There are four teams vying for the last spot in the NBL’s top four and they all just happen to be playing one another on Thursday night to open Round 17.
For the second time in a month the NBL is making headlines in the NBA media. LaMelo Ball, the youngest brother of New Orleans Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball, has announced he will be signing with the Illawarra Hawks for the 2019-20 NBA season.
Ball is the second big signing for the NBL’s Next Stars program this winter, following RJ Hampton, who has signed with the New Zealand Breakers. Unlike Hampton, who was known mostly among high school basketball tragics, Ball and his family are world renowned, both for his on-court talents and antics, his brother NBA profile and of course his father’s polarising personality and media commentary.
Hampton is himself is a trail blazer, being the first projected lottery pick to forego college, however, LaMelo’s story is completely abnormal. Like Hampton, Ball was projected to play college basketball, verbally agreeing to play at UCLA at the age of 13, following both of his brothers.
However, his father, LaVar Ball, the world’s most notorious helicopter parent, has had significant influence over his young career including several decisions that put his college eligibility at risk.
In 2017, LaMelo’s Junior year of high school (the equivalent of year 11), LaVar withdrew his son from his high school due to a dispute with his coach, opting for homeschooling, where he would personally train him. Later that year, LaMelo signed with an agent, seeking professional overseas contracts, as well as releasing a signature shoe, fundamentally ruling him ineligible for any future high school or college basketball programs.
He and his brother LiAngelo would sign with Prienai of the Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL), where he would average 6.5 points on 26.8 per cent shooting and 2.4 assists in 12.8 minutes per game.
At the conclusion of the LKL season, Ball would sign with the Los Angeles Ballers of the Junior Basketball Association (JBA), a league created by his father as a professional alternative to college for aspiring athletes aged between 16 and 21 (there are eight teams in this league, all named the Ballers, e.g. New York Ballers, Houston Ballers – remarkable).
Following the season, the JBA sent a ‘team USA’, to which Ball was selected, to Europe and China to compete against professional teams.
Upon returning to the US, Ball would enrol at the SPIRE Academy in Ohio, a high school based within an Olympic training institute designed to prepare athletes for college and elite sport. Ball would resume playing high school basketball due a technicality.
Once back at school, he expressed interest in playing college basketball despite his eligibility concerns, and was a five-star recruit and the 22nd ranked player in the country for his age.
Wildly regarded as an exceptional talent and athlete, Ball has built a reputation for himself as a volume scoring, three-point shooting point guard who also happens to be six-foot-six and an elite athlete. However, he also has a reputation as a poor decision maker and teammate and difficult to coach.
His coach in Lithuania described his experience with LaMelo, “You can’t control that little chipmunk. You say, ‘Don’t shoot 40-footers.’ Next thing you know, he’s shooting 40-footers.”
To top it all off, he comes with his father, the loudmouth viral personality who publicly proclaimed he would have “killed” Michael Jordan in a game of one on one.
In all likelihood, Ball was either not eligible to play college basketball, his eligibility was questionable enough to rule out any major programs as suitors, or no program wanted to deal with the drama that comes along with the Ball family – leaving overseas as the only option.
No matter what happens now, many more eyes will be on Australian basketball than ever before. If the Hampton signing piqued global interest in Australian basketball and the NBL, the LaMelo Ball signing will send it into overdrive.
For better or worse, the Ball family have a profile, are worryingly social media friendly and will be bringing plenty of media attention and interest to the NBL in 2019-20.