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Know The Prospect: LaMelo Ball, Part 1

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Bring me your hate.

Good morning, skittlebrains. Who wants to hear about LaMelo?

*crickets*

You’re right. He’s been analyzed up, down, backwards, and in reverse. Basketball twitter has spent infinitely more time publicly discussing him than even LaVar has. Hell, the extra time we’ve all had to do draft research has driven ME crazy, even driven me to pen paragraphs where it is patently impossible to tell to how I even feel about the kid. Of course, if you are one of the unfortunate souls who follow me on twitter, or worse — listened to me as I became a full Benedict Cumberbatch and spoke about guards on the LOK podcast.

We’re gonna do things differently this time. Instead of a normal Prez scouting report we’re gonna look at some clips from his final two games with the Illawara Hawks, against the Cairns Taipans and the New Zealand Breakers. In his second-to-last game, vs. Cairns, he was the absolute best version of himself, and his final game vs. New Zealand he was the worst version of himself. This will make for a more fun read for y’all, and a more interesting write for me. But BEFORE we get to those games, allow me to set the scene for you fine outstanding humans.

IMPORTANT CONTEXT, PART 1: WHO TF IS LAMELO EVEN?

Lamelo in 2016, along with Lonzo, as state champions right before Lonzo went to UCLA.

So, let’s talk context and background. LaMelo Ball will be a hair under 19 at draft time, making him one of the younger players in this draft. He is 6’7”, with a wingspan that looks maybe a few inches longer than his height (nothing confirmed), weighting a fraught 190 pounds. The passing prodigy with elite ball handling and a funky shot is from Chino Hills, California, where he famously played for his father’s high school team, redefining what it meant to run and gun, and with his brothers (and Onyeka Okongwu) ran roughshod through almost all opponents they faced. LaMelo himself was playing three and sometimes four years ahead of his age group all his life.

That age gap, coupled with the mandate to pull from long distance when he was a sub-6-foot point guard, created a bevy of interesting habits, both good and bad. Between his time in Chino Hills, time in Lithuania (as the youngest American to ever sign a pro deal), and abbreviated time for Spire Academy, he had never played in much structure — he found slightly more playing alongside Aaron Brooks in New Zealand for the Illwara Hawks, but not that much more.

His basic stats are well known amongst Knicks Fans Online, but I can repeat the classics here for good measure:

  • 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.5 turnovers. All good numbers.
  • 1.6 steals (good), 0.1 blocks (terrible for someone his height).
  • A .40 3 point rate (good), .235 FT Rate (meh), 55% around the rim in the halfcourt (OK).
  • His slash line: .38/.25/.72 (ghost scream emoji).
  • Some Synergy numbers courtesy of NBA.com: 69th percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers (solid), 34th percentile on off-the-dribble jumpers (ghastly), 23rd percentile in transition (ghoulish), led the league in transition scoring and assisting (very, very good), 71st percentile in pick and roll scoring (very solid).

Shot chart from NBA.com is below: note his very, very right handedness despite being a fully ambidextrous ball-handler and finisher (wouldn’t mind giving him that right side and RJ that left side #talksoon). Also note the 51% at the rim there, in contrast with the 55% in the halfcourt I cited before: the discrepancy is because he wasn’t a good transition finisher, as he couldn’t toss up his patented go-to soft-touch bail-me-out floater (or other finesse moves) in transition where his featherweight frame became a huge liability for one-on-one finishes. Despite bring tall, his transition game bore a resemblance to the kakapo, a bird endemic to New Zealand which is both flightless and the world’s largest parrot #TheMoreYouKnow.

In his ESPN DraftExpress interview with Mike Schmitz, LaMelo doesn’t come across as particularly analytical or commanding like a lot of point guards might. He also comes across much more like his older brother Lonzo than his dad LaVar, which is worth pointing out because people often assume the opposite for whatever reason. Melo, like Lonzo, is fairly easygoing in conversation. He, like his brother, has been in the limelight for some time, and can be very happy-go-lucky.

One thing I thought was funny and noteworthy was that, when asked to analyze what was likely the most spectacular passing sequence by any prospect in this class (and many others), he talks like it was some matter-of-fact, run-of-the-mill sequence that couldn’t possibly be anything out of the ordinary. The vision is really natural to him, easier to do than to explain or teach. Check out that play and that clip of conversation right here:

We can try to read a few more tea leaves through secondhand accounts of his persona, however helpful (or not) that might be.

Head coaches of prospects always praise their guys, so take with bowls of salt, but this is what Hawks head coach Matt Flynn has to say in an interview with GQ Australia:

The first thing I noticed about LaMelo was just how joyful he was, He sleeps, drinks basketball. That’s his whole world and everything he does. There’s a perception about LaMelo from what you see online but that’s nothing like what you see inside the team group. He enjoys other people succeeding; a lot of people think it’s all about him. It’s not. He’s a really special kid in that way.”

Uno mas: NY streetball legend Corey “Homicide” Williams has taken up life in NZ as an analyst for the NBL. He’s had cups of coffee in the NBA and is a pretty well traveled and experienced guru of sorts. In an interview with Ian Begley, Williams said he was skeptical of LaMelo because highlights don’t hold much weight with him, and was suspicious because of LaVar’s antics. His tune changed early on after seeing LaMelo handle six-time NBL DPOY Damian Martin (a TJ McConnell, Aaron Craft, Javon Carter-type in your grill PG). More interesting though than any individual matchups, though, are his comments on Ball’s mentality. From Begley’s article:

Williams sees the same flaws in Ball’s game as other evaluators (outside shooting, shot selection and defense). But Williams also saw Ball’s work-ethic first-hand. He credited Ball’s manager and mentor, Jermaine Jackson, for the 19-year-old’s professional approach to his craft.

“One game, there was defensive lapses early in the season. Even though they won the game, Jermaine had him in the beach in the sandpit working. “He wants to get better (defensively). And I saw him get better.”

“This was his first time having to play real defense and be held accountable,” Williams said. “To look at it from that perspective and to where he’s come during his NBL season, he’s come a long way. He’s still got a long way to go but it’s effort, wanting to get better. And that’s there.”

Will that work ethic translate to NBA production and improvement? I have no idea, but I think it is safe to say he’s not coasting on reputation here when it comes to work. In the past I have been known to totally brush off the personality element of picks as marginal (hello Dennis Smith Jr.), but it really is important. Draw what conclusions you will from this mix of propaganda, reflection, and observation!

IMPORTANT CONTEXT, PART 2: WHO TF ARE THE ILLWARA HAWKS EVEN?

Presumably a Hawk, not a kākāpō

The Illwara Hawks, Ball’s team in New Zealand, was the worst team in the NBL, finishing the season 5-23 (.179 winning percentage...yuck). His season ended early when he went down with a leg injury in late November. At the time of his injury, the team was 3-9 (.333 winning percentage). Some of that included a 2-5 record without Aaron Brooks, the other well-known player on his team. After LaMelo’s injury, the team went 2-16. The season was an absolute kaleidoscope of bad basketball, where different roster configurations merely changed the degrees of awfulness, which can make it hard to parse out individual badness from team badness at times. But bad ball abounded.

Hawks veteran David Anderson on the circus that came with LaMelo’s arrival: “The Hawks probably weren’t prepared for that and we did suffer a little bit.” The team was a bit of a shitshow even without the media circus: not much talent, ownership troubles, and injuries galore.

Ball was the unquestioned lead PG, but also ended up as the second guard in two-PG configurations with the shorter Aaron Brooks in the time they shared the court. He and Brooks both led the team with around 30 minutes a game (along with wing Todd Blanchfield, who also averaged 30 mpg). When Brooks went down, LaMelo’s minutes ticked up even higher, up towards 34 mpg.

In the few games without Brooks, he had to dominate the ball even more, and his assists jumped from 6.7 to 9.2. The team scored more during that stretch as well. In that small seven-game sample, most stats aren’t super helpful — his stats mostly stayed close to what they were before Brooks went down, anyway — but the assists, the team offense, and him having the only positive net rating and highest plus/minus match the eye test. After all, his biggest strengths are on ball, and given the ball more, better things happened — even if they still held these Ls. Last place is last place, sadly for him and his colleagues.

IMPORTANT CONTEXT PART 3: WHO TF ARE THE CAIRNS TAIPANS AND THE NEW ZEALAND BREAKERS? WHO TF IS IN THE NBL, ANYWAY?

Basketball having, Coronavirus-free New Zealand!

As a reminder, those are the two teams he played his last games against, which we will be looking at in Part II.

Cairns, the team he dominated, was the third-best team in the NBL. New Zealand, the team he shat the bed against, was the sixth-best. Both were a few games over .500. The league has only 9 teams. Cairns’ second-leading scorer and best all-around player is 23-year-old forward Cameron Oliver (17 ppg), who led Nevada to the Mountain West Championship as a senior (16 ppg, 9 rpg, 2.6 bpg) and won MW Defensive Player of the Year. He went un-drafted, bounced around the G League for two years (17 and 9 per game), then went international.

The NZ Breakers, who whooped that ass, feature 29-year-old Glen Rice Jr., who played with Iman Shumpert at Georgia Tech, got drafted in the second round, then traded, then traded a few more times bouncing around the G League and having a few call-ups before going international. They also feature young prospect RJ Hampton.

I only bring up these guys because they are fairly typical examples of the kind of journeymen players you see in the NBL: varying degrees of college success in America, G League stints, etc., as well as some other players from other countries who come to the NBL to make a nice buck in a nice place, and of course the rare young prospect like RJ Hampton (9 ppg on 41% FG). The pace is fast, the defense is loose, but these are adults who are not without hoop skills, and many had their fair share of NCAA success despite flaming out of the G League or NBA. Some guys DON’T flame out, however: Before the Jazz, before five years in Europe, young Joe Ingles won a championship in the NBL averaging 15, 5, and 3 (on 46/31/75) at age 18!

Great! Now you know all about New Zealand, birds, The NBL, and a tiny bit about LaMelo Ball. Draw what conclusions you will, and we’ll meet again soon. Next time, off we go...to the tape!