Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

NBA Monday: An Unlikely and Far Too Early Endorsement of LaMelo Ball

Posted on 18 January 2021 by Mitchell Marshall

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Never thought I would say this, but LaMelo Ball is the real deal and he is leading a two man race for the Rookie of the Year award.

From selling a $495 basketball shoe, to taking over a Lithuanian team, and starting a reality show, nearly all of the Ball family antics have turned me into a human face palm emoji.

While I respect the three brother’s talent and commend the hustle of capitalising on a moment, I could not stand seeing their father go on US TV and claim he would have beat Michael Jordan one-on-one or that his son is better than Stephen Curry.

The publicity stunts made it hard to root for the youngest Ball brother. When all of the hoopla began, about the time eldest brother Lonzo was drafted second overall, the whispers were that his 16-year-old younger sibling was the best of all.

Yet LaMelo’s non-traditional route after his second year of high school made it hard to know if he was an athletic showman or a true NBA talent. He spent time playing professionally in Lithuania, was the featured player in an alternative developmental league his father started, and stopped in Australia for a year before finally being eligible for the draft.

For those three years he excelled on the court wherever he was, but his play was inefficient and against sub-par competition. After being taken second overall by the Charlotte Hornets, LaMelo has played just 14 games, but he has silenced at least one sceptic. It started with highlight passes and solid rebounding, but LaMelo’s dynamic scoring and decision making has made all the difference.

According to the 6-foot-7-inches guard is shooting 40.3%, averaging 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 6.1 assists in 25.2 minutes per game. He leads all rookies in nearly every category. One night after coming up a single assist short, LaMelo became the youngest player to record a triple double in just his 10th game in the league. He also happens to be damn fun to watch.

LaMelo was always seen as having a high ceiling, but the floor was also considered low. While electric, his high volume of usage made me think he might be a bust; or pile on the stats and the highlights, but not contribute to a winning team.

Some NBA teams seem happy to settle for a star that can draw eyes even if he doesn’t take them to higher levels of success. At the moment, Charlotte is in a playoff spot and if his contributions help them to the postseason it will go a long way for his Rookie of the Year campaign.

LaMelo’s biggest strength is an unwavering confidence. He is shooting from Curry-range and passing behind his back like he is on the playground. It might be the same confidence that has made his father’s comments so insufferable, but if the tools and hard work match the swag, watch out.

Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle also sees greatness in the rookie pointing to LaMelo’s ‘energy and flare’. When the stats back up the public persona the results are undeniable.

A few caveats exist here. Teams will figure out some of his tricks and he will need to adjust. In the Hornet’s last three games they have been outscored by 38 with Ball on the floor. Two of those games were against a Toronto Raptors team led by Nick Nurse who is well known for knowing how to scheme a defence. Other teams will follow their lead and the rookie will have to adjust; signs point to his ability to just that.

I hate to refer to the eye test, but it is all there. His criticised shooting motion has improved, his rebound instincts are elite, and his size combined with his court vision will keep his assists coming as teams play him differently. He must continue doing the ugly things as well as he does the pretty things, but LaMelo is the has what it takes.

Ball’s biggest competition for Rookie of the Year is James Wiseman. Wiseman has a lower floor, he’s on a better team, and feels like a sure thing as a quality NBA player. However, if Charlotte makes the playoffs and LaMelo sees what it really takes to be the best- against all my previous instincts- I can confidently say he will be the bigger superstar.