LaMelo Ball Is Already a Celebrity. He Might Be a Basketball Star, Too.
On the brink of entering the N.B.A., LaMelo Ball is a most unusual prospect.
His name has been suggested as a potential No. 1 pick in Wednesday’s N.B.A. draft, but he also could fall out of the top five in a class considered by executives to lack standout players. Like his brother Lonzo, who was selected with the No. 2 pick in 2017, LaMelo’s shooting form is unorthodox to the point of suspect. His size — 6 feet 7 inches and roughly 180 pounds — does not make him a natural fit at any position, at least not immediately. And nearly three years after he left the California high school where he first burst onto the national scene, there is still a very limited sample of tape showing Ball succeeding against the kind of competition he might face in the N.B.A.
In some ways, though, Ball, 19, represents a new generation of basketball players who will be populating the N.B.A. in the coming decade. As the youngest of three basketball-playing, reality show-making brothers, he is already more famous than most professional athletes, with more Instagram followers than the majority of N.B.A. players. His highlights had been viewed by millions on social media before he was old enough to drive a car. And all of that attention has come in spite of his having circumvented the N.C.A.A. entirely, perhaps proving that an American player can skip attending a leading program like Duke or North Carolina, earn significant money overseas and still be a top pick.
On that last point, he is not alone this year. James Wiseman, who played only three games at Memphis University, and Killian Hayes, an American-born point guard who grew up in France, are also projected to be lottery picks. It is possible, if not probable, that the majority of picks in the draft’s top 10 will have little to no connection to the N.C.A.A. system.
But Ball’s path goes far beyond what even the most hyped recent prospects, like Zion Williamson, have gone through. His personal life — and that of his two brothers Lonzo and LiAngelo — has been on display through an ongoing reality show, “Ball In The Family.” He has grown up in the public eye, in front of an audience hungry for more.
Yet he is, so far, a celebrity not because of his on-court play but mostly because of his last name. What has defined Ball’s career — and the way he and his talents are perceived — is that name, and the others who possess it. And that may ultimately determine where he is drafted.
So what to make of this particular Ball as he gets ready to play in the league? Some teams will certainly be wary of the attention that follows his family. Any team that takes on the LaMelo experience also will take on a relationship with LaVar Ball, the bombastic family patriarch with a craving for the spotlight.
Past experience has shown that this does not go well: LaVar was publicly critical of Luke Walton, the former Los Angeles Lakers coach, after Lonzo entered the league, one of many of his sons’ coaches LaVar has blasted over the years. But beyond some comments about LaMelo’s not being a good fit on the Golden State Warriors, one of the teams that has reportedly scouted him at a private workout, LaVar has actually been uncharacteristically quiet over the last year. And LaMelo seemed more than happy to brush off his father’s comments.
“I’m my own man, he’s his own man,” LaMelo told reporters recently. “He has his opinions, I have mine. I feel like I can play on any team, and do good anywhere I go.”
LaMelo Ball’s nontraditional route to the league began at Chino Hills High School in California, where he played alongside his brothers, Lonzo (now 23 and playing for the New Orleans Pelicans) and LiAngelo (21, and playing in the N.B.A.’s G League) to form one of the most fearsome teenage trios in the country.
LaMelo started high school a year early so LaVar could see his three sons share the court. In one 2017 game, LaMelo scored a whopping 92 points, raising the ire of the opposing coach. Months later, LaVar’s ball apparel company, Big Baller Brand, unveiled its first pair of basketball sneakers, made available for $495, a price roundly mocked. That August, LaMelo, still in high school, got his own signature shoe (this one for $395), a deal that threatened his N.C.A.A. eligibility.
For the Balls, though, nothing was out of bounds. LaVar and LaMelo once appeared on the wrestling program “Monday Night Raw.” Afterward, the WWE, which produced the show, had to issue an apology for the appearance because of LaMelo’s repeated use of a racial slur on live television.
Discussions about LaMelo’s N.C.A.A. eligibility ultimately didn’t matter. LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills in the fall of 2017 because of a disagreement with the team’s coach. Soon after, LaMelo and LiAngelo, who withdrew from U.C.L.A., made the surprising move of signing one-year contracts with Prienai-Birstonas Vytautas of the Lithuanian Basketball League.
At age 16, LaMelo was set to take on seasoned professionals. When the Ball family arrived in Lithuania early the next year, they were mobbed at the airport despite the fact that neither brother had any professional pedigree.
The run in Lithuania lasted four months. LaMelo struggled against more physically developed players. LaVar, predictably, clashed with the coach and pulled both of his sons from the league before the season ended, but not before creating an exhibition pro-am league to showcase his children. LaVar coached one of the games.
In the summer of 2018, LaMelo signed with the Junior Basketball Association, a semiprofessional league launched by his father that targeted high school graduates who did not want to go to college. That fall, he opted to finish high school at the SPIRE Academy in Geneva, Ohio, a school focusing on athletic training. (Eventually, the J.B.A. collapsed.)
Where LaMelo made his best impression was in Australia. Last year, he joined the Illawarra Hawks of the country’s National Basketball League, where he averaged 17 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists in 12 games. But even as he struggled with long-range shooting — he made just 25 percent of his 3-pointers — and a foot injury ended his season, Ball did enough to raise his stock for the draft.
But how those numbers will translate to the N.B.A. is an open question. There isn’t much of a blueprint for young stars coming out of the Australian league beyond Patty Mills, who starred in the league as a 22-year-old in 2012 and has had a productive N.B.A. career.
Ball, though, wasn’t content with just having been a solid player in Australia. Instead, he raised some eyebrows last spring when he attempted to buy his former team.
The talks eventually fizzled out.
It wasn’t a typical move for a teenager, but Ball isn’t a typical teenager. He has already lived on different continents, starred in his own reality show, worn his own signature sneaker and watched both of his brothers play professional basketball.
But once the youngest Ball steps on an N.B.A. floor, he will need a lot more than his fame. He will need to produce.