Ballers played their first game against the New York Ballers in June of 2018. The Los Angeles team finished 6-2 and their games averaged over 270 combined points, with LaMelo finishing second in the league in scoring, averaging 40 points per game, trailing only behind his brother’s 49.3 points per game. Following that season, the JBA League was canceled.
With the JBA finished, LaMelo decided to return to high school for his senior year, enrolling at SPIRE Academy in Ohio with his mentor and former NBA player, Jermaine Jackson, as the head coach. His amateur status came into question as the family contended that LaMelo didn’t receive any compensation as a player for the JBA or LKL. However, his use of his likeness to promote Big Baller Brand and simply competing in a league that featured professionals forced the relinquishment of his amateur status. Without his amateur status, Oak Hill Academy and La Lumiere, two national powerhouses that have produced NBA talents like Jaren Jackson Jr, Isaiah Stewart II, and Cole Anthony, canceled their scheduled games with SPIRE. Still, the school was able to maintain a large portion of their independent schedule, including a spot in the Grind Session, which featured solid competition. SPIRE, led by Ball and Michigan State guard Rocket Watts, made it to the finals of the Grind Session before ultimately falling to Bella Vista Prep (AZ) armed with players Zion Harmon, Terry Armstrong, and Jeron Artest. For his efforts, LaMelo earned MVP of the Grind Session.
In the spring of 2019, Lavar hosted the Big Baller Brand All-Star Game after LaMelo was ruled ineligible or failed to receive an invite to play in various top high school All-American events, including McDonald’s All-American Game, Nike Hoop Summit, and Jordan Brand Classic, among others. Lavar’s game only generated a crowd of 1,000 people or less and the only other player that participated in the game aside from LaMelo that is currently in the 2020 NBA Draft is Jahmi’us Ramsey from Texas Tech.
Shortly after the Big Baller All-American Game, LaMelo signed a contract with the Australian NBL, ending up with the Illawarra Hawks. Before heading to Australia, LaMelo spent the summer playing in the famous Drew League in Los Angeles, reuniting with Chino Hills teammate and fellow 2020 NBA Draft prospect Onyeka Okongwu. Following their brief reunion, Ball made his way out to the land down under with Jermaine Jackson, who was now serving as his trainer and manager. Ball arrived to the Hawks with much fanfare. He made headlines during the “NBL Blitz” preseason event after scoring 19 points, grabbing 13 rebounds, and dishing out 7 assists in a win against the Perth Wildcats. Perhaps the peak of his 12 game stint in Australia came when he dropped a 32 point, 11 rebounds, and 13 assist triple-double in a win against Cairns Taipans, becoming the youngest in league history to do so.
Heading into December of 2019, Ball suffered a bruised foot that was initially thought to keep him out around one-month. However, that injury would spell the last of the LaMelo Ball experience in Australia, which gave us a brief glimpse at his tantalizing talent. LaMelo returned to the states to prepare for the 2020 NBA Draft. Even after leaving Australia, waves were made when it was falsely reported that LaMelo and Jermaine Jackson had purchased the Illawarra Hawks. Instead, the team was purchased by a group led by former NBA executive Bryan Colangelo, leaving somewhat of a bizarre ending to LaMelo’s story in Australia.
I don’t think there is any denying that the tale of LaMelo up to this point has been filled with reality show type of drama and at times total dysfunction. In recent months, it seems LaMelo has made it a point to separate himself from the drama. The combination of his father taking a step away from the public eye in addition to the mentorship of Jermaine Jackson has helped LaMelo get on the right path. LaMelo’s lightning rod personality and all that comes with him has made him somewhat polarizing as a prospect. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: LaMelo Ball’s talent is undeniable.