November 30, 2022

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Globe-trotting LaMelo Ball finds a home in the NBA

Chino Hills to Lithuania to Ohio to Australia to Charlotte — LeMelo Ball’s travels make him seem more like an “Amazing Race” contestant than the likely rookie of the year, but sometimes surprises can be pleasant.

It’s not like basketball people didn’t know his name — it’s impossible to label one of LaVar Ball’s sons as underexposed. But that path, the wild scores at Chino Hills High, the European sabbatical, the private prep school in Ohio wine country, pro ball Down Under, it muddied the waters.

More than halfway into his first NBA season, Ball has managed to surprise evaluators around the NBA with his mature offensive game and high IQ, putting together the kind of season that more often than not triggers a high-level career.

“A lot of us are surprised at how good he really is, to tell you the truth,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “Really surprised.”

The 6-foot-6, 19-year-old Ball is on track to be one of five rookies ever to average 15 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists — a group that includes Magic Johnson, Oscar Robinson, Ben Simmons and, to be fair, Michael Carter-Williams.

He’s leading all rookies in assists and rebounds. He is just a hair behind No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards for the most points among first-year players, putting him at the top of most rookie-of-the-year rankings.

“I feel like I learn day by day, game by game, practice by practice,” Ball said Tuesday. “I feel like every day you can take that as a learning school and just learn something from the day. Even if it’s something big or something very small, I feel like you’re always learning.”

And Charlotte is learning that they got the right guy.

Ball comes back to Los Angeles on Thursday to face the Lakers with more fans than critics, helping quickly shift his reputation around the NBA as the Hornets seem on track for the playoffs.

“He’s better than everybody thought he was going to be,” one Western Conference scout said. “Probably going to be the rookie of the year. He has great size and feel for the position, better than his brother [Lonzo]. He seems to be a more engaged and serious player than his brother is. He’s a better shooter at this point.

“He’s just got a great feel for the game. He rebounds the ball. He’s not a very good pick-and-roll defender yet, but most young guys aren’t. But he can rebound. He’s got great length, great size for the position.”

One Western Conference general manager summed it up more succinctly — “Love him.”

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“I feel like I was born to do this.”

LaMelo Ball voiced his basketball birthright back in mid-November moments after the Hornets made him the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

Minnesota went with Edwards first and Golden State took center James Wiseman second, opening the door for the Hornets to take a swing on a player with as much mystery as any top prospect, thanks to his unconventional game and the wild path to the NBA to match.

They were aware of how he teamed up with his brothers to roll opponents for Chino Hills High, but some rolled their eyes at his inflated scoring numbers as PR stunts instead of expressions of skill.

Resentment against LaVar Ball’s boasts about his sons, about how all three would team up to revolutionize the NBA, were met with groans and didn’t do the youngest of the Big Ballers any favors. Neither did eldest brother Lonzo Ball’s early NBA seasons, which were besieged with a busted jumper and an injury-prone body.

Scouts used to sizing up prospects in elite high school showcases, All-American games and, eventually, college had to comb through tape from the National Basketball League in Australia, where he too had injury problems as well as an impressive highlight reel.

“He’s more of a performer than a basketball player,” one Western Conference scout said of LeMelo before the draft. “He’s an entertainer, always looking for the home run moment. … I’m not sure it impacts winning.”

Yet one thing was undeniable — the skill was there.

“He’s the most talented player in the draft,” one NBA executive said at the time.

Sophomore LaMelo Ball of Chino Hills scored 92 points Tuesday night in a 146-123 victory over visiting Los Osos.

Now that evaluators are seeing him compete against the world’s best, they’ve gotten even more bullish on the young point guard. And they point to his unique trans-global path as one reason.

“Playing over in Lithuania helped him. Playing in Australia helped him,” another Eastern Conference scout said. “He’s been playing damn near pro ball since like he was 15, 16. That still helped him because you‘re practicing with them and then you’re playing against grown men instead of high school guys. He had to grow up quick.”

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Michael Jordan told the Associated Press that his franchise’s prized rookie has “adjusted to the NBA game better than any of us ever thought this early in his career. He has exceeded our expectations so far this season.”

Peers have complimented him. Coaches have praised him. Scouts are seeing the promise that LaVar Ball always knew was there.

“He’s just a natural,” one of the Eastern Conference scouts said.

More than anything, he’s winning.

Ball wasn’t a problem when the team had him coming off the bench to start the season, forcing him to earn a spot in the starting lineup — and he has. His backcourt partner, Terry Rozier, is having a great season. Young role players such as P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges have found their roles, and veteran Gordon Hayward, a former All-Star who struggled with injuries in Boston, has predictably played well.

Charlotte is above .500 — a finish there would be just the third winning record since basketball came back to the city in 2004.

“He’s impressive. He’s one of those guys that’s not afraid of the moment. He gets better by the game. He’s one of those guys, he’s making everyone better,” one scout said. “… Those guys are playing well with him. When they are running the floor, they are going to find him.

“… Just his playing style alone is just going to make people play with him, and he’s making those guys better. He’s got a lot of swag.”