Is The Early 2020 Draft Hype Around LaMelo Ball Justified?

Let’s take a second to talk about LaMelo Ball. While his recent play in the NBL’s preseason has turned a lot of heads, I’d argue that his play warranted attention from draftniks early as last fall. Since the start of his senior season at SPIRE Academy in Geneva, Ohio, Ball has looked every bit of the potential top-5 pick he was billed as several years ago, when he was a gangly kid standing six feet tall and launching 35 footers. That’s not what he is anymore.

Standing at least 6’6, Ball went from a spindly Steph Curry clone to one of the rarest types of NBA prospects: a legitimately tall point guard. How many 6’6 or taller players in the league last year could run an offense full time? I don’t just mean making passes off one or two dribbles or going around a couple picks, I mean true point guard stuff: breaking down the defense, getting into the lane, making swings, picking out open teammates in the blink of an eye, all the stuff that you have to be able to do if you want to be a floor general in the NBA.

Put another way, how many 6’6 players would be their team’s first option to handle the ball on a fast break? You’ve got LeBron James, Ben Simmons, and Luka Dončić for sure, then guys like Spencer Dinwiddie, Justise Winslow, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dejounte Murray, and LaMelo’s brother, Lonzo Ball. Then you can make the argument that Caris LeVert, Devin Booker, and Jarrett Culver can fit into this mold. That’s 11 players, and perhaps there are one or two more who can pull off this gigantic task.

Of that group, Ball probably most resembles Dinwiddie right now. While he is not an All-Star, Dinwiddie is one of the best bench guards in the NBA, with his best assets being his height and ability to run offense. He’s not a particularly great defender and an inconsistent shooter, but because he’s a tall true guard, he’s carved out a niche as an invaluable member of Brooklyn’s roster and was rewarded with a lucrative contract extension.

I say all of this to hammer home that Ball has been a lottery-level prospect at least for some time. It’s only with him moving to the Australian NBL and looking like the best player, by far, in a fairly talented league that he’s started to be taken more seriously in the mainstream. Through four preseason games with the Illawarra Hawks, Ball is posting per 36 averages of 24.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 2.9 steals, while shooting 55 percent from the field, 47 percent from three, and 80 percent from the line. His true shooting percentage is a sweltering 66.8 percent.

He’s been dominant by any measure. Perhaps more importantly, his two biggest weaknesses — consistency from outside and strength/finishing ability in the paint — both seem to be improving. He’s already shown a greater tendency to seek out and finish through contact around the rim. With his body type, Ball’s never going to be Marcus Smart, but any improvement in raw strength could go a long way towards cementing him as a top prospect, especially in such a flat draft.

His defense has been solid as well, though that wasn’t as much of a concern. He’s tall and fluid enough that just giving an honest effort should stop him from being much a negative on that end, and his instincts are good enough to help him contribute in both steals and blocks. At this point, the only thing holding me back from having Ball in contention for the No. 1 spot is his shooting form, which is too inconsistent to be the kind of elite shooting prospect someone like Cole Anthony is.

Still, Ball’s touch is pretty great, as evidenced by all the 15 foot floaters he’s been knocking down in live game play. While his touch is not at Dončić’s level, Luka might have the best touch of any prospect in NBA history, so that’s not really a fair comparison.

Regardless, I have LaMelo at No. 3 or 4 right now on my big board, depending on how I feel about Deni Avdija. The only college players I would say are definitively better than him are Cole Anthony and Anthony Edwards, an incoming freshman at Georgia who looks like an 18-year-old Victor Oladipo. But while it might be easy to write him off as a product of the attention that is generally associated with his family, as of right now, Ball is a legitimately prospect who, barring disaster, is almost certainly going to be a deserved top-10 pick in the 2020 Draft.