Why neither NBA teams nor top European clubs are likely to want LiAngelo Ball

LaVar Ball pulled middle son LiAngelo out of UCLA on Monday less than three weeks into his suspension for shoplifting. (AP)
LaVar Ball pulled middle son LiAngelo out of UCLA on Monday less than three weeks into his suspension for shoplifting. (AP)

One day after he abruptly removed his middle son from UCLA, LaVar Ball began his quest to prepare LiAngelo for next year’s NBA draft.

Within hours came a sobering reminder that plan is probably just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

Among the overseas professional clubs that a representative for the Ball family approached about signing 19-year-old LiAngelo and his 16-year-old brother LaMelo is Lietkabelis of the Lithuanian Basketball League, general manager Mantas Ignatavičius confirmed Tuesday to Yahoo Sports. Lietkabelis coach Arturs Stalbergs subsequently scoffed at the idea in a since-deleted tweet that poked fun at LiAngelo’s shoplifting arrest in China last month.

“We have an opening at the security staff since they have an experience in this field,” Stalbergs wrote.

The tweet from Stalbergs reflects the discrepancy between how LaVar touts LiAngelo and how scouts actually see him. LaVar has repeatedly described LiAngelo as a one-and-done talent and a future NBA player, but evaluators familiar with his game are skeptical that he’ll even be able to latch on with a first-division team in Europe, let alone join older brother Lonzo with the Los Angeles Lakers.

A Division I coach who scouted LiAngelo in high school said Tuesday that he projected him as a small-ball power forward at a mid-major program had UCLA not taken him as part of a package deal with his brothers. An NBA scout familiar with LiAngelo’s game echoed that, pegging him as “a mid-major type player” ill-prepared for professional basketball.

“No young players, with the exception of the occasional DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic, are good enough to succeed in the top division overseas or in the G League at 18 or 19 years old,” the NBA scout said. “LiAngelo could probably play third division in Spain, France or Germany. I doubt that’s what he has in mind.”

While LiAngelo averaged an eye-popping 33.3 points as a senior at Chino Hills High School and helped lead the team to a 30-win season last year, he doesn’t have Lonzo’s long, athletic frame or impeccable court vision, nor can he score as many ways as LaMelo. The 6-foot-5 swingman is a dangerous spot-up shooter, but he hasn’t shown the quickness or athleticism to attack off the dribble, nor has he learned to take advantage of his strength in the post.

Whether there’s a position LiAngelo can effectively defend is an even bigger concern.

Neither LiAngelo’s high school team nor the AAU program his dad coached ever emphasized defense, preferring instead to outscore opponents. Lonzo overcame that because he has the length, quickness and ball-hawking instincts to bother many opposing point guards, but LiAngelo isn’t blessed with such imposing physical tools. He lacks the lateral quickness to stay in front of wings off the dribble, yet he is a few inches shorter than most power forwards.

“It’s very difficult for me to see him having a longterm pathway to success where he could make more money in basketball than he could have as a UCLA graduate,” said Sam Vecenie, who has covered the NBA draft for The Athletic, Sporting News and CBSSports.com.

“He was going to struggle with the explosiveness and athleticism college basketball brings compared to high school. I’m not going to say I know for a fact he couldn’t defend at that level, but he has never had to do it before and his overall athletic profile doesn’t bode well in the future.”

LiAngelo likely would have come off the bench at UCLA as a freshmen were it not for the shoplifting arrest that derailed his career. He and fellow freshmen Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were detained eight days in China for stealing items from three high-end stores days before the Bruins were scheduled to open their season against Georgia Tech in Shanghai.

The morning after Chinese authorities dropped the charges against the three players and gave them permission to return home, UCLA announced it was indefinitely suspending the trio while the school’s office of student conduct assessed what punishment to hand down. LiAngelo had already sat out eight games when his dad grew frustrated his son still wasn’t allowed to practice or play and pulled him out of UCLA on Monday.

LaVar has said he will spend the next six months personally preparing LiAngelo for the NBA draft. If LiAngelo goes unselected as expected and fails to earn a training camp invite, then the family would likely have to explore other options.

There’s little incentive for EuroLeague clubs or other first-division European teams to offer LiAngelo a contract because history suggests players his age will struggle.

Elite prospects like Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler had a hard time transitioning from high school basketball to playing against grown men in Italy and Israel and adapting to an unfamiliar language and culture. A three-star recruit like LiAngelo probably wouldn’t fare any better, especially considering his first experience in a foreign country didn’t exactly go smoothly.

“Twenty-five years ago, any college star could go to Europe and be the leading scorer on their team,” ESPN international draft expert Fran Fraschilla said. “After the Dream Team in Barcelona, the level of play in Europe skyrocketed. Now if you’re a really good player in the ACC, the likelihood of you playing in the EuroLeague as a rookie is slim. You have to go somewhere else, establish yourself and work your way up from there. To expect an 18-year-old teenager to do it is nearly impossible unless your name is Luka Doncic or Ricky Rubio or someone like that.”

Playing somewhere like Iceland or Sweden might be a possibility for LiAngelo, but Fraschilla said the starting salary in leagues in those countries is as little as $1,800 a month. LiAngelo would face the same issue in other far-flung leagues in South America, Australia or the Middle East.

Could China be an option for LiAngelo? Only if the terms of his release last month allow him to return to the country.

What about the NBA Developmental League? Only if he can beat out older, more accomplished players for a roster spot, something NBA talent evaluators believe is unlikely.

“I always thought LiAngelo would be a 3-4 year guy, likely a 4-year college player at UCLA,” a front-office source said. “We never really viewed him as NBA prospect this upcoming season or somebody we need to watch.”

In short, the best option for LiAngelo would be to transfer to a mid-major college and try to prove himself over the next few years while working toward a degree, but his father has already nixed that idea. Now he’ll have to take a more obstacle-laden path instead.

“It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for a lower-level club who wanted some publicity to do this, but I just can’t imagine who it would be,” Fraschilla said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible for him to end up somewhere but given the father’s track record and the fact that he was considered basically a mid-major prospect out of high school, I just don’t know how many options he’ll have.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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