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The case for LaMelo Ball as the No. 1 player in the 2020 NBA Draft

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This is why LaMelo Ball should be the top pick in the NBA draft.

LaMelo Ball’s whirlwind basketball journey hit its first critical tipping point back in preschool, when his now infamous father realized the youngest of his three sons was going to miss playing with his older brothers in high school by a year. So LaVar Ball decided LaMelo would start first grade early, setting into motion one of the most fabled youth basketball careers in the history of the sport.

Ball first gained national attention as the 5’10 high school freshman on Chino Hills’ undefeated state champion who would launch outlet passes and deep jump shots with no remorse over players twice his size. As his brother Lonzo moved onto UCLA the next year, Ball became a phenomenon: pointing to the spot on the floor where he would drain his halfcourt threes, scoring 92 points in a single game, and even getting Stephen Curry to marvel at his confidence.

Things got a little strange after that: following the release of his own signature shoe, Ball dropped out of high school ahead of his junior year, turned pro in Lithuania, came back to the states to star in his father’s fledgling professional league for teenagers, then played a year at Spire Academy in Ohio alongside several other future pros. Somewhere in there he played an AAU game against Zion Williamson in Las Vegas that was streamed by millions of people and created such a chaotic environment inside the gym LeBron James had to be turned away at the door.

After spending a year as a pro in Australia, Ball is set to enter the 2020 NBA Draft as perhaps the most naturally talented player in the class. The 6’7 point guard is the product of the route that led him here, still playing with the same streetball sizzle that came from backyard battles with his older brothers, still channeling the spirit of Chino Hills with every ambitious full-court pass and pull-up three. At his best, it feels like Ball plays the game with a hint of clairvoyance, seeing openings and opportunities lesser players wouldn’t dare to notice. If his path to the NBA is unlike any the league has ever seen, it has still played a critical component in making him the player he is today.

Ball is the No. 1 player on our 2020 draft board. This is why.

Ball has rare passing and playmaking skill

The case for Ball as the top prospect in the 2020 draft begins with the acknowledgment that no NBA archetype has more value than the lead initiator of a top offense, and that Ball has the greatest potential in the class to turn into exactly that. Start with the size: at 6’7 and perhaps still growing, Ball might be the league’s tallest pure point guard (read: a player who also defends point guards) from the moment he’s drafted, and he’s able to leverage that height to accentuate his gifted creation ability.

Ball’s passing and playmaking is an extraordinary skill that registers a cut above where his older brother was at out of college. Ball doesn’t pass to open guys — he passes guys open. He sees angles that no one else would see, and has the audacity and the self-belief to think every dime will lead to an easy bucket.

Ball is able to find open teammates in part because he keeps the basketball on a string as a dribbler. While he doesn’t have the quickest first step, Ball is able to get past defenders with hang dribbles and hesitations, often linking together multiple crossover moves that feel like he’s hitting a combo in a video game. He does well to keep the ball low to the ground despite his height, and has a singular ability to deliver no-look passes with either hand off a live dribble.

Ball’s facilitating is equally exquisite in transition and the halfcourt. Here’s a cut of some of his best playmaking moments:

Ball’s comfort and skill in the open floor dates back to his Chino Hills days, and it’s easy to see the influence that style of play still has on him. His eyes are always looking up the court and his arm is always ready to throw a football pass to an open teammate. Even when he attacks in transition, his dazzling ball handling has a way of sucking in defenders trying to stop the ball, only to lose open shooters at the rim or in the corners.

As a halfcourt initiator, Ball has a great sense of timing in the pick-and-roll, using his height and his handle to caress openings out of the defense. He will make the speculator pass that stops you in your tracks, but he will also make the sensible one, slinging rockets to a stretch big on the pick-and-pop or dropping in a perfect entry feed.

Ball’s passing skill deserves every scouting cliche in the lexicon: it really is that elite and there are moments when it feels truly special. More than anything, Ball’s facilitating is innate: you couldn’t teach another player to play like this, because no one else can see what LaMelo sees.

Ball will be able to score a bit, too

A great offensive initiator can’t just be a passer — they have to be able to put pressure on the defense with their own scoring ability, as well. Ball has natural scoring ability, too, even if he’s still learning how to pick his spots and become as efficient as possible while still playing his game.

The numbers on Ball’s scoring were not pretty across his 13 games in Australia: he shot 38.9 percent from the field, 27.9 percent from three, and finished with a 47.9 true shooting percentage. Those numbers won’t be good enough in the NBA, but they were also indicative of an 18-year-old playing against grown men while still figuring out how to use all the tools at his disposal.

The individual components of Ball’s scoring package look stronger than the sum of their parts. Ball can finish at the rim, he can shoot with range off the dribble, he can hit floaters that are wildly ambitious. Shot selection remains an issue, just as it always has been. But when Ball is cooking, he looks like the type of scorer with a deep bag of tricks who can generate his own look whenever he wants.

Here’s a cut of Ball as a scorer, showcasing his deep shooting, his finishing, and his float game:

Ball’s finishing touch is impressive — another area of his game that is benefitted by his height. He’s able to score at the rim over smaller guards and has the length to extend past rotating big men, too. While Ball will often go into his shot attempt too far from the rim, he is skilled at finishing when he gets in close. He will ideally become a more fearless driver as he gains muscle and fills out his body. His ability to consistently draw fouls and get to the line will be a swing factor in how he progresses as a scorer in the league.

The most unique part of Ball’s scoring package is his penchant to take floaters, a skill honed playing against older competition in his youth. While he settles for this shot too often in a failure to get all the way to the rim, Ball’s floater can be a devastating weapon. He will shoot it from 20-feet out at times, and does well to square his body to the rim when he launches himself into it. The floater feels like it could be Ball’s signature move down the road, but some teams will likely try to coach him to be less reliant on it.

Then there’s shooting, sure to be Ball’s most dissected skill in the pre-draft process. While Ball’s percentage was low, it belies his comfort level shooting deep threes off the dribble. The pull-up three is perhaps the most essential move for a high-level guard to have in his repertoire. While some of Ball’s attempts will make his coaches cringe, there’s a long-term benefit to getting so many live reps against pros at such a young age. Ball certainly has natural touch from deep. As he learns to control his shot selection and improve his balance on deep jumpers, this shot should be a big part of his game and a clear path towards pushing his ceiling as high as it can go.

Ball will likely never be a primary scorer for a great team, but he can score enough to make his playmaking even more effective. That’s all the NBA can ask.

The defense is an issue for now, but not totally a lost cause

The yeah, but with Ball will often focus on his defense. This is not entirely unfair: Ball can be inattentive and lazy on the defensive end, occasionally appearing to take possessions off while losing track of his man by ball watching. The learning curve defensively is going to be sky-high for Ball when he enters the NBA. Teams will attack him early in his career. But if you look closer, there’s a good chance Ball can be an impact defender down the line.

Defense could be the best area for Ball to model himself off his older brother. While Lonzo Ball still lacks strength and rarely acts as an on-ball stopper, he has become one of the NBA’s better defensive point guards by being a great team defender. The basketball IQ that shines through on offense can also appear on defense, giving the Ball brothers a sense of when and how to rotate to play defense on a string.

The vision of LaMelo Ball as a quality defender might take a few years to happen. As his body develops — it appears he has a better build to add muscle than his brother — he’s going to be a long 6’7 defender who should be able to stop three positions as a rotation defender. Ball already has quick hands (2.43 steal rate) and has flashed sharp help instincts when he’s dialed in. The issue is that too often he isn’t dialed in.

Defense will be a work in progress for Ball, but it could be a big part of his game down the line.

Why Ball is the top prospect in the draft

Because of his father’s decision early in his life to push him to play with his brothers in high school, Ball is one of the youngest prospects in this draft, not turning 19 years old until Aug. 22. Youth is a huge factor in the evaluation of a prospect’s upside. For Ball to have so many impressive games in Australia — he ended his stint on consecutive triple-doubles before a foot injury cut his season short — at such a young age against pros is a positive sign for his long-term growth.

Combine his youth with his size, his elite skill as a playmaker, and his potential as a scorer and defender, and Ball has the highest ceiling to be an impact star of any player in the 2020 draft class. That is why he should be the first pick.

Ball’s scoring efficiency is a real issue. Will he be coachable? How will veteran teammates respond to his shot selection and his most ambitious passes? Will shaky defense early in his career prevent him from getting regular minutes? A bet on Ball in the draft isn’t one made with the present in mind. It’s to believe that, after years of NBA coaching and strength training, his natural talent will continue to evolve and give him a skill set that makes him a unique force among lead guards in the game today.

Ball feels like he’s already spent a lifetime in the spotlight. The level of fame he experienced at a such a young age could sabotage a lesser player, but Ball appears to take it in stride. It’s all he’s ever known. The 13-year-old taking halfcourt shots for Chino Hills has come a long way, and he still has so much room to grow. It’s impossible to separate Ball from his origin story, but it’s a big reason why he’s here today. It feels like we’ve watched LaMelo Ball forever — but in reality, he’s just getting started.