LaMelo Ball might be the most scrutinised player in the history of the NBL. After growing up under the bright lights brought on by his talented older brother and his outspoken father, Ball is now one of the most highly regarded prospects in the 2020 NBA draft class. Any lottery prospect is bound to have his game picked apart, but Ball's additional celebrity status has made him the subject of even more attention than usual.
Ball's strengths and weaknesses have been well documented for some time now. Most would agree that his playmaking is his best asset, and they would be right; he's currently second in the NBL in assists with an assist-to-turnover ratio just barely below 3:1. His penchant for flair when finding open teammates has created plenty of shareable highlights, too.
Equally, his weaknesses have become common knowledge. A lot of optimistic takes about his NBA future are followed by phrases like "... if he can start knocking down shots" and "... if he can play better defence". The shooting hasn't yet materialised, as he's gone 15-64 (23.4%) from deep on the season.
There seems to be growing public opinion that, unlike his shooting touch, his defence has improved. If you squint enough when looking at the stats, you can almost see it; he's leading the league in steals at 1.8 per game, and he has the fifth-highest steal percentage (3.0) among players with at least five games played, per Spatial Jam.
It only takes a little more digging to poke some holes in the idea though, even if statistics are your poison of choice. Playing for a bottom-half defensive team in both points allowed and defensive rating, Spatial Jam's on/off metrics show that Illawarra's defensive rating drops even further when Ball is on the court compared to when he sits.
Even his coach has alluded to some issues on the defensive end of the floor. Speaking after their round five loss to Brisbane, Hawks coach Matt Flinn said that Ball "is a talented kid, he can get to the hole and he creates for other people. But again, we play at both ends of the floor, and at times, not just Melo, but we had multiple breakdowns defensively."
Ball's defensive ability has become a polarising topic among NBA analysts, NBL fans and casual followers alike. Why is it that both sides feel they are on the right side of the argument?
At times, Ball's brain seems to operate on a different plane to the rest of the players on the court. That usually emerges in his ball handling and passing, but he does show flashes of brilliance as an instinctive off-ball defender. It's like his playmaking ability helps him to predict what opposition players will do next before they even know themselves.
In the video above, Ball is already creeping into the passing lane before Majok Deng has started to make the pass. It's such a quick play from short range that he has no right to even get his hands on the ball, but he's able to pluck it from the air and take it all the way to the basket at the other end.
It's those plays that have him leading the league in steals, but they're the same plays that can cause a lot of issues when he's defending off the ball. Gambling into the passing lanes is all well and good if he gets the steal, but failure means leaving his man wide open. It's hard to recover quickly into a good defensive position, and even if his teammates are able to help, the ball movement of most NBL teams will find the open man sooner rather than later.
Those are the best and worst case scenarios when Ball is switched on and engaged off the ball. He's also prone to lapses in concentration, quite common among young players, where he watches the ball rather than his man. The play below against the Kings is a prime example, although Jae'Sean Tate drives and scores regardless.
While Ball is watching Tate, his opponent Shaun Bruce skirts the three-point line unhindered and ends up on the opposite side of the court. Todd Blanchfield and Josh Boone are in position to provide help defence, leaving Ball standing alongside them as little more than a spectator to the play. If Tate had been stopped on his drive, he would have had Bruce as a wide open bailout option with a few seconds on the shot clock.
That's not an isolated incident either; look at this play against Cairns, where Scott Machado is allowed to make a pass he has no right to.
If you watch Ball for that entire play, you'll see him give one cursory glance at Kouat Noi over his shoulder. Otherwise, he's standing with his back to his man and has his eyes on the ball at all times. That's why he doesn't react to Noi's cut until the ball has been passed and it's already too late to cut him off.
It seems like a classic case of ball-watching, as Ball is often sucked towards the player in possession rather than finding the best position between the ball and his man. That can be a tough subconscious habit to break, but it's certainly not impossible.
Ball's instincts and quick reactions should make him a strong team defender and a dangerous off-ball threat. He will need to minimise these lapses, though, particularly once he goes up against NBA-level shooters and athletes.
Unsurprisingly, opposing teams have flooded Ball with pick and roll plays. It's been a common theme for both him and fellow Next Star RJ Hampton, as coaches have looked to exploit their lack of strength and experience. While Hampton has looked a little more assured, Ball has struggled at times to negotiate screens and make the right decision when defending the ball handler.
It's hard to say whether this is a defensive IQ issue, a scouting issue, a coaching issue or a little of each. When he's forced to defend in the pick and roll, he seems constantly unsure as to whether to go over or under the screen. In the play below he does neither, as he hits the screen, stops and doesn't carry a hand on Nathan Sobey's shot until it's too late.
Sobey is a career 35% three point shooter with a quick trigger, and Ball needs to learn to fight over screens when defending that type of player. Replace Sobey with a Steph Curry, James Harden or Damian Lillard, and you can see why NBA scouts might be a little concerned.
Again, this may come down to a lack of knowledge of NBL players or insufficient direction from Illawarra's coaches. Maybe he's still getting familiar with the Hawks bigs and their decisions to either switch or stick with the screener. It's hard to imagine, though, that Ball's coaches or teammates wouldn't be encouraging him to stay with a man like Sobey in those scenarios.
With his quick feet and length, Ball should at least be a serviceable on-ball defender. Unfortunately those physical gifts haven't yet translated into results, and they have been wasted thus far in a variety of ways.
His quickness isn't always enough to stay in front of his man, as he is too often beaten off the dribble in isolation. Here's Brad Newley in action.
And here's Ramone Moore.
Neither Newley nor Moore need to make much of a move to get past Ball. Newley uses a hard crossover, while Moore simply rips the ball through and blows by him. Ball also has a tendency to lean into his man from the side once beaten, which can see him pick up cheap fouls as he did against Moore.
It's a similar story in transition, where he should be able to keep up with any player in the league. A pair of plays from their game against the Breakers show why this isn't the case. In the first he tries to pick up Sek Henry full court, and once beaten shows little effort to recover which leaves his teammates scrambling.
In the second, he finds himself in the last line of defence against Scotty Hopson. Rather than sliding his feet and trying to stay in front, he reaches in looking for a steal and is probably lucky not to give up an and-one opportunity.
The common thread between all of these issues is effort. Reaching in from the side and trying to jump the ball handler is a lot easier than staying front and sliding your feet. That's not to say that Ball is necessarily being deliberately lazy, but he may not yet realise that the hardest option is oftentimes the best. The Hawks and the NBA's lottery teams will be hoping that he will learn that with experience, and preferably sooner rather than later.
It's often underrated how much of defence is mental. Ball is the perfect example -- he has all of the physical tools to be an elite defender, especially at the NBL level, but he can't quite put it all together yet. Ball seems to acknowledge that fact, when asked by ESPN's Mike Schmitz about how he hopes to improve this year.
“Pretty much just in a learning position right now, hearing from JJ [mentor Jermaine Jackson] and stuff, just trying to get the little stuff... just picking up everything and learning, and then eventually put it all together.”
This season was always going to be a learning experience for Ball, particularly on the defensive end. Nothing we've seen has been a surprise, and there have been a few promising signs. It's too early to celebrate him as an improved defender when there is so much evidence to the contrary, but that's no reason to be pessimistic or negative about his future in the game.
It's a long season, and with an even longer career ahead, all Ball can do is continue to listen and learn from those around him.