CHICAGO — It’s raining in Chicago on Saturday night, which is just another reminder LaMelo Ball is a long way from Chino Hills. It never rains in Chino Hills, so much so that the federal government gave the suburban LA city $750,000 in drought relief at the start of the year. The youngest Ball brother would still be there as an incoming high school senior under normal circumstances. As you probably know by now, nothing about LaMelo’s life is normal.
Ball is the most famous high school basketball player in the world, but it’s hard to tell at the moment. He’s playing in front of about 300 people in the experimental, upstart league founded by his infamous father. There are no scouts here, and the only other media members beside myself are filming for the family’s Facebook reality show.
LaMelo isn’t here alone. His older brother LiAngelo is on the court as his teammate after joining the JBA last week. Together, the two will combine to take 87 of their team’s 127 shot attempts on the night. They both play all 48 minutes and are on their way to posting gaudy stat lines. LiAngelo finishes with 54 points on 49 shots and grabs 16 rebounds. LaMelo puts up 47 points on 38 shots with 15 rebounds.
Their Los Angeles team wins a tight game over Chicago, though it’s questionable whether the outcome truly matters.
The JBA exists largely because LaMelo and LiAngelo needed a place to play after LaVar pulled each of them out of school. They signed pro contracts in Lithuania, but the initial attention generated by that move quickly faded. When they left, there was nowhere else to go because their amateur eligibility had been extinguished.
The younger Ball brothers are at the center of a bizarre, insular world created by LaVar that appears to be geared as much towards making them celebrities as it is developing them as basketball players. The league plays a central role in the reality show, which serves as additional marketing for the family’s Big Baller Brand apparel line. LaVar is even selling water now. LaMelo’s four million Instagram followers carry more weight than his stats in the JBA.
Lonzo Ball didn’t need any of this to reach the Lakers. He was talented enough to get there through the traditional basketball system, parlaying an undefeated high school season at Chino Hills into a breakout freshman year for UCLA to become the second overall pick in the NBA Draft in 2017.
If that route worked so well for Lonzo, why have the younger brothers been forced to blaze a new trail?
LaMelo’s eyes are locked down court from the moment he picks up the inbounds pass. In one fell swoop, he launches the ball the length of the floor. LiAngelo is his intended target, but he can’t corral the pass despite it hitting him in the hands.
I have seen this pass before. Lonzo threw it to Josh Jackson in the McDonald’s All-American Game only two years ago. Throwing an outlet pass this ambitious is a needless risk for most other players. For the Balls, it runs in the family.
It is kind of surreal to actually watch LaMelo and LiAngelo play basketball. The spirit of Chino Hills is still with them, back when the three brothers shared the court and won a state title by chucking deep threes, firing full-court passes, and playing press defense on nearly every possession. The Balls thrive on disrupting the typical rhythms of basketball, both on and off the court.
This style of play is undeniably chaotic. From a certain view, it’s also pretty damn entertaining. Both LaMelo and LiAngelo want to hit a home run every time they touch the ball. This fails more often than it works. Gelo’s first shot attempt is a 30-foot stepback three that only hits the backboard. Melo’s first shot is a deep pull-up that goes in and out as his body twists through the air. If you cherish fundamentals, the Balls might not be for you.
JBA games are 48 minutes long (the league prides itself on playing NBA rules), and in this game there are 250 combined shots. That’s a shot every 11.5 seconds. There are no slow possessions here, and no opportunities for a player to catch their breath. This is basketball in a blur.
Evaluating players is difficult within this context, but it’s clear that LaMelo’s talent is real. He has grown to about 6’6 now, and he has tremendous vision and passing touch. He is a joy to watch in the open court, playing with a sense of creativity and style that is far beyond his years. He’s clearly a capable shooter even though he hits just 2-of-13 threes on this night. Like Lonzo, he has a real nose for the ball and is a much better rebounder than you’d expect. Unlike Lonzo, he takes a ton of bad shots and is in no way a basketball genius.
LiAngelo has always been considered the least talented of the brothers. It feels like he could have been a good college player at the mid-major level, but likely wouldn’t have gotten a scholarship offer from UCLA if he wasn’t a Ball. Still, there are things to like about his game: he already has a strong frame, sound mechanics, deep range on his jump shot, and comfort scoring with his back to the basket. When LiAngelo goes to the post, no one in the JBA can stop him. He’s also aggressive on the glass, grabbing 14 of his rebounds on the offensive end.
The Balls wouldn’t be so famous if they couldn’t play at all. There had to be a certain level of basketball talent here. There is, especially with LaMelo, who was considered a legitimate five-star recruit. How the family has gone about cultivating that talent is another matter entirely.
A year ago around this time, LaMelo played a grassroots game in Las Vegas against fellow phenom and incoming Duke forward Zion Williamson. It created such a frenzy that police were turning people away 45 minutes before tip-off. LeBron James couldn’t even get in. Nearly a million people streamed it. It felt like the peak of Ball mania, when this family seemed capable of anything.
Now the younger Ball brothers are playing to mostly empty crowds in a new league that has had little marketing or media coverage. It’s fair to wonder if this family’s 15 minutes are up.
What happens next will come back to basketball. LaVar does not believe he’s holding his boys back by putting them in the JBA, that if they’re good enough to make it to the NBA, they’ll make it.
“If you really that guy, they will find you no matter where you are,” LaVar told me. “If you can play and you got the talent to play at that next level, guess what, they’re going to find you. If not, guess what, you’re not that guy who you thought you were.”
There is a lot of truth in that, and the honesty he shows is refreshing after all the different ways he has tried to brand his sons. Turning basketball into one big publicity stunt has gotten the Balls to this point, but that can only keep the public’s interest for so long.
Ultimately, LiAngelo and LaMelo will sink or swim in this game because of how well they can play, and nothing else. For the first time since this family’s ascent to cultural relevance began, we can finally say that.