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Why LaMelo Ball could be a top-5 NBA Draft prospect in 2020

Scouting LaMelo Ball’s strengths and weaknesses before he starts playing in Australia.

LaMelo Ball dribbles the ball with the left hand as he attempts a drive to the basket.

LaMelo Ball is perhaps the most famous high school basketball player of all time, but his game remains clouded in a certain degree of mystery. While his peers spent the last two years competing against each other in organized grassroots leagues and showcases like the Nike Hoop Summit, Ball was playing sporadic minutes in Lithuania and headlining in his father’s ill-fated JBA league before hitting the prep school circuit with Ohio’s SPIRE Academy last season.

We know about Ball’s reality show, signature shoe, and five million Instagram followers, but it’s hard to find reliable statistics like three-point percentage or assist-to-turnover rate. That he’s become a projected first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft despite the lack of information speaks to how his rare gifts have been able to cut through the noise surrounding him.

Ball spent the summer amplifying his hype by starring in the Drew League and going toe-to-toe against NBA players in private runs. Now he’s off to Australia, where he’ll play professionally for the Illawarra Hawks this season. NBA scouts will finally get to see him in a structured environment with real, competitive stakes.

What type of player will they find? Ball’s season at SPIRE is loaded with clues. We broke down the tape from his year in Ohio for our first look at LaMelo the point guard, not the celebrity.

LaMelo Ball is a big, creative point guard

Scouting Ball’s game starts with the realization that the awkward 13-year-old we once saw chucking from halfcourt is long gone. Ball has matured into a legitimate 6’6 or 6’7 point guard, which already puts him in elite company for positional size as an 18-year-old well before he reaches the NBA.

Ball’s height amplifies his next outlier quality: his passing ability. It’s not just that Ball can see over the opposing defense. His size also helps him get unique angles to fire passes few point guards his age would ever attempt. Like his older brother Lonzo, the youngest Ball is wired to pass first, score second. Here’s a full minute of passing highlights from SPIRE.

Ball’s vision is the first thing that stands out. He always keeps his eyes up the court and has a keen awareness of where his teammates are going to be. He’s already programmed to find shooters dotting the three-point line. He’s comfortable throwing passes with either hand when he’s on the move. He also plays with a unique sense of creativity that uses overhand and right-handed hooks passes that combine velocity and accuracy. There could have been another entire reel of quality passes Ball threw to teammate who couldn’t corral them.

As Ball continues to learn of the nuance of halfcourt reads, he should immediately be ready to contribute by kickstarting transition opportunities. The spirit of Chino Hills can be found each of Ball’s outlet passes. He tries to fire a full court pass off a make or miss a few times per game. He’s also always looking for teammates down the court when he gets his hands on a loose ball or forces a turnover.

Ball should be a one-man tempo multiplier unto himself. If there’s an area where Ball most resembles Lonzo, it’s in his unwavering dedication to get the ball up the court and put the team in position to attack before the opposing defense can get set.

Ball is always ready to shoot

Ball feels like the next in a wave of post-Steph Curry guards who aren’t scared to shoot from anywhere on the floor. Yes, some of his attempts will make you cringe. His shot selection is certainly going to come under heavy scrutiny in the NBL. But for an 18-year-old, these repetitions on pull-up threes, many of them from NBA range, seems like a positive sign for his development.

Here’s a minute of Ball taking threes, with a series of makes at the beginning and some misses at the end.

Having a pull-up three in your bag is becoming a prerequisite for young guards in today’s game and Ball is certainly ahead of most of his peers there. The pros and cons of his jumper are both clear as day. Ball rarely squares himself to the basket, often shooting a leaning jumper that can go into or away from contact. His release is relatively quick on both pull-ups and catch-and-shoot opportunities. He feels comfortable off the ball and showed an understanding of how to come off screens in several of the games we watched.

Ball shot 33.3 percent from three-point range and 66.8 percent from the foul line at SPIRE, according to Prep Circuit. If his free-throw stroke is for real, he’s already miles ahead of Lonzo. More important is the relative ease with which Ball takes and makes shots that are often wildly difficult. Australia will provide a valuable shooting sample this season, but it’s already obvious he has good touch and range on his jumper. He’ll be starting ahead of most other guards hoping to be taken in the first round as shooter.

His finishing is a mixed bag

There’s no doubt Ball is ahead of Lonzo as a downhill scorer and driver at the same stage. There are also major questions about his ability to take and finish through contact against pros. The youngest Ball isn’t afraid to attack a big man protecting the rim, and he showed plenty of instances of deft touch around the basket. There’s even one clip in here of Ball changing hands mid-air to finish a layup. Here are some highlights of LaMelo’s finishing, both good and bad.

Per Prep Circuit, Ball only shot 16 free throws in 24 games, which is certainly troubling if accurate (it’s worth pointing out no one on his team had more free throws attempts). He’ll obviously need to add strength, particularly in the lower body, to generate more power as a finisher. For now, the best thing you can say about his driving ability is that a) he’s always looking to pass while on the move, b) he has impressive touch when he does go for a close range shot.

Ball is a high IQ player, too

Lonzo Ball went No. 2 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft largely off the strength of his intellect. LaMelo Ball may not be a basketball genius on the level of his brother, but he’s still a smart player.

Here are two clips that illuminate Ball’s IQ. In the first, Ball dives on the floor to push the ball to his teammate who then kickstarts a fastbreak the other way. The creativity and the effort are certainly impressive. The second clip is a classic LaMelo Ball play in all his glory.

The hustle, ambition, and vision of Ball in that second clip is remarkable. Can he play that hard every possession?

Ball has a strong chance to go in the lottery. How high can he climb?

I put Ball at No. 19 overall in my initial 2020 NBA mock draft back in June. I had seen Ball play once in person on a JBA stop in Chicago and saw his strengths and flaws in equal light within a league that was essentially built to showcase his talent.

After sitting down to watch several full games of his time at SPIRE, I would now have Ball as a top-five prospect in the 2020 NBA Draft before the season starts for three reasons:

  1. His elite positional size, tremendous passing vision, and pull-up shooting potential is a combination none of his peers in the 2020 draft can match
  2. His lack of strength, poor shot selection, and ambitious decision making can each improve over time
  3. The rest of this draft class doesn’t yet appear to be all that strong.

The third point feels like the most important. Right now, only Georgia guard Anthony Edwards and North Carolina point guard Cole Anthony appear as likely locks for the top-five (Israel’s Deni Avdija is getting close). It’s wide-open after that. Ball will be competing with R.J. Hampton, Arizona’s Nico Mannion, Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey, and a pair of studs from France (Theo Maledon and Killian Hayes) for position in the first round.

It’s possible Ball struggles against grown men in Australia. There have been rumors of his effort waning. No one can confidently say how he’ll fit into a team dynamic. His decision-making with the ball could sabotage him in the NBL before he ever really gets started.

A lot can change, but for now LaMelo Ball’s strengths are impressive enough for him to be considered in contention for a spot in the top-five of the 2020 NBA Draft. We can’t wait to see him in Australia.