NOTE: This piece was originally written as being inclusive of both LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton and the opening couple paragraphs read with that intention in place. However, after slipping into the writing process and realizing I had a lot to say about Ball’s passing, shooting, and defense, I opted to keep the focus of this piece on LaMelo and change what was supposed to be a 3 or 4-part series into an open-ended “multi-part” series. Thank you for your patience as my attempts at planning and self-restraint are clearly lacking.
Beyond the novelty of two American-born basketball playing teenagers venturing thousands of miles away from home to prepare for certain induction into the NBA, exist two young men who are ascending as pro prospects, positionally ranked side-by-side, yet performing and projecting as polar opposites: LaMelo Ball, a being who sits at the center of his world, on and off the court, with teammates and cameras and narratives orbiting around him. The other, RJ Hampton, comparatively anonymous, but apparently utilitarian as a basketball player, a peacock of sorts comfortably clothed in muted grays, whites, and blacks.
For context, I have already written about Cole Anthony and still have Nico Mannion, Tyrese Haliburton, and Kira Lewis Jr.to cover in part three (and likely Tyrese Maxey, Theo Maledon, and Killian Hayes in a yet-to-be-considered part four). As tiers are a core theme of classification in the draft Twitter realms, I’d probably bucket Cole and LaMelo together and then Hampton, Mannion, and Haliburton in a second tier with Lewis Jr at the back. Hayes, Maledon and Maxey would be dispersed between tiers two and three. I mention this because the separation between these point guard prospects is tenuous at best. Specifically tenuous in the sense that I’m plagued by deep self-doubt about under-ranking the Tyreses (Haliburton and Maxey) who are barging their way up up up my list with consistency of output and effort.
Overall context aside, let’s hop in with two feet, two hands and any other appendages you want to bring along (yours or someone else’s – with consent) and differentiate our American-gone-Australia/New Zealand teenage point guards.
Ball is fascinating as a prospect. His game and ability are most similar to Mannion’s in that they each have a deep feel for the game that reveals itself primarily in their passing and vision, but also crops up in opportunistic defensive situations. What’s ironic about Ball’s feel coming through on the defensive end is that his lack-of-consistent defensive effort rivals that of MVP-year Russell Westbrook or peak-YouTube James Harden and once seen becomes near impossible to unsee. This dichotomy isn’t new for an NBA player, but in a prospect who presents as Picasso on one end (passing, creation) and a muppet baby on the other (defense), before even arriving in the NBA, it’s kind of disconcerting.
Let’s start with Melo’s offensive gifts. I think, with the right kind of eyes, you can see rainbows and starbursts shooting from his fingers on certain passes. There’s an audacity to high level passing, a feeling, a self-confidence, a willingness to risk it all (or maybe just risk one single, itsy bitsy turnover) in exchange something like selfishly orchestrated cooperation. These are the attributes of Melo and they exist in a lanky, 6-foot-5 frame with loose Jamal Crawford limbs that lack the elder Crawford’s control, yet still obey Melo’s wishes on demand.
He’s long and a legitimate point guard. While lacking plus-speed or quickness, he has surprisingly good acceleration, particularly off the defensive glass where his long strides and ball control allow him to get out and take advantage of scrambling defenses. But Melo doesn’t need the advantage of a break away to push the defense on its heels. His basketball IQ is expressed through a bottomless feel, hyper awareness (not just of teammates and defenders, but seemingly of teammate strength and preference), and improvisation that translate just as well to the half-court. Being tall and imbued of passing genes and vision makes life easier and despite having just turned 18 in August and still physically maturing, Ball is at home in his body, able to take full advantage of his size.
His size and vision/feel combination make his passing the strongest skill of any player I have in the lottery. It’s a talent that exceeds Anthony Edwards’ athleticism and pull up game, is better than Cole Anthony’s tight burst and shooting, exceeds Mannion’s passing, goes beyond James Wiseman’s rim protecting potential and Onyeka Okongwu’s skillful bullying. In an NBA that’s evolved into a chess match of floor spacing and geometry, a passer with Ball’s panoptic ability and size can bend the game in ways that he may not have been able to in the past.
Passing is the primary, the raison d’etre, but it doesn’t exist alone. We desire that the offensive skills should work in concert with one another and in Melo, this is partially the case and where we will segue from strengths into weaknesses and opportunities. For his passing to be fully weaponized, his shot and handle require fine tuning and efficiency. The handle is there already with those floppy arms and dexterous hands, the ball is an extension of the hand which is under control of the mind. In LaMelo, it works together in a simultaneously choreographed and improvised ballet: the moves, from the head and eyes to the arms and hands, to the hips and feet executing in sequences born in Chino Hills, fine tuned in Lithuania and Ohio, and finally being upgraded in Australia at the youthful age of 18. Because the handle is so strong, Ball can beat stronger defenders and force help and this ultimately creates the same type of advantage of a fast break: defense scrambling, teammates cutting and spotting up, and Melo orchestrating.
If the handle and passing are two pieces of the puzzle, the third is the shooting – inside and out, off the catch and off the move. It’s not good. In his 12 games with Illawarra, he’s shooting 37.5% from the field while hitting 25% on 80 three-point attempts and 46% on twos. For context, there are just two NBA players (Jordan Poole [24%] and Russell Westbrook [24%]) shooting this poorly with similar or greater volume and no college players. The inefficiency from deep doesn’t stop Melo from chucking as he’s attempting nearly seven threes/game. It’s too early to abandon all hope though as Melo’s shown in-season improvement from deep. He started the season 3-26 (11.5%) from deep and over his last 54 attempts, is shooting 31.4%. It’s still well-below where you’d like him to be but it shows development and adaptation. It could also show streakiness.
I don’t have any advanced shooting stats on Melo, but in viewing his NBL games, there’s a strong preference for shooting threes off the dribble with traces of the bad habits of pulling from Steph Curry range that simultaneously made him a household name and make one question that otherwise radiant basketball IQ. His shot selection is poor and self-indulgent. It’s possible he’s using the NBL as a laboratory of sorts and exploring what he is and isn’t capable of in game-speed situations, but that’s really the only explanation for some of the ill-advised deep threes he shoots and far-fetched at that. That he occasionally hits one doesn’t validate the shot. Sticking with the decision making, if he hits one shot, there’s a good chance he’s pulling up off the dribble on the next attempt. Existing in a state of heat check when you’re a 25% three-point shooter is hopefully just a sign of immaturity rather than deeply ingrained habit, but again, it calls into question his ability to combat his own on-court impulses and somewhat reduces his otherwise galvanizing playmaking.
While he’s partial towards the pull-up three, his catch-and-shoot threes tend to look quite a bit better with greater symmetry and balance, but still that funky release. This isn’t a surprise, but there are pros and cons to it: On the pro side, it shows that his mechanics aren’t broken. He has touch that translates on rim drives, the free throw line (72% in NBL), and C&S threes. The con is that he rarely gets C&S opportunities as he’s rightly a primary ball-handler. I’ll turn to friend-of-the-blog, Cameron Purn for a deeper description of his shot mechanics and some of the problems that stem from it:
Both of LaMelo’s elbows flare out wide, and his release point can sit as low his nose. His right hand sits on the side of the ball as opposed to the bottom; his left thumb is involved in the shot motion to counteract the spin from the right. His base sees variance from time to time with the right leg periodically sticking out to begin the motion; can land with both feet facing perpendicular to the rim. Amount of knee bend and lower body involvement has been inconsistent. Sometimes inserts a backwards lean involving a kick-out, which offsets his balance. Follow-through has been inconsistent. Outside shot is technically a set shot; doesn’t generate much lift
From my own viewing, the inconsistency Cameron references in Ball’s knee bend and lower body are a key source of his inefficiencies. His misses often are not close misses, but airballs and bricks that are a byproduct of his frequent imbalances and high-degree-of-difficulty shots.
But where his deep ball is an inconsistent shitshow of outcomes, he exhibits remarkable touch on his floater and finishing around the basket. The handle and threat of the pass, often set up by head and eye fakes, is such that he can frequently break down defenders and get into the paint. He’s somewhat deceptive in terms of athleticism. During the warmups of one game, he was attempting the off-the-bounce, ball-through-the-legs dunk with relative ease. This doesn’t imply functional athleticism, but in Ball’s case, he gets up quickly, if not terribly high. Combined with his in-air ball control, he’s shown ability to finish. His strength still acts as an impediment though as against NBL defenders, he can be swallowed and have his shot smothered. The inability to do small things like create space by bumping a defender off balance with a shoulder limits his overall attack.
I’m not convinced the off-the-bounce three-ball comes around and if it doesn’t, it somewhat calls to mind the treatment given to a young, three-point-averse Rajon Rondo. To be clear, Melo’s a better shooter as an 18-year-old than Rondo was even in his late 20s and so getting a Ben Simmons-type treatment isn’t going to happen. That said, there’s an efficiency low point where defenses start playing off him, daring him to take the shot and living with his infrequent makes. Is it 30% on seven attempts? 25% on five attempts? I’m not sure, but him reaching average off-the-dribble levels of three-point accuracy is far from a guarantee.
Before probing the festering sore of his defensive woes, it’s worth acknowledging that his preternatural feel for basketball reveals itself on the defensive end and inspired the subtitle: “Between Lazy & Opportunistic.” In the NBL, he’s shown a strong grasp for team and help defense, a skill that seems propelled by an ability to anticipate and react. The problem with this ability is twofold: 1) it occurs infrequently so it’s not something his team can presently depend on. Maybe he’ll anticipate and react, or, more likely, he’ll be standing stiff-legged with his hands at his sides. 2) this anticipation is a form of opportunism and requires an awareness of where the ball is that often leads to Melo losing his man. This opportunism is embodied by the ball acting as a magnet of sorts. He can force turnovers through his anticipation and quick reactions and rebounds decently for his position due to his size and ball tracking.
So while his defense isn’t a complete wash, that he shows occasions of positive impact almost acts as a source of frustration at the rarity of occurrence. His defense is awful despite any positive impact. And it’s awful in multiple facets.
Probably the most glaring weak point of his defense is his uneven effort, particularly off the ball. More often than not, Ball can be found on the defensive end standing straight-legged with his arms at his sides, not necessarily resting or conserving energy, but just standing, usually watching the ball. This position of unprepared ball fascination makes him an easy target to be backdoored and cut on. And because he’s not in a ready position, even when he does have the “oh shit” realization that he’s lost his man, he’s neither quick enough or in a defensive stance that would allow him to quickly react. This statuesque ole bullshit reminds me of Roger Dorn in Major League, the aging third baseman who’s more concerned about taking a grounder off the face than he is about making the right play. Melo doesn’t seem to have the same concerns, but the outcome is the same.
On-the-ball, he’s an easy target for screeners as his lithe frame and lack of fight allow him to be taken completely out of plays. Throughout my notes, I reference him dying on screens. On occasion, he’s shown a willingness to lock in and get through the screen, but similar to his team defense, the effort and engagement are so inconsistent as to be unreliable. His physical limitations don’t stop on screens. Against other NBL guards, older and stronger in almost every case, he’s plowed through like inanimate traffic cones or Saints defenders circa 2011 trying to wrangle Marshawn Lynch. In football terms, he’s an arm tackler easily run through by opponents, his resistance nominal at best. Similarly, the lacking strength and effort make his boxouts, when they do occur, ineffective at best. While he can rebound well with good hands and nose for the ball, he completely detaches from his man when the shot goes up, and is prone to giving up offensive boards on errant misses.
It’s fair to acknowledge his age as the key factor in his strength and even his focus, but as is the case with Anthony Edwards and his shot selection, the questions come back to habits for LaMelo. Are these habits deep enough that he can’t unlearn them or are the occasions of execution and effort indicators of presence and potential? He’ll get stronger in his upper and lower body and I think there’s an element of oversaturation with Melo that makes us think he should be further along than he actually is because we’ve all been seeing him since he was a skinny kid shooting from half court three or four years ago.
Trying to figure how LaMelo transitions and translates to the NBA is an exercise with greater uncertainty than most for me. He’s third on my big board with probably the second highest upside (behind Edwards), but it feels more dependent on circumstance than other prospects. Within his realm of possible outcomes, I see the mediocre shooting and inconsistent defense of a late-20s Rondo. The elite passing and ineffective defense of Trae Young. It’s the presence of the attributes, not the players themselves where I see similarity. I project and assume LaMelo will gain strength and fill out as he ages. Now in his third season as a 22-year-old, his brother Lonzo Ball has begun to fill out physically, but he always had a sturdier frame and tighter core than his brother. Even if his defensive effort remains poor and inconsistent, being stronger at 6-5 will make him more difficult to run through. In terms of finishing, even slight strength gain and improved core and lower body strength would significantly improve what is already a diverse attack and allow for more efficient finishing and more fouls drawn.
The mental side of the game is harder to predict. Assuming Ball is coachable (I’ve never seen or read anything suggesting otherwise), then I’d like to imagine he can improve his shot selection or just reduce the amount of heat checking and deep threes. I don’t project him as ever having sustained above average three-point shooting because the mechanics, from top to bottom, are too inconsistent and too out-of-whack. That’s not to say he can’t evolve to respectability over time a la Jason Kidd or Rondo, but even these players never quite developed any reliable off-the-bounce three and had to settle for slower, catch-and-shoot options. Ball is a better overall scorer and shooter than those players were at a similar age and while that doesn’t guarantee he’ll shoot better over time, having at least the presence of a pull-up game increases his range of outcomes.
Sticking with the mental side and coachability, I mentioned above that he’s dependent on circumstance and what I mean by that is he needs the room to fail and grow (as all NBA teenagers do). His game is fraught with bad decisions, a likely by-product of his pre-NBL days of playing three-plus years in what essentially amounted to a circus-like all-star atmosphere designed to draw attention rather than develop as a basketball player. The muscle memory and need to put on a show is still there and it will drive some coaches or GMs crazy. But there’s a fine line between optimizing towards the strengths of a savant and asking Picasso to paint inside the numbers. With the bad habits he’s developed, the learning curve from flashy passer to contributor on a winning basketball team seems like it will be longer for Melo than others, but with a significant upside. In a perfect world, he lands somewhere like New Orleans, not just because his brother is there, but because with David Griffin at the helm, there’s a sobriety of expectation and understanding of development. The clock is ticking on the Pels, but it’s not a clock resting solely on LaMelo’s shoulders. Conversely, a destination like New York, with its top-down dysfunction, uneven player development, and NBA 2K-styled roster building feels like a place where bad habits can flourish and calcify.
Between New Orleans and New York are myriad outcomes that offer a million choose-your-own-adventure outcomes for Ball. While his passing and ability to make the game easier for teammates will, with extreme certainty, translate to the NBA, the remaining skills and abilities, from his cockeyed shot to his lazy defense, are wildcards in ways that exceed the question marks of his 2020 draft class compatriots. Were he even average in other areas of his game, he’d be my top-prospect overall, without peer. But he’s not and it’s unclear if he’s willing or able to become average. That I still keep him in my top-three and that ESPN has him number-one overall in their latest mock draft (to the Knicks of all places) is testament to creative genius, to positional size, to potential, possibility, and to the inspirational power of the imagination.