Why the NBL might never have another celebrity Next Star like LaMelo Ball
The NBL's Next Stars program has adopted an intriguing European flavour, but will we ever see another celebrity along the lines of LaMelo Ball?
Credit: Michelle Couling Photography
When you think of the NBL’s Next Stars program, several names immediately come to mind. Melbourne product Josh Giddey is the pick of the local graduates, while American imports like R.J. Hampton and Brian Bowen used their one year Aussie adventure as a springboard onto an NBA roster. However, there’s one name that stands out from the rest, not only by measure of basketball talent, but also in terms of celebrity status - LaMelo Ball.
There aren’t many basketball prospects who have starred on their own reality TV before making the NBA. Ball, ranked by ESPN as the 21st best player in the U.S. high school class of 2019, didn’t surprise everybody when he took his talents to Illawarra. “It’s a better monetary offer and better developmental offer to go play over in Australia under the Next Stars program than it is to play in the G League,” Sam Vecenie of The Athletic wrote, in a now-deleted tweet. While this may have been the case previously however, the NBA predraft landscape has shifted in 2022, with a new G League Ignite program threatening the NBL’s hopes of luring high end talent down under.
The prospect of playing against grown men has never been a major trump card for foreign leagues, in their quest to attract American prodigies. Apart from anomalies like Brandon Jennings playing in Italy, and Emmanuel Mudiay trying his luck in China, college basketball has historically been the default pathway for NBA hopefuls.
To bring the likes of Ball to Aussie shores, the NBL had to offer something more, and did so in the form of a $AU100,000 salary and various perks. Next Stars receive an apartment, car, flights and individual development training in addition to their cheques, as reported by FOX Sports Australia, when the program was launched in 2018. The impetus for such an initiative was the curious tale of Terrance Ferguson, a talented prospect from the US high school class of 2016. Ferguson was ranked 11th by ESPN among his 2016 peers, and eschewed the traditional college route by signing with the Adelaide 36ers.
The pioneering guard/forward averaged 4.6 points in an up-and-down season for Adelaide, but nevertheless earned a first round selection in the 2017 NBA draft. Brian Bowen later became the first official Next Star, signing with the Sydney Kings for the 2018-19 season, but failed to earn NBA draft selection in 2019. Undeterred, the NBL persevered with their novel scheme, and appeared to strike gold ahead of the 2019-20 season. Ball was the marquee recruit, but he joined another big name in R.J Hampton, who was rated by ESPN as a top five player in the same draft class.
By this point in time, the NBA had decided to strike back, announcing the advent of “G League Select” contracts in 2018. High school graduates were offered a $125,000 salary in addition to basketball development and life skills mentorship, but the effort was ultimately in vain. Not a single player from the U.S. high school class of 2019 signed with the G League, while Ball and Hampton were siphoned away by the NBL. Ball went on to become the third overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, while Hampton held onto his first round stock at 24th.
Perhaps in response to Ball’s resounding success story, the G League decided to up the ante in a big way.
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