Flight risk: LaMelo Ball says he'll play out the NBL season, but should he?
The past week has been a busy one for the Illawarra Hawks, on a few different fronts.
It started, as most of their season has, with LaMelo Ball. Recent whispers both here and in the United States suggested that Ball, ESPN's projected number one pick in the 2020 NBA draft, may shut his NBL season down early. Speaking with Yahoo Sports in a story published December 4, the young star was emphatic in his response.
"I don't know where that rumour came from, but when I decided to come play over here, I committed to the whole season. I'm not leaving early," Ball said.
That was quickly followed the same day by a new player signing for the Hawks. After a long search to replace injured import Aaron Brooks, they announced the addition of American swingman Darington Hobson. The six-foot-seven wing will bring some much-needed shooting and secondary playmaking to Wollongong, and team owner Simon Stratford hinted that a second signing may be coming soon.
While both announcements would seem to confirm Ball's presence for the rest of the season, there is still an air of uncertainty around the Hawks. At first glance, the signing of Hobson is the product of an exhaustive search by the club to find a good fit for Ball and their roster. News reported by the Illawarra Mercury and Fox Sports Australia's Olgun Uluc, however, shows the decision in a very different light.
According to both sources, the NBL strongly encouraged the Hawks to quickly get Ball some help. Illawarra's struggles on the court, Ball's heavy workload, coupled with the New Zealand Breakers' ongoing off-court issues, where fellow Next Star RJ Hampton is playing, the league has to be concerned about the optics around their Next Stars program.
If nothing else, the NBL's intervention shows some level of tension around the situation with Ball and his team. That might be cause for concern, if not for Ball's strong statement about his intentions to stick out the season out.
Ball -- or perhaps more accurately, his representatives-- have a history of changing their minds, though. He was yanked from his high school, Chino Hills to play professionally in Lithuania, before he left suddenly and prematurely to return to the US. Before that he committed to attend UCLA, but likely lost his eligibility with his stint in Europe. A brief appearance in his father's fledgling Junior Basketball Association ended when the league folded after one year.
The point is, there's no guarantee that Ball's word will stay true forever, just the same as any other situation in basketball can change. With that in mind, and even in a more theoretical sense, it's worth considering the pros and cons around Ball staying or going. With his draft stock at an all-time high, would he be better off shutting his season down?
Why would he leave?
In a recent piece for The Athletic, John Hollinger said that a number of NBA scouts were hesitant to make the trip to see Ball play, a phenomenon termed as "flight risk".
"Nobody is booking a ticket quite yet, fearful that Ball could shut down his season if he plays too well."
Whatever those scouts perceive to be playing "too well", there's a good chance Ball has surpassed that standard. Two consecutive triple-doubles and an array of highlight plays every game have lifted him to the top of ESPN's most recent 2020 mock draft.
That would surely be the biggest motivator for Ball to end his season early; his draft stock can only go down from here. While his time in the NBL has helped to highlight his many strengths, the high standard of play across the league has also uncovered some weaknesses. Ball is shooting just 24.4% from three, and his defence has been lackadaisical at best and awful at worst. Spending more time on the court may just allow scouts to pick apart the holes in his game, while it's hard to imagine their opinions of the things he does well, moving any higher.
Some of those holes are only further exposed by the roster around him. Ball's shooting efficiency is an issue, but it's hard to blame him too much when he's asked to take 28 shots in a game as he did against the Breakers last round. He's really the lone shot creator on the roster, a fact that The Athletic's Ethan Strauss observed is well-known by the NBL's other teams:
In a first quarter timeout, [Breakers head coach] Shamir told his Breakers, “The Hawks only have one ‘go’,” meaning that Ball was the opponent’s only play maker. “You know what you have to do to stop him.” And so the Breakers did, roughing up Ball off the ball, denying him catches, refusing to react to his hesitation dribbles and playing him to pass. Much of the night went like this for Ball.
That kind of opposition attention is tough for any player to deal with, let alone an 18 year old rookie. As supremely talented as Ball is, the physicality of the league and the basketball IQ of most players makes being the lone focal point of the offence a very tough task. The Hawks have added Hobson, but will that be enough to ease the pressure on Ball and allow him more space to operate?
Taking on such a high workload could hurt more than just his draft stock, too. Illawarra may play a gentler schedule than an NBA team, or even an NCAA team, but Ball is playing big minutes in one of the most physical leagues in the world, and he's taking plenty of punishment on both ends of the floor. Against the Breakers, he played more than 36 of a possible 40 minutes; the week before against Cairns, an overtime game, he played more than 40 minutes.
That may or may not be related to the injury that is currently keeping him sidelined. Illawarra are reporting it as nothing more than minor soreness, but foot injuries are notoriously hard to read at times. With the Hawks out of finals contention and a huge contract awaiting in the NBA, Ball may decide that the risk of injury is too high when he has little investment in the long-term future of his team or the league. After all, if this soreness were to progress into anything more serious, it could seriously impact his draft stock and the start of his NBA career.
Why would he stay?
All of the above paints a doom-and-gloom scenario for the Hawks, but Ball's statement still carries some weight. As of right now, he intends to play out the whole season. Given the potential risks associated, why would that be the case?
For most basketball players, and young players in particular, their NBA prospects aren't the lone factor in their decision making. Look at Zion Williamson, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, and his career with Duke in the NCAA. During a mid-season game against rival North Carolina, Williamson injured his knee in a freak incident where his foot blew through the side of his shoe. Plenty of people said that, as the consensus number one pick, he should sit out the rest of the college season rather than risk any further injury.
Instead, he returned to lead the Blue Devils into the postseason. Why? Because he loved the game and the people he played with.
"I love my team-mates and I made a commitment to them when I committed to Duke... I felt like I would've been a bad person if I didn't come back so coming back was not an issue," he said, per ESPN via SportStar.
It's hard to know whether Ball would have the same connection with his teammates, given the age differential with most of them. From all reports, though, he's passionate about the game and about improving his craft. That passion and drive could be another factor in his draft position, and another reason for him to stay. According to Hollinger, one reason NBA scouts would even consider the long trip to Australia is to see the things beyond the game tape:
You can tell a lot about a player by watching his warm-up... scouts also monitor interactions with teammates and coaches before and during the game, looking for potential red flags.
While Ball's raw game tape shows plenty of strengths and weaknesses, those off-court intangibles seem to be a big tick for him. Hawks coach Matt Flinn has spoken numerous times about his infectious energy, his willingness to learn and his excellent work ethic. With Hollinger reporting that many NBA executives had tentatively planned to make the trip in late December or early January, and with Golden State GM Bob Myers allegedly among them, Ball's intangibles could still be a selling point for teams at the top of the draft. They can only see that if he's still present and still around the team.
On the court, the weaker areas of his game may provide some motivation to hang around. Ball's high number of three-point attempts gives the impression that he wants to prove that he can hit those shots. He has been able to do so on occasion-- he went 4-7 from deep in his season-high 32 points against Cairns, and he was 5-11 in an earlier game against the Taipans. If that can become the new norm, he will go from a contender for the top pick to a near-lock.
The same could be said for his defence. There have been glimpses of improvement when he's been locked in, but scouts would surely love to see some more consistent effort on that end of the floor. If he wants to solidify his position at the top of the draft, he may jump at the chance to quash the concerns that are present.
What's the right answer?
The situation is a risk-versus-reward decision that may boil down to Ball's confidence in himself. If he feels that he can improve on his weaknesses, then it's hard to imagine him passing up on the opportunity to prove it.
Ultimately, though, the decision may not have anything to do with the NBA. If Ball, like Williamson, wants to play, then he will play. It can be easy to over-analyse these things (and this whole article does exactly that), but in the end it usually comes down to the individual, their thoughts and their feelings on the situation. Ball has made it clear that he wants to stay.
Until that changes, we should simply make sure not to take LaMelo Ball for granted.