After Lonzo Ball was drafted second in 2017, younger brother LaMelo Ball is projected by many outlets to go first in Wednesday night’s NBA draft, like Zion Williamson, Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James before him.
LaMelo is coming off an excellent run in one of the best professional leagues outside of the United States – the NBL via its Next Stars program. The 19-year-old was crowned the 2019-20 NBL Rookie of the Year during his stint with the Illawarra Hawks in Australia, where he averaged 17.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists in 12 games before a foot injury cut short his season.
Matt Flinn knows him better than most, having coached the emerging guard during his time with the Hawks and he provided an insight into his brief but successful period in Illawarra.
“The first thing that came out for me was how enthusiastic he was and how much he actually loved the game,” Flinn told Stats Perform News ahead of the draft. “That sounds obvious, but some people play the game because they’re good at it, some people play the game because they’re actually good at it but they genuinely love it and identify with it.
“There was an obvious aura about him when he first came in, that was defined a little bit by the celebrity status and attention he was getting outside of practice. We had 100 people lined up outside the gym at the first practice he was at. That was surreal for us in Illawarra. We shut all the doors, we didn’t let Facebook in. I was really strong with that. I wanted to establish a clear line that ‘okay Melo, you are who you are outside, but inside these walls, we’re going to do our very best to treat you like everyone else.’ I think he actually appreciated that and it built some trust. We were allowed to get to work.
“All I ever really wanted from Melo was for him to get better in a team environment because that was the real unknown factor from everyone. We know he can play, with these great attributes and skillset but how he is going to survive in an elite practice environment and elite team environment in games? At 18 years old, I’ll be honest right at the start before he even trained, I had question marks about how he would adapt to a very physical league with FIBA rules. Every team is scouted really well, how is he going to adjust to that and how will I adjust if he can’t adjust? It became really clear in the first few weeks of practice that this kid can flat out play.”
The Hawks endured a forgettable season with a 5-23 record, but Ball was a standout prior to his injury. He became the youngest player in NBL history to record a triple-double with 32 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds against the Cairns Taipans in November. He also put up three double-doubles.
Now, all eyes are Ball as the Minnesota Timberwolves prepare to pick first in the long-awaited draft, followed by the Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Hornets.
“I think he’s going to be way better in the NBA than we saw (in the NBL) because of the freedom of movement, it’s a high scoring, run and gun, more athletic league,” Flinn explained. “You have more rim protection, which allows you to potentially gamble more. Better coaching, more support around your schemes. He’s always had this ultimate goal to develop his game to be at the ultimate level. I think whoever gets him, if the coach is right and I’m not saying you have to bow down to him, but if you’re going to make a significant investment in a kid like this, you’re going to have to continue to teach and nurture it.”
Lonzo Ball was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers before being sent to the New Orleans Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade. The 23-year-old averaged 11.8 points, 7.0 assists and 6.1 rebounds last season, but even Lonzo admits that LaMelo is the most talented Ball brother.
When asked to compare the siblings, Flinn said: “No disrespect to his brothers, but I think he will be the best out of the three. He is 19, it’s ridiculous.
“You’re a product of your environment and what I’ve seen from LaMelo is a gracious kid, positive and happy kid… we’re still in touch today as he is with most of his team-mates from that team.”
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