To watch LaMelo Ball is to experience firsthand a roller coaster — and all the ups, downs, twists and turns that come with it. The 18-year-old point guard prospect is David Blaine on the court with dribbling skills that dazzle and no-look passes that will have your mouth agape in amazement. He has a flair for the dramatic that will draw you in and a sweet shooting touch from anywhere on the court that will keep you engaged. Anytime he has the ball he’s a threat to score.
But all those traits have their own trade-offs. They’re equal parts mesmerizing and infuriating at times. He can do more than anyone in this draft as a playmaker, but sometimes tries to do too much. There’s substance and flash, and yet sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between the two. All that talent is brimming out, evident but unharnessed.
Is there more substance than pizazz? Should some down-on-their-luck team stake their future to a teenager with some perceptible holes in their game? As the draft approaches later this year, those are some of the many questions teams will ask themselves when evaluating his game. Here’s the answers we came up with as we evaluated — and graded — each facet of his game.
There’s no area that highlights both the good and the bad of LaMelo Ball’s game quite like his passing. He can make an advanced read in a jiff with ease, but then sail a basic entry pass to an open teammate a possession later. Then you’ll blink again and he’s dropping a no-look dime in the bread basket for an easy bucket. The only way to describe the chasm between the two extremes — the whoas versus the wait, whats — is his sometimes-lackadaisical and cavalier approach. When he’s locked in, it shows. And ditto for when he’s not.
When he’s in a zone, though, the passing is incomparable to any in this class. He does so with great anticipation, and I deeply enjoy how he constantly pushes the tempo to find open looks on quick leak outs. In the NBL, he was often a step ahead of even the camera operator, who would pan in for a sideline check briefly only to find Ball had already delivered a full-court rocket for a quick layup to a teammate on the other end, all out of camera sight.
People talk about LaMelo’s high-level feel for the game, which in the scouting community has been cliched-up, but it’s a descriptor that rings true here with respect to this area of his skill set. Sometimes he’ll work to the middle of the court to lure his defender away from the rim, only to carve out a big-enough hole to deliver a one-handed whip pass to a cutting teammate. Or he’ll toss a lob in anticipation of a teammate crashing the rim … well before his teammate has even lifted off. The jukes and jives he can deploy to chisel out passing lanes is a real asset — maybe his biggest. He knows how to work angles and contort his body to get where he needs to be to deliver the ball on time and in place.
Because of that his passes are often of the impressive variety, and they come in myriad ways: left-handed or right-handed; no-look or staredown; whip-passes or Hail Mary-style like Tom Brady. He will find you if you’re open. I’ve found he has a sixth sense for streaking teammates in transition.
On the other hand, the consistency on the delivery of passes can be off, sometimes by a little or sometimes by a lot. This particular area of his game is where he can improve dramatically as a decision-maker. It’s not just careless passes that get him in trouble either, though those pop up frequently. It’s often over-glamorized passes — too much zest and flair — that find their way into the hands of the other team. No-look passes off the mark, trying to fit passes into windows that don’t exist. Sometimes it works and he looks like a genius; other times it looks something like this:
Count me in as a believer in the passing despite the occasional gaffes. As he grows and develops, he’ll learn from the mistakes and limit them. He needs discipline but he can be coached. Where he thrives — as a playmaker and visionary — is where he can’t be coached. The belief I have in his game centers in part around this aspect of his tool bag. A+ for anticipation and playmaking, but he gets a slight ding because of the consistent lowlights that need to be cleaned up.
Some people recognize LaMelo Ball as the son of LaVar, some as the younger brother of Lonzo, some (far fewer!) as the Instagram-famous hooper who co-starred in the show “Ball in the Family.” Others, though, may see the name and remember him as. In that 2017 game he was the young star on a Chino Hills team that revolutionized basketball. He was the gunner whose sole job was to shoot. From anywhere. That was Lonzo’s team and he was the floor-spacer who would pull up from as deep as halfcourt.
That reputation has in part shaped how people from the outside view him and his pro prospects. But it’s not his game anymore. To quote Mike Gundy: that ain’t true. At least not entirely. Sure, he’ll still willingly pull off from five feet off the 3-point line. But shooting isn’t his selling point; it’s his swing skill. He shot just 45.8% from 2-point range in the NBL and a woeful 25% from 3-point range on 80 attempts before his season was over. If he was a more consistent shooter, he’d be viewed close a near-consensus No. 1 prospect in this class.
The shot selection doesn’t help his cause. And frankly, neither does his form. Sometimes he’ll lean into running floaters from just inside the arc completely off balance, or launch fadeaways with a hand in his face. Just careless or unwise shots that might fit in a game of 21 in the backyard but aren’t great for professional basketball. His lack of strength seems to affect him, too, as he either leans out from contact or tries herculean circus shots to navigate around it.
Another minor concern — albeit a valid one — is the low set point and the unique shot release. He essentially launches from his face and his right elbow is slightly flared out. And with where his release is, there will be concern about him being able to get his shot off consistently with NBA defenders. The lower it is, the theory goes, the less time it takes a defender to recover and contest, and thus the more likely it is you’ll have troubles getting your shot off.
He’s tweaked and improved the shot mechanically since his high school days to look, bluntly, less chicken-wingy. But it’s going to need tweaking as he enters the NBA. Maybe not a complete overhaul is in order, but minor adjustments similar to how Lonzo’s shot needed — and has been — tweaked in the NBA might do him well and allow for him to become more consistent.
All that said, it’s hard to ignore the touch. There’s plenty of promise. When his hips are squared and his feet are aligned, he can be a deadeye shooter. Not automatic, but smooth enough to trust (or at least put long-term faith in). And when you look at his touch on runners (the true runners, not the bumbling and stumbling runners shown above), one can easily buy the shot long term. Buying the shot long-term is the reason why he’s been the No. 1 prospect on the CBS Sports Big Board for months now. Alas, I’m still not grading on a curve.
Defense is about anticipation and effort, but it’s also about positioning, rotating, and foot speed. LaMelo has many of those traits but the effort and focus wanes. When he’s locked in he’s shown he can capably stay in front of his opponent by sliding his feet and using his 6-foot-7 frame to his advantage, causing deflections or scrapping steals. But other times he drops the rope by either missing a rotation entirely, losing track of his man, or downright quitting on plays knowing he’s beat. There aren’t a ton of defensive highlights, but the defensive lowlights? They’re quite low!
Sam Vecenie of The Athletic wrote a really good piece about LaMelo’s game in January (which I’d encourage you to read), and this part highlighted below, in particular, sums up some of his defensive struggles. There’s reason for optimism but it’s hard to look away at the rough patches. They sear into your brain.
It’s disastrously bad in spots while also providing glimmers of hope. On the ball, he’s just genuinely terrible right now. He has really awful mechanics in regard to his defensive stance, often standing straight up and down. He gets blown by at the point of attack with relative ease despite being bigger and longer than most guys because of that. He’s the king of going for the recovery swipe where he tries to poke the ball free after a guy gets past him. His mechanics are also terrible when closing out on shooters. He hasn’t mastered taking shorter steps out while staying in his stance, as he’ll often get hit with the attempted blocked shot-blow-by, or closes out too short and gets hit with a jumper in his face. Just in general, he tries to take the easiest way out possible on defense while also trying to make a play.
If there’s an upshot, room for improvement is abundant. Let’s go glass half-full: he can’t get much worse. And finishing second in the NBL as an 18-year-old in steals per game is impressive and noteworthy. Where he may lack in positioning or foot speed moving laterally he at least makes up for, in some capacity, as a disruptor. Even if the mechanics aren’t ideal his instincts help him hold his own — and may buoy him as a player as he blossoms into a more reliable defender in time.
I’m not overly optimistic about any player weighing 180 pounds entering the league, much less one I’m potentially staking my future to if I’m an NBA GM, but one of his biggest assets is his size. Sure, he needs to add some weight, but simply being 6-7 has its advantages. He’ll be taller than most defenders who draw him and, with his vision, he should be able to use it as he sees over defenses and reads them. He’s not quite Ben Simmons (Simmons is a listed 6-10), but it’s the same concept: being big presents an edge as a lead guard. As he builds on his frame and adds muscle it should be a real positive for him.
The glue of LaMelo’s game is held together by his handles. He couldn’t be a great passer if he dribbled it high and loose, nor could he read plays as they develop the way he can if he was always looking down at where he was going or bobbling the ball off his feet.
He’s crafty with the ball in his hands and can navigate tight windows with ease. In transition he can push the pace with the ball on a string and fire lasers across the court in an instant. Or, at least in one instance, he can jump over a defender’s leg, cross the ball behind his back and keep his eyes up in leading the break. His creativity is sparked by his ability, and he’s got a ton of both.
The jiggle in his step with the ball in his hands really pops as well. He’s not stiff. He can juke and jive his man and create separation for a jumper. Or he can lull his man to sleep before crossing his body over as he attacks the hoop. He had plenty of turnovers last season dribbling straight into someone’s foot in transition or dancing too much on the perimeter. But generally, his tight handle and ability to maneuver through traffic to create off the dribble is going to be the base on which he builds his NBA career.