Why Australia is LaMelo Ball's best option as stepping stone to NBA

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Jeff Eisenberg
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LaMelo Ball's time in Lithuania likely jeopardized his eligibility to play college basketball. (AP)
LaMelo Ball's time in Lithuania likely jeopardized his eligibility to play college basketball. (AP)

The first time LaMelo Ball went overseas to play professional basketball, it was largely a waste of his time.

The youngest Ball brother’s made-for-reality-TV cameo last year in snow-covered Lithuania did little to help him address the flaws in his game, gain experience against high-level competition or shed his reputation for being difficult to coach. LaMelo and older brother LiAngelo only joined BC Vytautas to generate publicity for their father’s fledgling shoe-apparel brand and content for the family’s reality TV show.

There’s a far better overseas option available to LaMelo for the 2019-20 basketball season, one that could actually help him improve his game and learn how to be a professional in advance of the 2020 NBA draft. He has the chance to play in 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.

Jeremy Loeliger, the NBL’s CEO, told Yahoo Sports on Friday that he has reached out to LaMelo’s representatives and told them he’s interested in speaking further about bringing the ballyhooed 17-year-old to Australia next season. Asked how receptive LaMelo and his representatives have been about the idea, Loeliger replied, “Should have a better idea soon.”

If LaMelo signs with an Australian club, he would be following in the footsteps of three other elite American prospects. Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Terrance Ferguson and projected 2019 NBA draft pick Brian Bowen each spent their first season out of high school in the NBL. Heralded class of 2019 point guard R.J. Hampton also announced on May 28 that he is passing on offers from blue-blood college programs to sign with the New Zealand Breakers.

When Hampton tweeted at LaMelo on Saturday to ask if he’d be the next to join an NBL team, the youngest Ball brother acknowledged it’s a possibility.

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Why the NBL is attracting Americans

The NBL would be bringing LaMelo to Australia as part of its Next Stars program, a daring initiative launched 14 months ago amid the FBI’s sweeping investigation into college basketball. The program is intended to provide developmental opportunities for NBA prospects who either don’t want to play college basketball or can’t after running afoul of NCAA rules.

Eager to position itself as a potential stepping stone to the NBA and to gain the exposure that comes from helping five-star prospects rehabilitate their images, the NBL has given its teams every incentive to embrace the Next Stars program. There’s no risk for an NBL team to add a Next Stars player even if the league’s level of play is initially too high for him to contribute more than sparingly.

Adding a Next Stars player doesn’t count against an NBL team’s quota of three import players, nor does it count against a team’s 11-man roster limit. The league also pays Next Stars players their salaries, $50,000 per year in most instances though Loeliger conceded that in “some rare cases” he would be “willing to consider altering the standard deal.”

What makes Next Stars a good alternative for LaMelo is that the level of play is comparable to other top overseas leagues minus the potential culture shock. Not only is the NBL’s 28-game schedule very manageable, Australia is also an English-speaking country whose climate, culture and cuisine aren’t dramatically different from what Ball is accustomed.

The NBL also would provide structure that has been missing from LaMelo’s recent stops during his unorthodox basketball journey. This wouldn’t be like BC Vytautas, which bent to the will of LaVar Ball at every turn in order to keep the influx of attention and Big Baller Brand cash coming.

An 18-year-old rookie is unlikely to be more than a role player in the NBL, but LaMelo might actually benefit from having to carve out a niche on a team rather than being its ball-dominant centerpiece.

Players in the NBL would be ideal mentors for LaMelo if he’s open to learning about the work ethic, discipline and toughness it takes to thrive in professional basketball. Coaches in the NBL would also no doubt try to curb LaMelo’s most undisciplined traits like his penchant for coasting on defense or for firing away from up to 40 feet early in the shot clock.

“Moving to the other side of the world to play professional basketball at a young age will not be for everyone,” Loeliger said. “But what it offers LaMelo and others is the opportunity to prove to NBA scouts that they have the skill, the basketball IQ and the maturity to be able to compete against grown men who are hardened professionals in one of the best leagues in the world.

“For some athletes, these are the questions that remain to be answered. For others who will join the Next Stars program, it's less about answering those questions, and more about preparing themselves for the next stage of their career, namely the NBA. It’s a chance to get a better understanding of how to prepare and maintain yourself at the highest level, developing resilience, understanding your role in a team where you are not the standout performer, but one of many very talented individuals.”

The NBL didn’t fully realize its potential as an alternative path for NBA prospects until three years ago when it unexpectedly landed Ferguson. The five-star prospect backed out of his commitment to play for the University of Arizona and accepted an offer from the Adelaide 36ers after accreditation issues at his former high school had raised concerns that the NCAA might not clear him to play as a freshman.

A 3-and-D specialist also known for his explosive dunks, Ferguson appeared in 30 of Adelaide’s 31 games during the 2016-17 season and averaged a modest 4.6 points and 1.2 rebounds. The Oklahoma City Thunder selected the former McDonald’s All-American 21st overall in the 2017 NBA draft.

Eager to capitalize on Ferguson’s success, the NBL formally launched the Next Stars program last year and signed Bowen as its first player. The former Louisville signee at the center of the FBI investigation emerged as a valuable role player for the Sydney Kings this past year after the NCAA ruled him ineligible for the 2018-19 season and potentially beyond.

“LaMelo has the talent to follow in the footsteps of Brian Bowen and T-Ferg, but the question is if LaVar is going to stay out of the way,” ESPN international basketball expert Fran Fraschilla said. “If his dad is going to be meddling in his team’s business, it would be disastrous. If the kid surrenders his attitude, work ethic and game to a team that’s going to surround him with professionals and nurture him, then it could be a way for him to rehab his image.”

LaVar Ball reacts after watching his sons in the Big Baller Brand Challenge friendly tournament match between BC Prienu Vytautas and BC Zalgiris-2 at the BC Prienai-Birstonas Vytautas arena, in Prienai, Lithuania, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. LiAngelo Ball and LaMelo Ball, sons of former basketball player LaVar Ball, have signed a one-year contract and play their first match for Lithuanian professional basketball club Prienu Vytautas. (AP Photo/Liusjenas Kulbis)
LaVar Ball's decision to have LaMelo play in Lithuania and sign with an agent are at the center of his son's NCAA eligibility issues. (AP)

LaMelo’s eligibility issues

LaMelo owes his potential NCAA eligibility issues to the many unconventional decisions made by his father. Experts in NCAA compliance told Yahoo Sports that LaVar likely forfeited LaMelo’s hopes of attaining college eligibility by using him as a Big Baller Brand pitchman and by hiring an agent to shop them to overseas pro teams.

After LaVar yanked LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School and LiAngelo out of UCLA following disputes with their coaches, he hired agent Harrison Gaines to find a team willing to sign both his sons. LaMelo and LiAngelo spent three months playing for BC Vytautas in Lithuania before returning to the U.S. and joining LaVar’s fledgling professional league, the Junior Ballers Association.

Those potential NCAA rules violations surely would draw scrutiny if LaMelo attempted to play college basketball and the NCAA eligibility center evaluated his amateur status. If he wasn’t certified as an amateur, the five-star prospect’s only option would be to appeal the decision and hope that the NCAA would show leniency by having him repay some money or sit out a specified number of games instead of rendering him permanently ineligible.

“It’s going to be extremely challenging for him,” David Ridpath, a former compliance director at Marshall, told Yahoo Sports in November. “I’m 100-percent sure he won’t be immediately eligible. There’s a chance the NCAA allows him to play with a lengthy suspension and some monetary penalties, but I’m still hedging my bets. There’s probably a 50-percent chance he won’t be able to play at all.”

In November, LaMelo Ball enrolled at an expensive Ohio prep school and announced that he intended to play at last a year of college basketball at an elite program. LaVar Ball reversed course earlier this spring, admitting that the eligibility battle with the NCAA would be too tough to win and adding that LaMelo was exploring professional options.

If this decision is about what’s best for LaMelo’s basketball future, then Australia is the proper choice.

It’s more development-oriented than the cutthroat G-League. It’s a more familiar language and lifestyle than in China. And there’s more available playing time for a teenager in Australia than with a top-shelf EuroLeague team.

“It’s not for everyone,” Loeliger said. “But for those whom it suits, it ought to be an amazing and memorable experience.”

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