LaMelo Ball's wild path toward the NBA

·14 min read

Nick Pallas eyed his victim the same way a slugger sizes up a batting practice fastball.

The tiniest kid on the court had slipped past one of Pallas’ teammates off the dribble, gifting the 6-foot-8 center a chance to showcase his shot-blocking talents.

“He drove in and I thought I was about to add to my highlight reel,” Pallas sheepishly told Yahoo Sports. “I was like, ‘I hope the cameras are ready! I’m about to swat this!’ ”

It was 2013, and America had not yet heard of LaMelo Ball. Pallas had no way of knowing that the onrushing 5-foot-4 guard would one day blossom into a likely top-five NBA draft pick with an Instagram following of nearly 6 million.

In those days, LaMelo was just the baby-faced 11-year-old kid brother of promising high school prospects Lonzo and LiAngelo Ball. Pallas assumed LaMelo had no business starting alongside his siblings in a high-level 16-and-under AAU game until he rose up to challenge the precocious preteen at the rim and wound up grasping at air.

“He comes in and makes a nice little teardrop floater over me,” Pallas recalled with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Well, I didn’t know he had that in his game.’ That’s when I realized he could do more than chuck threes and cherry pick.”

Long before he forfeited his final two seasons of high school basketball to play professionally in Lithuania, star in a reality TV series and launch his own signature shoe, LaMelo Ball’s path to the NBA was already unusual. LaVar Ball challenged his youngest son to compete against kids 5 or 6 years older than him and to play an unconventional style of basketball that made the Golden State Warriors look plodding.

On the family’s backyard court, LaMelo measured himself against his older brothers and their friends. On the AAU circuit and in high school, he competed alongside them. They confounded opponents with an unconventional, fast-paced system that deemphasized defense and encouraged shooting early and often.

Those experiences helped mold LaMelo into a high-risk, high-upside prospect who could go as early as No. 1 overall in next week’s NBA draft. For better or worse, the 6-foot-7 point guard is unafraid of any opponent and unwaveringly confident in his own ability.

“I don’t want to be a player that’s just drafted and is a role player in the NBA,” LaMelo told Yahoo Sports’ Krysten Peek last December. “I want to keep rising from there and be one of the best to ever play the game.”

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 30: LaMelo Ball of the Hawks after warm up during the round 9 NBL match between the New Zealand Breakers and the Illawarra Hawks at Spark Arena on November 30, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
LaMelo Ball's path to the NBA took him from California to Lithuania, back to Ohio and then on to Australia. (Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Backyard Ball

The way LaVar Ball likes to tell the story, fathering NBA prospects was always his master plan. He insists that even played a role in his courtship of his wife Tina after they met as students at Cal State Los Angeles.

He was a 6-foot-6 two-sport athlete. She was a 6-foot basketball player. To Lavar, the potential to produce tall, athletic kids contributed to Tina’s appeal.

When the couple moved to the distant Los Angeles suburb of Chino Hills and had three boys, LaVar began training them almost from birth. Soon after they learned to walk, LaVar had them hopping up steps or onto furniture. Next came push-ups and pull-ups on the workout equipment LaVar installed in the backyard. Eventually, they graduated to lifting weights and sprinting up steep hills down the street from their home.

On afternoons and weekends, the backyard of the Ball family’s two-story home often resembled a basketball camp. The Ball brothers and other neighborhood kids played 3-on-3, hoisted shots or went through ball-handling drills.

“It was real intense,” said Loyola Marymount senior Eli Scott, a high school and AAU teammate of the Ball brothers. “We'd push each other every day. There was always something you could work on and there was always someone to push you to get better.”

LaMelo may have been four years younger than Lonzo and three years younger than LiAngelo, but neither his dad nor his brothers cut him any slack. When Lonzo ran hill sprints, LaMelo was expected to keep up. When LiAngelo hit a half dozen corner jump shots in a row, LaMelo was expected to match it.

This same mindset carried over to organized basketball. LaMelo played his first full-court game at age 4 against 9- and 10-year-olds. He typically played on the same teams as his brothers from then on, developing an unorthodox two-handed shot at a young age because that was his best hope of releasing a regulation basketball quickly and getting it to a 10-foot rim.

As LaMelo gradually gained confidence competing against older players, Lonzo blossomed into one of the top players in his age group. By the time Lonzo entered high school, word had begun to spread about a talented point guard from Chino Hills with a knack for surveying the floor and creating fast-break opportunities for his teammates.

In late 2012, then-Oregon State assistant coach David Grace visited practice at Chino Hills High School to see if the buzz about Lonzo was legitimate. It only took Grace a few minutes to make an evaluation.

“He goes down the court once, then back the other way, then back the other way and then back again,” Grace told Yahoo Sports with a chuckle. “By then I’d seen enough. I was ready to offer him a scholarship.”

The following year, Grace accepted an assistant coaching position at UCLA, prioritized pursuing Lonzo and grew closer to the Ball family. That was how Grace learned that Lonzo had a pair of younger brothers who also played basketball.

Never one to miss a chance to audaciously boast about his sons, LaVar proclaimed to Grace that Lonzo was Jason Kidd with a jump shot and that LiAngelo was also a future pro. Then LaVar made a bold prediction that grabbed Grace’s attention.

“LaMelo,” he declared, “is going to be better than both of them.”

Playing LaVar ball

Some of the earliest signs that LaMelo might validate his father’s prediction emerged on the AAU circuit. As an 11-year-old, the youngest Ball brother delivered some big games against nationally renowned opponents loaded with future Division I talent.

The 15- and 16-year-olds on the Compton Magic didn’t take LaMelo seriously when they faced him for the first time in April 2013. LaMelo made them pay by delivering 13 points in his team’s 77-66 upset victory at the Pangos Sweet 16 in Long Beach, California.

“We had a lot of the top guys in Southern California on our team,” former Compton Magic coach A.J. Diggs told Yahoo Sports. “With that much talent, it was natural to think an 11-year-old didn’t belong. But as the game wore on and he was making shots, it was like, ‘Look guys, you’ve got to guard this kid. He’s a talented player. He’s not out here for nothing.’ ”

The style of play LaVar favored made his QJZ Elite and Big Ballers VXT teams an especially tough matchup for some bigger, more talented opponents.

LaVar sought to take advantage of Lonzo’s ability to rebound in traffic and fuel a fast break with pinpoint outlet passes to his brothers. LiAngelo and LaMelo would often leak out in transition before their opponents hoisted a shot, gambling that they could pile up fast-break points more quickly than other teams could score against an outnumbered defense.

“Some plays we would be playing offense against three defenders while two of their players were past half court waiting for an outlet pass either from a missed shot or a made one,” former Compton Magic guard Rex Pflueger told Yahoo Sports. “It didn’t matter to them. They wanted to get out and run every single time.”

Any other coach might have played LaMelo sparingly because he contributed little on defense or on the glass at his age, but QJZ’s unorthodox system masked those flaws. What’s more, LaVar gave LaMelo and his older brothers the freedom to fire at will without fear of being benched — even if that meant jacking up low-percentage, contested 3-pointers early in the shot clock.

The younger Ball brothers eventually showed enough potential that Grace urged then-UCLA coach Steve Alford to extend scholarship offers to them too. Lonzo committed to the Bruins in 2014. A year later, so did both his younger brothers, LaMelo at age 13 and without having played a single high school game yet.

“The way his frame was, I could tell he was going to be long and lean like ‘Zo,” Grace said. “I knew we were going to have to tame him down from shooting every doggone shot but other than that I could tell he was going to be really, really good.”

While LaVar’s nontraditional style of play and incessant bombast and bravado rankled some in Southern California basketball circles, the Ball family was largely a feel-good story during this era.

A proud father built an AAU team around his three sons and their friends and used an aesthetically pleasing style of play to challenge more prestigious club teams backed by Nike and Adidas. The Ball brothers then turned down offers to attend top private schools and teamed up again to lead hometown Chino Hills High to national prominence.

In Lonzo’s sophomore year, Chino Hills fell one win shy of reaching its first state title game. In Lonzo’s junior year, he led the Huskies to the state final, only to foul out with three minutes left in a one-point game.

With 13-year-old LaMelo joining his older brothers for the 2015-16 season, LaVar audaciously predicted, "There's not a high school team that can beat us.” Remarkably, he was right. Playing to large crowds drawn in by the Ball brothers’ talent and showmanship, Chino Hills roared to a 35-0 record and captured not just a state title but the mythical national championship, a feat unlikely to be reproduced by another public high school anytime soon.

That summer, Lonzo left for UCLA, continuing his smooth ascent to the NBA. For LaMelo, what had already been an unusual path was about to get a lot more bumpy.

LaMelo steps out of the shadows

Eli Scott can pinpoint the exact moment when LaMelo emerged from Lonzo’s shadow and achieved a level of national fame few high school athletes have ever matched. It was Dec. 26, 2016, the night LaMelo hit a shot only he had the audacity to even attempt.

The way Scott remembers it, the only warning LaMelo gave that he was about to do something amazing was to tell his Chino Hills teammates, “Watch this.” Then he dribbled up court, twice pointed at the mid-court logo to let an overmatched defender know where he was going to pull up from and casually buried the shot as though it was nothing special.

“That’s just him,” Scott said with a chuckle. “He's been doing amazing things and catching people's eye his whole life. If most people shot that shot, people would say, ‘What are you doing?’ But when you see a guy that has that much swagger, that much confidence in himself, then you start to believe, ‘Oh yeah, that dude has a good chance of making that shot.’”

Video of the shot spread within minutes on social media and inspired both awe and disgust from NBA luminaries. Stephen Curry even addressed it during a news conference a few days later. “That right there was pretty unbelievable,” Curry said, “for him to call his shot like Babe Ruth, knock it down and act like nothing happened.”

LaMelo also generated attention later that season for piling up 92 points against an outmanned league opponent, but those made-for-social media moments largely obscured more important developments over the course of that year.

First of all, LaMelo experienced a growth spurt. Secondly, with Lonzo no longer there to initiate the offense, LaMelo began to take over those responsibilities and show flashes of newfound creativity and court vision operating out of the pick and roll.

It became tougher to assess LaMelo’s progress after that because his situation turned chaotic. LaVar started making decisions that appeared motivated by money or fame instead of the best interest of his younger sons.

In 2017, LaVar launched the Big Baller Brand and jeopardized LaMelo’s hopes of ever playing college basketball by releasing a signature shoe named after him. Weeks later, LaVar yanked LaMelo out of Chino Hills High before his junior season amidst a feud with the school’s third head coach in as many years.

Rather than enrolling his youngest son at another high school, LaVar sent LaMelo and LiAngelo to snow-covered Lithuania to play professional basketball. The Ball brothers’ three-month cameo with BC Vytautas was little more than a thinly veiled marketing stunt designed to increase revenue for the struggling club, drum up publicity for the fledgling Big Baller Brand and generate content for the family’s reality TV show.

After stints at an Ohio prep school and as the face of LaVar’s short-lived Junior Basketball Association, LaMelo finally made a move with his own development in mind. He signed with the Illawarra Hawks of the Australia-based National Basketball League, a high-level league with a proven track record as a landing spot for teenaged NBA prospects seeking an alternative to college basketball.

Other 18-year-old five-star prospects have gone overseas for a year and struggled with the transition to playing against men. Not LaMelo. After all, he had been playing against older competition his whole life.

In 12 games with the Hawks, Ball averaged 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists, numbers diminished somewhat by his inefficient outside shooting and his negligible impact on his team’s success. Last-place Illawarra struggled almost as much with Ball on the floor as it did after he suffered a December foot injury and shut down his season.

While Ball now stands 6-foot-7 and often sports a goatee or mustache, so many of his strengths and weaknesses can still be traced back to his days as a baby-faced preteen with the greenest of green lights.

He has range out to mid-court, but his mechanics remain unconventional and his shot selection can be brazen and wasteful.

He has the physical tools to be an excellent defender, but too often he doesn’t put in the same effort at that end of the floor.

He has the creativity and court vision to be a dominant pick-and-roll point guard, but he’s still learning to resist the temptation to make flashy passes when simple ones will do.

“The only concern I have about him is I’m not sure the way he plays translates into winning basketball,” Southern California club coach and event organizer Dinos Trigonis said. “It might produce stats and it definitely produces highlights, but does it translate into championships?”

Those are valid concerns, but don’t expect LaMelo to get down on himself. He remains as sure of himself as he was seven years ago knocking down clutch shots over the outstretched arms of stunned Compton Magic defenders.

“That game taught me that this kid has the potential to be something special because of his fearlessness and confidence in his abilities,” Pflueger said. “Now that he has grown into his body, there’s no telling where his ceiling will max out at. I’m excited to see what the future has in store for him.”

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