Wollongong, Australia -- LaMelo Ball is the most talented prospect in the 2020 NBA draft class. The 18-year-old is more than just a teenage internet icon with great highlights. He can flat out play.
Let's break down his path to this point, what we saw from him in Australia and how RJ Hampton -- the other top-10 NBA prospect in the National Baseball League -- is looking.
LaMelo Ball's trajectory and what's next
How we got here
In January 2018 on a snowy night in Prienai, Lithuania, I sat in a high school-sized gym watching then 16-year-old Ball casually float through practice, looking unenthused. Big Baller Brand cameras lined the court. With a coach who spoke no English and a crop of low-level players serving as unwilling supporting actors, it was the most bizarre basketball environment I had ever seen.
The following day, LaMelo and Prienu Vytautas took on Zalgiris' under-18 team in that same bite-sized gym. He finished with 10 points, nine assists and six turnovers, showing glimpses of incredible talent as a ball handler and playmaker. Then standing around 6-foot-5 with poor defensive habits, Ball ultimately couldn't slow Rokas Jokubaitis, now an NBA draft prospect, as the 6-foot-4 lefty went off for 31 points in a 90-80 victory. Ball's cherry picking, deep contested 3s and minimal defense still characterized his game at the time.
Just over a year later, with Ball playing for longtime NBA journeyman Jermaine Jackson at Spire Academy, I checked in on the 17-year-old prospect against Prolific Prep in Dayton, Ohio. I wanted to get a fresh look at Ball playing against other high-major recruits alongside notable names. Ball looked detached prior to tip-off -- Airpods in, not taking the floor until shortly before the jump.
Despite the sleepy demeanor, Ball put on a show, whipping passes all over the floor with either hand, slithering to the rim into ambidextrous finishes and showing off his stellar defensive instincts. The quick-trigger 3s were still there with mixed results, as was the casual approach to the game, but his talent popped in a big way. He looked every bit like a potential top-10 pick. The questions surrounding his college eligibility and where he'd play next still lingered. But I left the game enamored by his natural talent with the basketball as a 6-foot-7 playmaker with more shot creation than his older brother Lonzo.
Out of the lights overseas
After making a strong impression at the NBL Blitz preseason tournament in Tasmania, Ball's NBA draft standing has started to legitimize, leading teams to hastily add him to their scouting calendar.
Around half of the NBA's 30 teams -- including a handful of American executives -- came to Auckland's Spark Arena to watch Ball and Hampton go head-to-head in the most viewed game in NBL history. Hampton provided a spark in his role on a stacked Breakers team, while Ball flashed his passing flare, shooting potential and rebounding instincts, though he underwhelmed with his defensive effort and shot selection on the way to a 31-point loss.
The following morning I moved on to Wollongong, the home of the Illawarra Hawks, where I spent three days getting a feel for Ball's environment and basketball evolution.
Around 90 minutes south of Sydney, Wollongong is pristine, sunny and comfortable, with trees lining the sandy beaches, coffee shops and restaurants along the water, plus a basketball arena and an Aussie-rules football field right next to the ocean. Walk around on a Saturday morning and you'll see heaps of people surfing, playing pickup AFL in the sand or taking exercise classes in the park.
Ball lives with Jackson -- now his coach and mentor -- along with Jackson's wife and 12-year-old son, a block from the gym in a top-floor apartment with a partial ocean view. Although Ball spends most of his time on the court, in the apartment playing video games or watching film, Wollongong is one of the few places Ball can exist somewhat freely. Against the Breakers in Auckland, fans were recording Ball's every move, hoping to author the next viral video. Road games can get chaotic. But in Wollongong, Ball is able to focus mostly on hoops in an attempt to prove to scouts that he's an elite NBA prospect.
You'll still see Ball Illawarra jerseys in the stands, but it's a stark difference from the gyms he used to fill up in the states. The BBB cameras are gone for the time being. When the club took LaMelo on, it was under the condition there would be minimal distractions. Although still learning how to develop an elite draft prospect, the club has done an admirable job of trying to keep the fanfare to a minimum. From everything we've gathered, the teenager is happy to be on the camera less and on the hardwood more.
Signature game vs. Perth
Two days after getting embarrassed by the Breakers, Ball and the Hawks were at a breaking point. With a first-year head coach in Matt Flinn, one of the least-talented rosters in the league, a 1-4 record and a teenage star still finding his way, the club held an extended film session that emphasized shot selection and defensive intensity -- two of Ball's improvement areas.
Ball responded, turning in his best performance of the season with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in 30 minutes. The stat line was pretty, but Ball's approach impressed more. He abstained from firing early-clock 30-footers to get Illawarra into its offense. He defended with far more intensity, showing quickness chasing around shooters, using technique sliding to force contested jumpers and even playing with more urgency off the ball, though he still leaked a few buckets. He attacked the defensive glass aggressively, providing that same level of spark pushing the ball in transition that we saw from Lonzo during his UCLA days.
Now with 40 assists to just 15 turnovers on the season, he wowed scouts and fans alike with his stellar playmaking ability, highlighted by an aggressive push and no-look needle-thread to a streaking Aaron Brooks. He weaved through defenders with his tight handle and choppy feet, keeping opponents guessing. On top of that, when Brooks eventually went down with a torn Achilles, Ball seemed to elevate his play even more, quietly taking ownership of the team like few players his age could at that level. He engineered a late comeback, proved he's capable of checking up to three positions when focused, and above all, really competed.
Illawarra still lost, moving to 1-5. Given how up and down of a season it's been, Ball could easily revert back to his casual state and roll out a dud next game, counting down the days until June's draft. But these glimpses were a step in the right direction for a prospect who hasn't played in all that many meaningful games yet. On top of that, the fact that he's even been so productive with a supporting cast that features mostly aging bigs and inexperienced youngsters speaks to his ability.
The question marks
Despite Ball's clear improvements, NBA teams are still warming up to him, in part due to a lack of familiarity. He didn't play in scouting hot spots like USA Basketball, Nike Hoop Summit, McDonald's All-American and Jordan Brand. Until the last couple months, many execs only saw Ball through the BBB prism, remembering grainy Lithuanian footage or his half-court heaves and careless defense. He's going to have to fight against preconceived notions to prove himself as a basketball player.
On the floor, there are questions about whether he can score efficiently against a set defense. While possessing natural touch from deep, he's wildly streaky at 18.4% from 3 this season. When teams are able to go under ball screens with little consequence, he's far easier to neutralize in the half court. Although much shiftier and far more dangerous in pick-and-roll than Lonzo, Ball's erratic jumper, lack of a midrange game and still-evolving finishing package have played a role in his 41.9 true shooting percentage through seven NBL games. Despite the concerns, he holds upside as a scorer given his natural touch, handle, size and ambidexterity.
Then there's his level of focus. Ball is easily distracted in practice settings, which ultimately shows up on the defensive end. Sometimes looking like he's in his own world, Ball has always been one to enjoy the flashy play, but he'll space on defensive coverages or offensive sets. How well Ball can harness enough focus to stick to a game plan will be interesting to follow.
Maybe the most common question scouts ask in regards to LaMelo: What else comes along with drafting him? There's no doubt he'll fill the stands and sell jerseys. But teams wonder if that will come with disruptions and distractions similar to Lonzo's time with the Lakers. Does the Facebook show go on throughout his career? How motivated is he to maximize his sky-high potential?
These are questions NBA teams kick around. How Ball and his camp answer them with their actions between now and June will go a long way in determining his status at the top of the draft, where his talent suggests he should go.
Roots of his creativity
Ball has as much upside as any prospect in this class largely because he's operating solely off of natural instincts right now. He still has so much room to grow. Ask him what he sees in a weakside defense before he makes a miraculous pass, and he'll tell you he's just hooping. According to Illawarra staff members, he's not familiar with basic drills like a three-man weave and shell defense. He has little concept of transition defense principles given the style he's used to playing.
But while behind in some technical areas, he's a total natural athletically, with creativity and confidence rare for his age. He says pick-up football helped develop his long-distance outlet passes, and the freedom he had to play through mistakes and take risks within Chino Hills' frenetic style allowed him to test his limits without consequence.
Some players are drilled into basketball robots by constant repetition. But because of how he played, Ball is a freestyle hooper who can turn chaotic situations into brilliance. He reacts to defenders on the fly, not afraid to try and thread the needle in a window few other prospects would test. A lack of a rigid system has certainly played a role in giving him the freedom to tap into his outstanding court sense.
Many great offensive players -- like the Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young -- are deemed uncoachable at a young age because they stray from the system and try things others won't. But that can also be a strength for gifted prospects. There was a method to Ball's Chino Hills madness -- more possessions, more reads, more opportunities to place in-game experiences in the memory bank to tap into later. That level of freedom helped breed an incredibly gifted playmaker, even if he can upset his coaches at times.
Will Ball stick it out all year on an Illawarra team that has minimal weapons and little shot at the playoffs, especially if he becomes a consensus No. 1 pick? How will Illawarra replace Brooks, who is out for the year? Will the team hand the keys to Ball?
Scouts will be following closely, as this is one of the more layered evaluations in recent memory. Ball figures to be a highly divisive prospect.
RJ Hampton finding a rhythm
Hampton is in a completely different situation than Ball. While Illawarra is short on talent and it's up to Ball to create the majority of the offense, Hampton is trying to fit into a team that features accomplished, hungry scorers.
For an 18-year-old used to having a lot of freedom as a shot creator, that's not an easy adjustment, especially when thoughts about draft stock are looming. After a stellar preseason in which he averaged 17.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks in 27.4 minutes over four games, Hampton's production stalled.
Preseason games against Ja Morant, Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tyus Jones came at him fast. Hampton had his struggles navigating ball screens defensively, finishing at the rim and nailing jumpers. He looked far more comfortable against the Oklahoma City Thunder, showing off his explosiveness and playmaking potential, but he still left scouts trying to pinpoint where he'll do his damage in the NBA.
It didn't get much easier from there, as the Breakers ran into back-to-back games against Andrew Bogut, Didi Louzada, Casper Ware and the Sydney Kings. Hampton again showed some flashes, but the undefeated Kings went at him, trying to get him isolated after switches before taking advantage of his still-evolving frame.
But days later in front of a sold-out crowd in Auckland, with a large contingent of NBA scouts on hand, Hampton found his stride facing LaMelo. He bought into being an energetic defender, blocking Ball emphatically at the rim on the first possession of the game and making a handful of high-activity plays. He ran the floor hard for easy buckets, got downhill in space and made a few change-of-pace feeds that suggested the game is slowing down for him.
With several NBA scouts following him to Melbourne, Hampton played his best game of the year, notching 14 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes while making a handful of impressive reads we wouldn't have seen earlier in the season. He was all over the place defensively, knocked down a pair of 3s, continued to attack the rim and even earned head coach Dan Shamir's trust enough to see the floor in crunch time.
While the sheer statistical numbers he's put up through four regular season games might not stand out, there's a great benefit to playing in this environment. Plus, Hampton still holds a positive assist-to-turnover ratio while averaging 3.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per 40 minutes. Being able to play both on and off the ball is a necessity in today's NBA. Hampton is learning those skills, eliminating a lot of high school habits, in a professional setting.
Some scouts still wonder what Hampton does well at an NBA level, but he has a sound skill base to go along with nice size at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, a wiry frame and explosive athleticism. There's no question he can become a more consistent shooter, physical defender and nuanced finisher, but Hampton is also learning how to impact winning on a competitive team of talented veterans.
It's easy to forget Hampton was a high school junior before reclassifying and going pro. He has positive momentum, slowly but surely starting to back up his current standing in our top-10 with his play.