There is not a player at the top of the 2020 NBA Draft class who has red flags that are more obvious and well-defined than that of LaMelo Ball.
He’s a gunner that doesn’t shoot the ball all that well, finishing his two months in Australia shooting 38 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three. His effort level defensively is, at best, wavering. He shot selection is questionable, to put it nicely, and selfish when we’re not being so generous. The path that he took to get to this point — from Chino Hills to Lithuania to the JBL to Spire Academy to Australia — was, in a word, circuitous.
And that’s to say nothing of the concerns that teams will have given who his father is.
We’ll get into all of that.
But before we do, I think it is important to say this up front: There is a strong argument to make that LaMelo, even with all the red flags, may actually have the highest ceiling of any prospect in this draft class.
First and foremost, it needs to be said that LaMelo is no longer that 6-foot-nothin’ kid with braces and a blonde mohawk jacking up 45-footers and cherry-picking to try and score 100 points so he can go viral. He’s now 6-foot-7, and while he has a frame that could clearly use some time in an NBA strength and conditioning program, he is a late-bloomer. He won’t turn 19 until August 22nd. He’s throwing down tip-dunks now, and there’s still plenty of room for him to develop physically.
I think it’s also important to note that LaMelo has never really been coached all that hard. Before he got to Australia, every team LaMelo played for was either controlled by his father or coached by his now-manager. And while he was only with the Illawarra Hawks for a little more than two months, you could see him starting to figure things out.
In the first six games LaMelo played in the NBL, he averaged 12.0 points, 5.7 boards and 5.3 assists while shooting 34 percent from the floor, 15 percent from three and 68 percent from the line. Over the last six games, however, he averaged 22.0 points, 9.2 boards and 8.2 assists with shooting splits of 40/31/75. He closed out the season with back-to-back triples-doubles — including 25 points, 12 boards and 10 assists in his final game, which came against R.J. Hampton’s team — before an ankle injury led to him shutting things down.
Offensively, LaMelo has the potential to be special. He is, simply put, an unbelievable passer, able to make any and all reads out of ball-screens while also being capable of throwing every pass in the book with either hand at whatever angle is necessary to get the ball where it needs to be. He knows how to move a defense with his eyes, creating angles and space to get his teammates dunks, layups and open threes. He’s just as adept at hitting rollers — with both pocket passes and pinpoint lobs even when dribbling at full speed — as he is at reading what a tagger is doing on the weakside of the floor. He’s terrific at firing full-court passes to bigs that get out and run the floor, both in transition and off made baskets. He’s exceptional at anticipating when and where a player is going to come open in transition.
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He is a basketball savant, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that he will be one of the 10-15 best passers in the league by the end of his rookie season. In recent years, we’ve seen other lead guards with elite passing ability — Trae Young, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, etc. — have a major impact early in their career.
Now, it’s also important to note that LaMelo really is not anything like any of those players. Young is an elite shooter, LaMelo is not. (More on this in a second.) Morant is an elite athlete, LaMelo is not. Doncic was 19 years old when he won MVP of the Euroleague, the second-best league on the planet, and MVP of the Spanish ACB while LaMelo’s Illawarra team was just 3-9 with him on the roster in the NBL, a much less competitive league. Some of that was not his fault — Aaron Brooks was injured early in the season, and his teammates shot just 32 percent from three in the games LaMelo played in — but LaMelo should not be mentioned in the same breath as any of those three just yet.
There are essentially two reasons for that.
The first is the shooting.
LaMelo shot just 20-for-80 from three during his 12 games in the NBL. Like his brother Lonzo, LaMelo has a weird shooting stroke. His release has seemingly not changed since he was young. It’s a push shot, one where his left hand remains on the ball for far too long. His lower body is never consistent, and he relies on floaters from as far out as 20-feet because, it appears, he cannot actually shoot mid-range jumpers. The fact that he has a bad habit of settling for deep, deep threes way too early in the shot clock certainly contributed to those numbers, but shot selection is why he’s a 25 percent three-point shooter instead of 30 percent. Either way, it’s a concern.
LaMelo is also a mess defensively, and that’s putting it kindly.
He consistently finds himself out of position, failing to rotate from the weakside of the floor and and unaware of when he is supposed to be tagging rollers. He really struggled to keep drivers from getting right to the front of the rim. He’s a gambler, preferring to try and jump a passing lane than to play solid defense even if it leaves his teammates out to try, and while he does have the anticipation and IQ to pick off a few passes, overall it was a net-negative.
But to be frank, all of that is, theoretically, fixable. He can be taught to shoot. He can be taught how to better position himself defensively. If he’s held accountable on the defensive end — like, for example, if he has a coach that will park him on the bench if he gets caught wiping his shoes instead of rotating defensively — I think he has a chance to at least be an average defender. He has the tools.
And that, to me, is what makes LaMelo so intriguing.
The basketball IQ is there. The passing ability is there. The athleticism to get to the rim, the size, the physical tools, it’s all there. For the most part, the things that he struggles with can all be coached up. I hesitate to compare him to Lonzo because they are very different players, but we’ve seen the oldest Ball brother develop into an excellent defender and a 38 percent three-point shooter after getting to the NBA.
LaMelo should be able to follow a similar developmental path.
The risks are always going to be there. If he ends up in an organization that is too close to home or doesn’t have veterans that will hold him accountable if he doesn’t put in the work, it may not end well for him. You have to know that when you draft him.
But you cannot teach his basketball IQ, his passing savvy, his understanding of the game.
And in a draft where there is no one that is a clear-cut NBA superstar, I think that makes him worth the risk at No. 1.
2020 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: LaMelo Ball is this year’s best prospect originally appeared on NBCSports.com