When LaMelo Ball enrolled in the college prep academy at Spire Institute in Ohio two years ago, his new coach, Jermaine Jackson, declared that Ball had the potential to be the first-overall pick of the 2020 NBA draft.
“Everybody texted me, emailed me and called me telling me I was a damn fool,’’ Jackson said.
But there were no objections from Ball's father, LaVar Ball, who once said that in his heyday he "would kill'' Michael Jordan one-on-one. And who later said his oldest son, Lonzo, was better than Stephen Curry, a two-time MVP NBA, when Lonzo was a freshman at UCLA. And long before enrolling his son at Spire Institute, predicted all three of his sons — Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo — would be playing for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020.
Never mind that on the court LaMelo Ball had become as exasperating as he was entertaining.
He had cherry-picked his way to 92 points in a game as sophomore at Chino Hills High in California in 2017 and in another game casually launched a half-court shot — and made it.
LaMelo Ball averaged 17 points per game in 12 games for the Illawarra Hawks in Australia. (Photo: Rick Rycroft, AP)
He had averaged a triple-double in the Junior Basketball Association (JBA) — a league LaVar founded after pulling LaMelo out of school at the start of his junior year — but he had also played defense as if he were social distancing.
And in October 2018, about a month before enrolling at Spire Institute, he had triggered an on-court melee when he slapped an opposing player in the face in Lithuania, where Ball was touring with a team of American players from the JBA.
“Now look at him,’’ Jackson said.
The mop-top haircut is long gone. So are the braces. As is the goofy grin.
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At 19, LaMelo Ball has matured into a 6-7, 190-pound point guard. He is projected by USA TODAY Sports to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft Wednesday and, well, where are all those skeptics?
“They’re not laughing now,’’ Jackson said.
The youngest son of LaVar Ball and brother of Lonzo Ball — the No. 2 pick of the 2017 NBA draft and starting point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans — Lamelo Ball has shed his reputation as supremely talented but maddeningly undisciplined.
“He’s got an uncanny ability to pass the ball, and I think even maybe even at a little bit of higher level than his brother Lonzo when he came out of UCLA,'' ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "He can really pass it.''
Training 'to be a Hall of Famer'
LaMelo Ball was not available to be interviewed, according to Jackson, who in 2019 left Spire Institute to become Ball's manager and full-time personal coach. Although his work ethic at times has come under scrutiny, Ball is in the gym up to three times a day, Jackson said.
“We don't train and work out to be the No. 1 pick,'' Jackson said. "We train and work out to be a Hall of Famer. I put him in his own category. He’s one of one. No one ever took the road he’s traveled.’’
That road included Ball being pulled out of high school at the start of his junior year by his father, who at the time told reporters he didn't like the new basketball coach at Chino Hills High, and that Ball needed fewer distractions.
At 16, LaVar sent LaMelo and LiAngelo to Lithuania to play basketball against grown men. And after LaMelo played his senior season at Spire Institute, LaVar sent him to Australia to play pro ball at 18.
“He really is misunderstood,’’ said Steve Baik, who was head basketball coach at Chino Hills High School when LaMelo was a freshman. “He’s a really good kid and when it comes to the basketball aspect. I know why he was lazy on the defensive end. The kid literally was bored playing high school basketball.
“He really felt that he could do anything he wanted. So he gave up a bucket, he knew he could come back and go for an offensive run that could put the game away whenever he wanted. That was something he needed to grow out of.’’
Growing up, Ball played on teams with his brothers — he is about three years younger than LiAngelo, now 21, and four years younger than Lonzo, now 23 — leaving him frequently matched up against players four years older.
During the 2015-16 season, the Ball brothers played for Baik at Chino Hills High, when LaMelo, then 13, was a 5-10, 120-pound freshman. He helped lead the team to a 35-0 record and the mythical national championship.
“His efficiency was off the charts,’’ Baik said. “There were so many times that he bailed us out with clutch shots.
“There was so much accountability, with his older brothers and myself, we got him to play defense, and he played with urgency.’’
But with Lonzo Ball having graduated and enrolled at UCLA and Baik having left for a job closer to his home, LaMelo showed less urgency. There were flashes of brilliance, like July 2017, when Ball and Zion Williamson took the floor on opposing teams at the Adidas Uprising AAU tournament in Las Vegas.
Williamson, the eventual No. 1 pick of the 2019 NBA draft, had 32 points and 12 rebounds and led the SC Supreme past Ball's team, the Big Ballers, 104-92. Ball played his typical suspect defense but finished with 35 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Jackson, then an assistant coach at Detroit Mercy, said, “I was in the stands watching him play against Zion Williamson and right then and there I said, ‘He’s the baddest (expletive) in the gym.’ ”
But there also was the cherry picking, and the half-court shots, and the social distancing on defense — long before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Scrutiny intensified after LaVar Ball abruptly pulled LaMelo out of high school in October 2017 at the age of 16. There was the ragged play in the Junior Basketball Association, where Ball averaged a triple double but in one stretch missed 29 of 32 shots from 3-point range.
In 2018, from January through April,there was his trip with LiAngelo to Lithuania, where Ball averaged 6.5 points, 2.3 assists and 1.1 rebounds during his eight-game stint. Then, in September, came the JBA team's European tour that included the melee in Lithuania — about a month before Ball enrolled at Spire Institute and joined the school’s elite basketball program.
The roster included Isaiah Jackson, a five-star recruit who signed with Kentucky; Rocket Watts, a four-star recruit who signed with Michigan State; and Myron Gardner, a four-star recruit who signed with Georgetown.
“He was surrounded by guys who could play (at Spire), and I think he fell in love with the game again," said Justin Brantley, then the basketball director at Spire Institute
After the season, Jackson quit as Spire’s head coach to work with Ball full time. In January 2019, they headed to Australia and joined the country’s premier pro league, the National Basketball League.
Playing for the Illawarra Hawks, Ball averaged 17.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists in 12 games before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
“I really thought that because he was so young and that this is a physical league, when he first came out that he would struggle,'' said Matt Flinn, then head coach of the Illawarra Hawks. "But honestly he was never fazed.
“I’m not sitting here saying it was all rainbows and butterflies.You know, obviously there were some times where we had to do our best to rein him in.''
During practices, Flinn said, the team denied access to Facebook, which since 2017 has been filming “Ball in the Family,’’ a reality show about the Ball family. The goal was to stay focused on basketball.
After practice, Ball spent additional time working with Jackson. Flinn said he gave Ball keys to the gym.
“He is a quintessential gym rat,’’ Flinn said. ““He’s got an amazing skill set. He works in tight spaces. He’s a great ball handler. He’s ambidextrous when he passes the basketball. But he hadn’t been coached a lot in terms of that real professional team environment.
“When I look back on his journey with us, that’s a proud one because we sort of helped him establish to other people that he can exist in a professional environment.’’
'His own man'
Though his passing and playmaking skills are two reasons Ball might be the No. 1 draft pick Wednesday, his jump shot needs work. In Australia, he shot 37.3% from the floor and 24.4% from 3-point range.
“The one thing he doesn’t do is, he doesn’t shoot it and he’s got a bit of an odd release,” said Bilas of ESPN. “It’s a very low release point when he lets it go. So that’s got to improve.”
Then there’s the defense.
“He’s got naturally quick feet,’’ Flinn said. “He’s certainly got the tools to do it. At that end, it’s desire and investment and coaching and buying into the system, which I’m sure at the next level he’s going to get.
“He’s never going to be defensive player of the year, but I wouldn’t bet against him.’’
Ball's unique path across continents to top-three talent in the 2020 draft by 19 years old in a high-profile, scrutinized environment has allowed for some growth personally and professionally.
“The one thing that’s a little bit difficult for me is I’ve not met him yet, I don’t know him,” Bilas said. “So from afar, you kind of wonder. He has not had a normal maturation as a player. I think going to Australia really helped him and he really improved and definitely matured that way. But he didn’t have a normal high school experience for a great player and clearly didn’t have a normal experience after high school, but you can’t deny the talent.”
And, of course, there is the Ball family factor. You see and hear less of LaVar than three or four years ago.
The brothers have forged their own path to some degree, choosing their representation and signing apparel deals. LaMelo signed a shoe deal with Puma, which seemed to rankle LaVar in a recent episode of “Ball in the Family.”
“I’m not as worried about sort of what some have termed ‘the baggage’ that comes along with being a Ball,” Bilas said. “I look at him as his own man.”
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