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Looking beyond the Ball hype: Way too early LaMelo impressions from NBL preseason
The Ball family was built on performative excess. Led by their dominant patriarch, the family spearheaded their own reality T.V show, forced their way into countless headlines, and even created their own basketball brand. The family – and especially LaVar Ball – have always felt artificially larger than life, a photoshopped off-court confidence that screamed more talk than walk.
Even now, if you cup your ear and listen hard enough, you might catch some of LaVar’s empty proclamations echoing around the Hollywood hills.
The youngest in the family, LaMelo Ball, was likewise custom-built for our houseofhighlights digital world, a human clickbait collage of egregious half-court bombs and jelly fam finger rolls. But crossing up Drew League wannabees and tearing through high school defensive schemes is one thing, winning professional basketball games is another. With 27 NBA scouts present in his lone NBL Blitz appearance, the state of Tasmania strangely played host to a string of serious questions over LaMelo’s game. Could he fit into a system and actually help a team win? Or was he all style, no substance?
Surprisingly, LaMelo’s play so far has subverted all of the solipsistic qualities you might expect from a self-made fame magnet. It’s a small preseason sample size, sure, but LaMelo has managed to play with both flair and composure. Posting a 19 point, 13 rebound, 7 assist game against Perth (the defending NBL champs), the young point guard comfortably turned his length and creativity off the bounce into easy team-first opportunities.
NBL squads have seen the YouTube clips. They know that the eighteen year old has range (4/6 from deep against the Wildcats). And yet, internet deep dives are sadly not actual or accurate scouting reports, and LaMelo has instead caught teams off guard with his intelligence and ability to attack liminal spaces on the court. The South East Melbourne Phoenix ran a drop coverage against Illawarra – attempting to force shooters off the three-point line – only to watch as the teenager aptly launched floaters from just within the arc. On an efficient 7/11 from the field, and 6/6 from the foul-line, the youngest Ball brother ended the contest with 21 points.
There are detailed nuances to LaMelo’s offensive game, an awareness of when and where to snake and navigate through pick and rolls. Using his lithe 6’6 frame to shoot over outstretched hands, and manipulating his tight handle to subtly bump defenders into oncoming screens, LaMelo has shown a decisive fluidity within Illawarra’s offence (video).
Likewise, he has beaten teams frequently with the pass, and his innate touch on the kick ahead is elite. Lofting full-court baseball home-runs, soft post entry lobs and nimble pocket dimes out of ball screens, LaMelo can already bend preliminary team defences better than most young players. Nevertheless, every move he makes will be graded against both the NBL and the perception of how his skills will translate over into the NBA. Can he create out of the pick and roll? Can he be a real threat from outside? On first impression, offensively, there are promising signs.
However, the NBL will test LaMelo’s gusto on the defensive end. Repeatedly sticking his rangy arms into defensive passing lanes rather than sliding his feet, he has been foul-prone throughout his early outings. Teams have similarly decided to attack his light frame, especially through misdirection and repeat screening action, and the inexperienced point guard has often failed to fight through picks and/or challenge shots from behind.
In other words, LaMelo is making normal preseason rookie mistakes. Often overly reliant on his length, he will need to either stack on the kilos, or learn how to deftly toggle defensive assignments. Against the Sydney Kings (four points, three rebounds, four assists), his inability to hold space was exposed on both sides of the ball. He is also, you know, still a developing teenager. Time is on his side.
With that said, defensive intensity has dogged the young hopeful throughout his high school and international career, a laissez-faire response seemingly borne out of a survival technique – both on and off the court. There is a constant crazed mania surrounding the Ball family, and whenever LaMelo competes, opposing players try to capitalise on his exposure by embarrassing him. In turn, the adolescent point guard plays with an almost deferential poise – more Mike Conley than James Harden – aware that if he were to buy into the spectacle of his own game, he might undermine his calculated sense of calm. But is there a dog in him? Can he fight defensively when it matters most?
LaMelo’s carefree, unselfish nature may at first seem pleasantly and ironically opposed to the individualist cult propagated by his own father and family brand, but the Hawks will also need their fledging lodestar to grow as a complete player, not just as an advertisement.