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Know the Prospect: LaMelo Ball, Part 2

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THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

Now that we learned a little about LaMelo and some of his stats... a little bit about the NBL... and a little bit about Kākāpōs... we can pair that up with some good old fashioned film work. As I mentioned in Part 1, we are going to use some clips from his very, very good penultimate game vs. the Cairns Taipans and from his final, awful game vs. the New Zealand Breakers to illustrate the good, bad, weird and ugly of his game as a prospect! Rather than go skill by skill, I will go chronologically through the two games clipping some observations. I want you all to get a feel for what a LaMelo NBL game was like, both good and bad — how he had to carry the burden for them, which allowed him to showcase his skills, and also enabled his worst tendencies in some cases.

WARNING: This is a LONG piece, even by Prez standards. Also, apologies in advance if the vids ain’t the crispest of quality.

ONWARD!

Illawarra vs. Cairns

As we mentioned in Part 1, Thibs favorite Aaron Brooks was hurt for this game, so LaMelo was the guy for them at this point. The fall off in shot creation was staggering. There was no Julius Randle or Elfrid Payton, no flawed guy who could at worst soak usage and get up shots or set up teammates.

To begin the game, they ran a set play where LaMelo passed it off, set some off-ball screens (he actually isn’t afraid to get dirty and set moving off-ball picks and really stop guys) and curled around. A bad miss came of it, but so did an O-board, which is when LaMelo decided to do what he does best: improvise using the pick and roll. He draws the double and threads the needle so surprisingly well that his big man — who is not good, as you will see — fumbled it before catching it and laying it in. Like many guards in this class, it was very common to see LaMelo set up a teammate for success only to watch them disrespect the dime by bricking their shot.

Have you heard about LaMelo throwing full-court passes? Sarcasm; obviously you have. They come early and often. They are unexpected to everyone but his teammates. This one also catches the cameraman off guard, and we don’t even see him make the pass, we only see the on-target frozen rope leading to another layup. Two-handed, one-handed, lobs, lasers: all in play from well beyond halfcourt with Ball early in the shot clock.

He’s tall! Despite being skinny, and despite a sometimes questionable motor on defense, he knows that getting a board means he can more quickly get down to business. See here, where he not only goes for the board, but actually boxes out his guy really well before snagging it. The rebounding with LaMelo is a real thing, and an underrated way tall guards can contribute to defense for their teams. It’s one of the few little things Frank Ntilikina isn’t great at and Elfrid Payton is, and I suspect it is a contributing factor to why some advanced and on/off metrics don’t hate Elf as much as I do. Elf and RJ Barrett, another good rebounding guard, both are around the 14% defensive rebound rate mark, and I suspect LaMelo would be right around there if not higher.

After the board we see him run another PnR using his surprisingly quick acceleration to change pace. He’s not described as a “burst” guy, but he has a better first step than Killian Hayes, Cole Anthony, Tyrese Haliburton and Anthony Edwards, for my money. For someone who is so upright all the time (very much a bad thing), his burst is surprisingly good — you’re not supposed to be able to go from standing straight to moving fast, which is why he often makes guys look stupid. Cairns miscommunicates, leaving him wide open, and we get to see his weirdo form for the first time this game: knees too close, elbows flare, guide hand flipping over... all in half a second. It’s a good shot that misses, and he looks balanced compared to his more egregious shots. He sprints — surprisingly fast, again — to collect his own miss and dime it off for another assist.

One possession later, another baseball pass off of a made basket. Directly for an open corner three. For those counting, his first assists have lead to: layup, layup, open 7-foot jumper, and very wide open three. High value assists are the name of the game when he’s in a rhythm — he’s not just passing to pass, and he doesn’t just fart around and waste time dribbling like Randle or Payton or whatever annoying Knick, contrary to his reputation. He has no problem going for an assist in the first five seconds of a play or just passing to keep the ball moving.

Boring hook pass to an open 3-point shooter without hesitation. This hook pass, clocking in at about seven feet high, is an underrated pass in the NBA not accessible to the Coles and Kiras of the world. This is a good example of how he doesn’t need the ball for 15 seconds of the shot clock like Luka or Trae (not saying he’s as good as them, just saying he’s a different genre of high assist guy). Killian is much more likely to dribble 15 times to try and find a good pass or shot than LaMelo, despite them having similar usage. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if LaMelo’s usage drops from the NBL to the NBA depending on what team he goes to. If the team is utterly bereft of talent and ball handling, it might remain high, but even on a Knicks team with, say, RJB, Randle and DJ Augustin (or even Frank), I don’t think he’ll dominate the ball like he did for the Hawks. They suuuuuper sucked, man.

What’s he been doing on defense most of this game, you ask? Illawara has stuck him on a non-primary ball handler, so he is usually waiting on the weak side to see what happens. Here we see him rotate to the paint to cut off the layup and the pass. It’s a good rotation! He does this more than people would like to admit. Unfortunately, none of the clowns in the red circle below decide to help the helper early enough, so he makes the shot.

(Ignore the Motorola RAZR photo quality of my screen grab)

The cameraman then misses yet another 65-foot bomb from LaMelo.

Off-ball defense... he’s not bad at it when focused, which is more often than you think. As an off-ball defender, when locked in he often tries to predict two steps ahead (as opposed to when he’s unfocused and he just doesn’t do anything). Here he rotates to help the helper, assuming the Cairns ball handler won’t hook pass to his man, the South Sudanese Kouat Noi. Noi takes about five threes a game at 39% (though his FT% is only 70). They make the pass so he’s left scrambling a bit. Not many players in the NBL (or in the NCAA) are making that pass to be honest, so it was a sound process. Melo’s closeout speed is OK, but he’s not really explosive vertically, unfortunately. Fortunately, LaMelo is very long, and Noi misses the shot anyway.

I clipped this to show something he absolutely wasn’t doing early on in the season. His man is in the far corner after the possession resets, and we see him stunt into the lane (not super aggressively, but he does it nonetheless) to get a body in front of the cutter. Once Cairns makes the pass to his man in the corner, Melo’s teammates rotates to cover him, and LaMelo immediately returns the favor and runs out to his man. Helping the helper! Unfortunately, the chain of rotations break down after Melo, allowing Cairns a wide open corner three. The Hawks aren’t good!

I just wanted to show that given time and exposure to structured help defense, and given him staying focused, LaMelo has, in fact, gained a clue about these things. His problem is more point of attack defense, where he is bird chest weak and depends on being super long and guessing more than any good technique.

In the above clip, Melo is splashing off the catch from NBA range. He shot 38% on catch-and-shoot threes, and funky form be damned, you can see he gets good arc and he’s balanced on the release, which remains quick. He ain’t Joe Harris off the catch, but he’s not a non-shooter. Cole Anthony, Kira Lewis, Tyrese Haliburton and Grant Riller are all pretty solid off the catch and shot 41-43% on such threes. Of course, none of these guys except Hali and Riller (being older) have a large sample of C&S threes, but the mechanics and speed of their releases lead me to believe they will all be good off the catch — including LaMelo, even if he remains a smidge behind those guys. I’d bet on LaMelo shooting better off the catch than Frank and RJB next year if i’m keeping it a buck with y’all.

Killian, my other French son, was awful off the catch, closer to 30%, mostly because of disaster footwork. His upper body mechanics are weirder than people like to admit , and I bring it up because I think him and LaMelo are more similar mechanically than people like to admit. Both have their elbows splay and their guide hand flip (palm facing away from the ball on release, rather than toward the ball like 95% of shooters) after release. LaMelo’s elbows get a little more funky, but not that much. They both mostly get properly aligned at the release despite starting out funky, and they both have to clean up a bit of footwork in addition to the arm stuff. But, again, neither are non-shooters like, say, Ja Morant — and please don’t cite Ja’s 3P% to me on whatever low-ass volume he shoots. I’m buying both LaMelo and Killian’s shooting maybe not as snipers, but certainly as passable.

As a LaMelo fan, I am legally obligated to clip that for you. It’s his best shot of the year, and shows his handle and how perfectly he can transition from dribble to shot (quirky form and all). At 6-foot-7, that is absolutely preposterous. If he can shoot pull-up threes in the low 30s down the line — not an unreasonable goal at all — that would put him in the company of Fred VanVleet and Donny Mitchell. Obviously those guys shoot regular threes much better, but my point is that the threshold for useful pull-up 3-point shooting — the most important shot in the NBA — is lower than folks think because the limiting factor isn’t often the shooting skill of the shooter but the ball handling skill of the shooter. Plenty of guys can hit threes at a high rate, but very few can bust out plus handle and move from that into their shot.

Also, consider he did that at the end of the first quarter after absolutely putting on a passing clinic and hitting guys out of drives. He’s making life very hard for Cairns right now.

This play is on the other end of the spectrum, lol. For my money this is the worst, most hilarious LaMelo possession of the year. Him using his handle with absolutely zero intention to actually drive to the hole, spinning into a bullshit fadeaway he has a 10% chance of hitting and having it punched out of the air. One of the instances where he actually does dribble 10 times for no fucking reason. When people talk about LaMelo’s ghoulish shot selection, this is what they mean.

About halfway through the second quarter, he begins losing focus. He hasn’t been subbed out at this point, so I don’t know if it’s purely mental, physical or a mix. Here he stands in no man’s land, very upright. Theoretically, he’s still paying attention to his shooter in the corner, but doesn’t do anything beyond be in the vicinity of the driving Cairns wing. He doesn’t even give a token dig or swipe. This is perhaps his worst habit on defense (though it’s arguable, as there are a few) — just simply failing to jump/swipe/stunt/contest. Sometimes he’ll stand there in the corner and not contest as a help defender, other times he will play defense up until the shot and then not contest.

I’m not going to go through every possession for two games, so allow me to fast forward a bit; but trust me when I tell you he was very happy to just get other guys involved when he was doubled, which was often. His own scoring consisted entirely of threes and baskets/free throws from semi-transition paint forays (rather than halfcourt drives vs. a set defense). He tired a bit and was subbed out. His defensive flaws were minimized and he barely had to defend anyone off the dribble, so he could focus on hawking passing lanes. Unfortunately, his team just isn’t that talented, so it remained a close game despite one of his best passing halves of the season (and that’s saying something).

Here we have a sequence I thought was worth clipping for a few reasons. We see him get bodied on the rebound, and then actively avoid contact around the rim after playing OK defense, leading to an easy shot attempt for Noi. As I mentioned, it’s not uncommon for him — he will play good man D for a few seconds and then not contest/not put hands up/not jump, and part of me wonders how much of it is him not wanting to pick up fouls, or him just being totally physically averse to mixing it up down low. Sometimes he’ll even put his hands behind his back as if to signal to the Refs that he isn’t fouling. Either way, it’s fucking annoying.

He absolutely needs to learn how to use his length for contesting vertically around the rim, even if he does get pushed around. He’s tall and uses his height on closeouts on the perimeter, he needs to do the same in the paint. Even just sticking his hands up would help.

Anyhow, after the lucky miss, he sets up his own offense by using his mean hesitation (say it with me: the threat of the pull-up is real to the defenders near him) to speed to the rim and finish with a tough reverse and-one. This sort of semi-transition is a specialty of his, and I can’t think of anyone on the Knicks who can consistently manufacture that. Oddly enough, Randle is probably the one who did that the most. I don’t know whether advanced stat outfits like Synergy classify these as transition or not, but they are high-value plays and easy pickings for guards with handle and fast speed with the ball — which LaMelo has, no bones about it.

Here we have a smooth drive and dunk using some sneaky change of pace moves and push dribbles, with a dunk. There were a few more times this quarter where he used his handle and the pop threat of one of his teammates to drive into an open lane and unguarded hoop, including the above clip. He is still very judicious about when he drives all the way to the hoop in the halfcourt, and you would love to see him force the issue and play inside-out more than settle for playmaking from the outside in.

But when he does drive and kick/drive and drop off, he sure makes it memorable — here’s three instances from this game, the first of which seems actually impossible:

Let’s talk about his finishing and his floater. We haven’t seen much of it in this game, heading into the fourth.

The game got close in the fourth and his normally reliable (40% on 37 attempts) float shots were not cooperating. The first he might have gotten fouled on, but both missed nonetheless (peep the O-board tip though #silverlining). Such is the nature of the floater: even for those who wield it well, it isn’t the trustworthiest of moves. He drove more (not just for floaters, but for layup attempts and passes in equal measure) in the fourth than he did the whole game, which suggests he does — somewhere in his mind — understand that there is a time and place for Drew League threes, and the same for forcing the issue in the paint.

His thinking on drives is usually: 1) if the rim is unguarded, charge to the rim; followed by 2) if there is rim protection, see if there are any open shooters or drop offs; followed by 3) shoot a floater anywhere from five to 12 feet away. In the end of games he would sometimes just try to draw fouls Lowry-style by straight up running into backpedaling defenders like we see above in crunch time, which i guess would be “3b.” I’d like to see more 3b and less 3a, so to speak, even if the floater is a good weapon in an NBA with plenty of drop coverage defense. He’s still clearly not comfortable driving to shoot layups with contact, but that is the next step for him as a scorer.

Moving on: with less than a minute left, down four, he picks the crosscourt pass. And rather than predetermining a play for his own shot, he hits the roll man perfectly, who gets fouled on the layup.

After a stop, with the clock counting down from 10 and Illawara down three, he trails the play and — you guessed it — nails an NBA range C&S three to tie the game with five seconds left.

Overtime was a pretty dull affair, but he put his stamp on it: the go-ahead assist for three, and a dunk on a drive to seal the game.

Like I said in the start, this was his best offensive game of the season. Mostly reasonable 3-point attempts that dropped, taking what the defense gave him and jiu-jitsu flipping it for his own team’s advantage by creating transition and semi transition baskets for himself and others out of thin air through his passing. Cairns packed the paint in order to dissuade drives, and he was happy to spray to open teammates until late in the game when the lanes opened a bit, after which he pressed the issue (even if his finishing was hit or miss), drawing and hitting clutch free throws.

Most importantly for LaMelo, he avoided being a minus on defense. Cairns didn’t expose him on defense by targeting him or trying to get him into foul trouble, which is where he is most liable to be a weakness until he gets stronger. Part of me wonders if he played in the NCAA, would more teams with aggressive guards have targeted him? And part of me wonders how much more defense he’d be willing to play if he didn’t have to avoid foul trouble for the sake of his team. Either way, there is a lot of room for improvement in terms of technique and aggressiveness on defense, but in this particular win he didn’t lack for focus and was usually where he needed to be off-ball while providing security on the glass.

He ended up shooting 11/20 (4-7 from 3, 6-8 from the line) for 32 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists, a steal and two turnovers. He recognized his weaknesses and tried to mitigate them (mostly), and remained pretty focused and locked in throughout the game.

Now that was quite a lot, so I won’t be quite as thorough with his final, awful game vs RJ Hampton and the New Zealand Breakers, if only because we’ve already discussed some of his weaknesses. I just want to put some video to those bad habits before we put this piece to bed.

New Zealand vs. Illawarra

First NZ bucket of the game, LaMelo is caught anticipating the screen instead of reading it, and immediately pays the price by getting completely dusted. Second NZ bucket of the game, he actually navigates the screen well, to no avail: a bank three from the legitimately great shooter Thomas Abercrombie.

He ducks under the screen for RJ Hampton here, which is a fine in a vacuum, but he then doesn’t really do anything to help his big man contain Hampton. There is no rear-view contest, no hands in the passing lane. He pretty much gives up on helping out.

When one-handed passes go wrong. He ends this game with 10 dimes, but six turnovers. I will say, this is probably an aberration: his A/T ratio is remarkably good, and you rarely see botched passes this bad, but they do happen.

The touch on floaters is there, even if the strength isn’t.

Right now he’s weak in transition, even if he gets out in transition all the time. Flat out. Like I said in Part 1, his halfcourt forays to the hoop are very selective: he drives in open lanes, and if it isn’t open, he usually prefers to pass or shoot a floater — and when he absolutely has to, he isn’t bad at using speed to draw fouls. In transition, paradoxically, if you don’t have a creative bag of finishes, you are gonna be assed out versus more athletic and stronger players. You’re not gonna shoot a floater or draw a foul or pass out if you’re on the hook for the bucket. I think this is pretty easy to fix given his size and how light he is right now, but it remains a weakness for the moment.

The first quarter ended with some rough sequences. LaMelo almost turning it over via a bad pass; getting it back and being forced to jack it up at the end of the shot clock; NZ pressing ILL around the rim; a few wide open would-be dimes from LaMelo resulting in bricked shots; and then this “fuck it, I’ll do it myself” play, where it remains unclear if Ball was trying to draw a foul or simply taking a really dumb floater. Either way, it looked like he got fouled, there was no call, and then he crashed into his own teammate. I laughed.

He sat for more than half of the second quarter, and shortly after he returned, his handoff gets exploded, his assist ends up in an airball, and he gets the ball back with one second left and his C&S 3-point shot rims out. Not his day.

Again, not his day.

As it gets closer to halftime, you could see Melo forcing the issue... resulting in another round of useless crossovers and another frail paint foray resulting in one of those shots you toss up three hours into hooping during the last game of the first summer full court run of the season. Luckily he drew a foul, but I don’t love the process there.

Beginning in the second half, you see the worst of LaMelo’s PnR defense: he frequently anticipates a screen and doesn’t have the technique to take short steps, to get into the ball handler’s chest, to get skinny over screens, etc. A savvy ball handler can use all that against him, like RJ Hampton does here. We’ve seen this in a few of the clips I’ve shown you.

Yet again, not his game. You can feel it slipping away by this point, not only for him, but his whole team. LaMelo’s passes were a tad less sharp and UConn Legend Josh Boone seemingly forgot how to hoop entirely. On the second play, he blows by his man and bricks the lefty bunny. The next few minutes were just non-LaMelo Hawks fouling for what seemed like five straight minutes.

With four minutes left in the quarter, Melo hits his first and only three of the game. He would finish 1-11 from three.

Even garbage dumps might have valuables if you dig around enough. The notable thing about this almost-dime is how he uses his eyes to look off the defense before hitting the roll man, and the thing about this transition drive is that he actually goes up strong despite a large human being in the vicinity. The notable thing about that dunk is it came despite a rim contest and in transition — this is what you love to see from him.

Like we saw in the last game, he tends to be more willing to “drive and figure it out” in the fourth quarter of games.

Absolutely brutal sequences here. LMAO. The first shot comes with 12 seconds left on the clock. The second shot is a better idea, but is exhibit 92839238 about how he needs to learn when to go strong and when to use finesse. The last is the kind of shit you hope an NBA coach will just flat-out not stand for — pure nonsense. Pretty much iced the game there. LaMelo had 25 points on 10-28 from the field, 1-11 from three and 4-6 from the line to go with 10 assists, six turnovers and 12 boards.

So what, Prez? Now we’re all like you — we’ve nitpicked LaMelo as much as possible. This play-by-play has me nervous as fuck about even getting the No. 1 pick now. Thanks a lot, asshole.

LaMelo is an odd player. Because of his unusual path to the NBA in terms of leagues played in and coaches he played for, it can be tough to know which of his weaknesses are unalterable and which can be coached. Making it even more complex is that some of his weaknesses — some parts of defense and certain aspects of finishing — are moreso weaknesses because of his physical weakness, not his skills, per se. Killian, for example, is already strong and already has much, much better defensive technique. So it becomes a question of how much value you put on his making his team a lot better, and of his upside.

Yep, upside! I don’t think enough folks talk about that with LaMelo. In the NBL, he pretty much only drove to draw fouls in the fourth quarter of close games (not many of those happened). He also was an OK, not great, finisher, and was happy racking up passes and would-be dimes (if his team wasn’t ass, he probably would have approached 11 or 12 assists per game). He had to shoot a ton because of his team, but you can tell he probably would shoot a bit less in a normal situation, to be honest. He really is pass-first even though he takes some wild-ass shots.

If he gets a little stronger and more comfortable driving for fouls throughout the game instead of only crunch time, and his 3-point shooting gets to at least 33-34%, he’s going to become an immediate scoring problem. Those three goals are not particularly unreasonable or unreachable to me — we’re not talking outlier development here. That upside is very reachable on offense... something like 18/7/10 on 42/35/75 with a high 3-point rate and solid free throw rate. Again, that is not outlier development to me given what we are asking. Not saying he WILL REACH IT FOR SURE, but that’s the upside bet, and one you take without hesitation, in my opinion.

Anyway, you know his flaws and strengths now. I still think LaMelo is the easy call for No. 1, despite those flaws, because he has elite skills and many low-hanging developmental fruits. I don’t want to make the same mistake I did with Ja Morant and over-weight his flaws and ignore his obvious, incredible strengths (I had him fifth or sixth on my board, let’s not talk about it). You can watch Ja play by play for a whole game and come across with a similar mix of high and lowlights, though his and LaMelo’s strengths are very different.

Anyhow, if you really read all of this and watched all the clips, congratulations on your incredible perseverance, and thanks for coming with me on this journey!