High Upside: Could LaMelo Ball be a potential NBL MVP in the making?

LaMelo Ball definitely lived up to the hype last week at the NBL Blitz in Tasmania.

Arguably the most talked about superstar in this year’s NBL, Ball continued to impress in his third preseason game against defending champions Perth Wildcats, stuffing the stat sheet in a satisfactory all-round game.

The 18 year old then sat out the Illawarra Hawks' last Blitz game for precautionary reasons - coaching staff no doubt had seen enough from their marquee signing.

The Blitz should always be looked at as a preseason event with very limited sample size, and there's plenty of room for his season to swing either way. But despite being a rental, LaMelo is still going to get fans excited, and fill stands this season.

Many fans thought there might be some difficulty for LaMelo in his adjustment to the Australian NBL, which is a much more physical game compared to his previous experience with the Junior Basketball Association (JBA), varsity hoops or the Drew League in the United States. Interestingly, his performance against the Wildcats hints at a rather smooth transition.

LaMelo showed us why he is such a highly touted prospect, putting on a show with an array of offensive moves. Whether it was his outside shooting (4-6 from 3-point range) or impressive finishing at the rim, Melo showed us bits and pieces of an elite scoring touch, ultimately finishing with a total of 19 points. Equally as impressive was his distributing, finding his teammates several times via slick dishes or no look dimes.

"He's exceeded expectations," Illawarra head coach Matt Flinn shared. "He's come with absolutely zero baggage. He's assimilated into his teammates, and they genuinely like having him around. His willingness to share the ball, his willingness to pass, that's fun to be around, and that's fun to play with. I've gotten good feedback that this is the happiest people have seen him in a while."

Additionally, his 13 rebounds were a game high, combining nicely with a sound defensive output to ultimately prove he is more than capable of being not just being a contributor, but a league standout.

Although it’s very early days, If Ball continues to shoot consistently and not be exposed on defence, there is a chance he could be holding up some silverware by the end of the season, whether that be an MVP trophy or a championship.

"If he keeps this up, I don't see any way he isn't in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick," an NBA executive told ESPN's Jonathan Givony, who had Ball rising to 3 on his latest mock draft. "He completely changed my perception of the type of prospect he is, and all of the background info I gathered here from his coaches and teammates paint a very different story of what I thought about him off the court as well."

The 2020 lottery hopeful plays with such a swagger and confidence, there is every chance that crowds and media alike attach themselves to an MVP run in what will be a one and done NBL rookie season.

A key to this will be staying on the court for extended minutes - Melo will need to continue to improve on defence so that coach Matt Flinn doesn’t view him as a defensive liability.

There have been feedback from scouts, who previously noted him as a player that lacked defensive effort. Since touching down in Australia, the narrative about LaMelo’s defence may have changed. Eyeball evidence in his preseason games so far seems to say that LaMelo seems far more engaged comparatively to times in Chino Hills, Lithuania and Spire. Illawarra coaching staff may have instructed full or half court presses, but it was clear Melo was and has been very locked in so far, paying attention to his assignment.

Again, sustained defensive effort will be a key determinant on whether Ball stays on the court longer - opposing coaches may choose to target him defensively with experience or size mismatches.

LaMelo has the tools to be a great defender. His continued growth spurt – as noted by his brother Lonzo’s Instagram videos and appearance on the “Lighthearted podcast” – adds a sense of versatility to his defensive potential. Growing into his body and increased height allows coach Flinn the luxury of switching Melo’s defensive assignments continually, potentially extending his minutes. This not only improves his draft stock for next year with improved defence and subsequent more minutes, but also offers the Hawks a versatile defender who can switch both guard positions.

It is important to realise what we’re seeing is quite unprecedented. An NBA lottery prospect has never taken the route of professional basketball in Australia before, never mind a potential top five pick who could prove to be an impactful two-way player, and has the off-court branding LaMelo Ball possesses. Ball is legitimate, and he could, and will leave his mark on the NBL this season.