There are two ways of assessing the success of LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball’s professional basketball debut Tuesday night in Lithuania.
From a basketball standpoint, it was hit and miss. For branding purposes, it was a home run.
A largely meaningless exhibition game drew a sellout crowd, more than three dozen media members and an astonishing number of viewers watching from home. At one point early in the fourth quarter, more than 125,000 people tuned into a Facebook Live stream for a matchup pitting the last-place club in the Lithuanian professional league against a junior team featuring a handful of the country’s top 16- and 17-year-old prospects.
Everyone watching the game saw the Ball Brothers combine for 29 points to help BC Vytautas defeat the Zalgiris junior team 90-80 on a court teeming with Big Baller Brand signage and logos. There was a BBB logo at mid-court, another under each basket and signage promoting the brand’s website surrounding the court. Even the referees wore uniforms with an unmistakably large BBB patch on the back.
Referees wearing BBB in Lithuania pic.twitter.com/lZG4RbKAMb
— FootBasket.com (@FootBasketcom) January 9, 2018
It’s no accident LaVar Ball always seemed to be smiling whenever TV cameras panned to him seated at center court clad in a long-sleeve Big Baller Brand shirt. This night was everything the Big Baller could have hoped for when his two youngest sons signed with BC Vytautas, an unlikely marriage motivated as much by business as basketball.
When BC Vytautas offered LiAngelo and LaMelo contracts last month, the financially struggling club did it largely because of the newfound attention, fan support and sponsors the Ball brothers would bring. After all, LaMelo’s 3.1 million Instagram followers are a couple hundred thousand more than the entire population of Lithuania.
Even though BC Vytautas is a losing team based in a remote region of Lithuania and coached by a man who speaks minimal English, there were some obvious selling points for the Ball family. LaMelo and LiAngelo had the opportunity to receive ample playing time and their transition to a new team in a far-flung country would provide must-see fodder for the third season of the Ball’s reality TV show.
The adjustment to playing against grown men in Europe won’t be easy for the Balls, but both brothers looked comfortable facing kids their own age or younger on Tuesday.
There were some impressive flashes of talent from youngest Ball brother LaMelo, who was considered a consensus top 30 prospect in the class of 2019 before LaVar pulled him out of high school last fall after a dispute with his coach. LaMelo scored 10 points, dished out nine assists and left the crowd gasping and cheering with some of his dazzling no-look and behind-the-back passes.
First real LaMelo Ball highlight on the court in Lithuania pic.twitter.com/y8fP8ExhaX
— Jonas Miklovas (@jmiklovas) January 9, 2018
The downside to LaMelo’s performance was the 16-year-old’s lack of commitment to defense and his ill-advised decision making and shot selection.
On one first-half possession LaMelo didn’t bother to sprint back on defense, which enabled his man to bury a wide-open transition 3-pointer. Even when he did hustle back, he often got himself out of position gambling for steals, creating wide-open driving lanes for Zalgiris guards.
LaMelo’s choices with the ball in his hands often left a lot to be desired too. While he is a creative and instinctual facilitator off the dribble, he committed six turnovers largely because he will always try for the spectacular pass instead of the simple one. He also misfired on all five 3-pointers he attempted including a pair of ugly 30 footers seconds after he checked into the game early in both halves.
Back-to-back LaMelo possessions. This is art. pic.twitter.com/qwltaQSwK6
— LaRob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) January 9, 2018
While 19-year-old LiAngelo isn’t considered nearly as intriguing a prospect as LaMelo, he had a few memorable moments in his professional debut as well. The 6-foot-5 guard scored 19 points on 8-for-19 shooting from the field, showcasing the strength and skill to overpower younger Zalgiris defenders on the low block.
There were some humbling misses too from LiAngelo though, from a turnaround jumper that missed the rim altogether on his first shot of the game to a botched second-quarter transition layup with no one contesting it. LiAngelo was also a non-factor on the glass and a step slow defensively when trying to stay in front of Zalgiris’ guards and forwards.
While LiAngelo and LaMelo received all the attention from the crowd, the announcers and the viewers watching the game, the best NBA prospect on the floor might have been the Zalgiris point guard. Seventeen-year-old Rokas Jokubaitis scored 31 points, displaying the skill, maturity and discipline that LaMelo still needs to learn.
All in all though, the Ball family probably got what it wanted out of the professional debut of Lonzo’s two younger brothers.
LaMelo displayed his intriguing longterm potential as a scorer and distributor. LiAngelo didn’t appear overmatched playing against younger competition. And LaVar showcased the Big Baller Brand to the European market and 125,000 curious online viewers.
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