From: Las Vegas
aMelo's résumé is wide but thin: two high school seasons, eight games in Lithuania, one season for Jackson at Spire Institute in Ohio, a scattering of games in off-the-grid American leagues (the Drew League in Los Angeles, LaVar's short-lived Junior Basketball Association, which opened and closed in one season) and, finally, the 12 games in Australia. His game, like his personality, is difficult to classify. The ballhandling is tight, innovative, a language all its own. The ball becomes just another appendage. His most praised attribute is his vision, but that analysis is both lazy and wrong. It's his ability to sense things he can't see that separates. In Australia, the Hawks' big men learned to be hyperaware coming out of pick-and-rolls; Ball routinely dribbled toward the elbow and threaded high-velocity passes at them with his eyes pointed at the sideline.
At times he appears to be operating with some human form of echolocation, rarely looking at his target. In the game against Adelaide, facing the guy Flinn said couldn't stay with him, he retrieved a sloppy pass on the left sideline, above the hash, about 40 feet from the hoop. He ran his defender into a pick at the top of the key, split a double-team with a behind-the-back dribble and, in one motion, swung the ball back to his right hand and dropped a behind-the-back pass to the cutter for a dunk.
A scout who watched Ball for three years, from Lithuania through Australia, told Flinn, "I've never seen him this happy. Normally he's mopey and whiny, but now I see a happy kid who is joking with his teammates. I've never seen that before."
LaMelo spoke to his mom after he woke up every morning and before he went to bed every night. He texted with Lonzo and LiAngelo every day, and after accusations of laziness from teammates in Lithuania, he listened when Lonzo told him, "You have no choice but to be a pro. If you don't show up, they're not going to call your phone and say, 'Hey, where are you?' Being a pro is 24/7."
A bone bruise in his foot cut his season to only 12 games, but during that run, LaMelo averaged 17.0 points, 6.8 assists and 7.6 rebounds. He had triple-doubles in each of his last two games. There were moments of transcendence, when he used his length and handle to break down two or three of the everyone-else-in-the-worlds and finished at the rim. Twelve games is all, but he was named the NBL Rookie of the Year. Way back in September, an NBA executive told ESPN, "He completely changed my perception of the type of prospect he is, and all of the background info I gathered here from his coaches and teammates paint a very different story of what I thought about him off the court as well."
IT WAS ALWAYS assumed he was playing for something other than love for the game, that basketball was simply a vehicle to gain Instagram followers or sell shoes or provide his father with a wider platform.
But all along, LaMelo Ball has kept playing, orbiting the basketball world but never landing, going about the lonely business of getting better. On a warm July afternoon in a mostly empty gym in suburban Detroit, LaMelo, LiAngelo and Jackson go through shooting drills, work on breaking double-teams, simulate pick-and-roll situations. All fundamental, nuts-and-bolts stuff, and then during a break LaMelo stands near the top of the key, bounces the ball toward the hoop and throws down a dunk. It's filmed, of course, and posted to LaMelo's Instagram, and within 24 hours it has been viewed more than 4 million times.
"When I hear those mystery questions, I'm like, 'Come and see,'" Jackson says. "We were told a lot of NBA scouts were saying they weren't coming to Australia. And then all of a sudden they were in Australia, because they know basketball and what they see on film is like, 'That's not normal.'
"Everything this kid's been through, a lot of 18-year-olds would have quit, gone on a different path, found an excuse. Instead he smiled and laughed and walked right through it."
All great players, in some form or fashion, use basketball as a gateway to greater fame. LaMelo might be the first to run that equation in reverse. "I feel like one of a kind, the first one to take this whole route I did," LaMelo says. "I definitely feel like I'm a trailblazer."