Timberwolves

LaMelo Ball's Boom or Bust Potential

Photo credit: ESPN YouTube screengrab

I have two memories of watching Adam Dunn, 14-year Major League Baseball veteran, play for my hometown Chicago White Sox. The first time was in 2012, and the 6’6”, 285-pound Dunn cranked one of his 462 career home runs about 440-some feet out of right-center field. Before the at-bat, the opposing team sent all of their outfielders to set up far, far away from the plate, only a few steps inside of the warning track, and it could not have mattered less when Dunn connected. My family and I were sitting down the right field line, and the big lefty turned on an inside pitch, and the result was a home run that sounded like a gunshot, and landed with the velocity of an arrow shot by a Roman sagittarii. It was mesmerizing. At that moment, you could’ve told me that Dunn, a career .237 hitter, was the greatest hitter ever, and I might have agreed.

The next season I saw Dunn in person for the second time. He entered the game with a batting average of roughly .100, and then struck out in three of his four at-bats.

That was the Dunn experience. Thirty-seventh all-time in home runs hit, third all-time in strikeouts, and not even in the top 1,000 players in career singles hit. Twenty-six percent of Dunn’s plate appearances ended with a strikeout, but the 5.5% of the time that he blasted one over the fence almost made it all worth it.

And if LaMelo Ball, the presumptive leader for the first overall pick heading into the final weeks before the draft, goes to the Timberwolves his career might end up being remarkably similar to Dunn’s, who has the most games played during the free agency era of Major League Baseball without a playoff appearance.

LaMelo’s offensive contributions are often like that 440-foot drive that I watched Dunn hit into the U.S. Cellular stands: When Ball connects, either with a pass or a deep bomb from three — and they often come off the dribble — it can be a spellbinding moment. Ball’s offensive repertoire was well-suited to the Australian League that he played in most recently after he and his father, LaVar, spurned amateurism in the states on what can only be described as a basketball odyssey.

From Chino Hills, Calif., to the star of a failed young professional league in the states LaVar created, then off to Prienai, Lithuania (population: 8,610), and finally to Australia’s East Coast, Ball has honed his skills with a showmanship that can only naturally come from his place as the centerpiece in Lavar Ball’s Traveling Basketball Circus.

While Ball might not have that generational, Rubio-style ability to throw the pass that nobody else saw until the ball is halfway through the heart of the defense — the ones that would seemingly take Darko Mililic or Derrick Williams by complete surprise as it floated into their hands — Ball possesses a more practical, game-in, game-out ability to always hit the open man.

Better yet, and this is where Ball is a class above the pass-first point guard who merely acts as gatekeeper to the ball, Ball understands the power that the basketball has in bending the will of a defense — if it’s in the hands of a player who knows how to wield the defense’s fixation on it against them. A subtle extra step here, a fake pass there, a retreat dribble that coaxes the already extended, but visibly switch-enamored, hedging big-man barely from a half-step out of position to hopelessly burnt 26 feet from the basket once Ball flicks the ball over to his center on the short roll.

Simply put, Ball’s pick and roll acumen is advanced past his age, and his ability to blend flair with increased functionality is seen only once every four or five years in the pre-draft process.

And some of the threes that Ball hits make even seasoned scouts feel like they’re watching a version of Steph Curry that was tossed onto a medieval rack and stretched out until Curry was 6’8”. LaMelo invited Cameron Oliver, a multi-time Mountain West All-Defensive First Teamer, out onto a switch going left at the top of the key, set his feet behind the arc in a no-pump shot fake that forced Oliver out, then pass-faked with both hands on the rock and jabbed across his body to force Oliver into the passing lane, only to step-back and spray a 25-footer right in Cameron’s face.

Later in the same game, when Oliver dropped instead of switching out on another left-moving high pick and roll, LaMelo concisely stepped into a 24-footer that hit nothing but the bottom the net in such a robotic, no-frills motion that Ball might as well have been flushing the toilet or inserting a gas station pump back into the holder. Those two threes when viewed back-to-back on Synergy will almost make you forget that Ball shot 24 for 86 (28%) in his 13 games played this season in Australia.

But, if for a moment, you start questioning whether a player with such confidence and ability could really only shoot 28% from three, you need to queue up some of LaMelo’s 32 missed, half-court, off-the-dribble jumpers, and there’s little guesswork that remains after taking in some of these possessions.

LaMelo takes 14 dribbles and doesn’t even look to pass on a possession that results with some would-be styling on an unfazed defender who eventually blocks LaMelo’s weak 14-foot fadeaway after not biting on a single one of Ball’s hesitation dribbles.

LaMelo’s team is down by 19 in the first half, yet LaMelo pulls up for a no-pass, 26-foot, step-back jumper that he leaves short.

Down four with 23 seconds remaining and 20 seconds on the shot clock, LaMelo throws up a 27-foot shot from a hop-step out of basically a full-sprint that, unsurprisingly, misses short and left.

That 28% mark from three might not be an entirely accurate assessment of his ability to make tough shots, but it absolutely is an accurate representation of the type of shots that LaMelo is choosing to take. While his brother Lonzo was plagued by bad misses at UCLA that had people openly, and astutely, questioning his shooting form despite a 41% mark from three on almost five attempts a game, maybe LaMelo suffers from a perpetuation of the opposite attitude.

LaMelo takes a ton of awful shots, but he rarely misses so badly that it raises eyebrows about his ability to make that shot that he chose to take, at least in the abstract. If Lonzo had played in the days of George Mikan and tin backboards, his team’s owner might’ve forced him to foot the cost of hammering out the backboard’s dents after particularly bad shooting nights. It’s easy to see how LaMelo could skate by on poor shooting percentages, especially when younger and playing without consistent stat keeping, because every LaMelo miss leaves the person watching saying to themselves, “yeah, that could’ve definitely gone in.” But, honestly, how it has continued (apparently) unchecked for so long is not even the most confusing aspect of this shot selection.

You start to wonder how on earth the same guy who showed such selfless panache on his pick-and-roll finds could also be so selfish on hunting his off-the-dribble threes, which he shot 8 of 30 (27%) on. But, you remember, that’s the dichotomy that is LaMelo Ball.

LaMelo’s the same kid who went viral when he was 15 years old for pointing to the half-court line before pulling up and swishing from there with eight minutes remaining in a varsity game. Then, you remember that Ball was also the kid who shot 8 of 28 from three in a playoff loss when he was 16, and in the final seconds at the end of regulation decided to pull-up from 30 feet against a double-team instead of passing, driving or calling timeout.

Oh yeah, that LaMelo Ball. LaVar Ball’s son.

It’s simply not fair to hold his father against LaMelo. Nobody chooses their father, like nobody gets to choose at the age of 16 that they’re going to be the leading draw of a hastily slopped together professional youth basketball league. And it certainly isn’t indicative of some sort of defect in LaMelo as a person, a talking point that certain too-invested national commentators have danced around without directly stating since LaMelo was a freshman at Chino Hills.

But, this is a multi-million dollar decision the Timberwolves have with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft. It’s not out of bounds to wonder if there will be any long-term fallout from having a player’s basketball decision-making process corrupted by a father who is basically the physical embodiment of the phrase, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” And when your kid is getting millions of hits from making a half-court shot that no other high schooler in America would have dreamed of taking, well, you’re in a unique position to look the other way when he misses, or even gets blocked — which actually did happen once.

Nothing in LaVar’s chartered course for LaMelo has ever valued winning, that’s undeniable at this point. Sure, the three brothers won a California state championship in Lonzo’s senior year at Chino Hills, but that’s looking more like a side effect of talent allotment instead of the end result of talent alignment.

It would be unfair to not draft LaMelo because of LaVar. It would, however, be fair to not draft LaMelo because of fears of what LaVar chose to develop with LaMelo, and what fell by the wayside.

And this article hasn’t even addressed LaMelo’s defense yet. There’s little that can be said beyond it’s very, very bad. If I had to write a 500-word article on only LaMelo’s defense, it would read “Lamelo is lazy and his defense is bad,” followed by 492 other adjectives that I plucked from Thesaurus.com’s page for “Bad.”

While some would point to his 1.7 steals per game as evidence of some amount of upside, the reality is that LaMelo’s steals are the result of shameless gambling, and reaping the rewards of the well-executed traps and double-teams of his teammates.

The tale of the tape this season was one of an already-anointed prospect facing a nuanced and structured offensive attack for the first time in his life, and often failing to even meet the requisite effort needed to head off the first action of a set, never mind the second or a third. If you’re one of those people who are determined to view this as a positive, because LaMelo is already “this good” without any added benefit on the defensive end, I have some penny stocks and junk cryptocurrencies to sell to you. A team’s defensive failings are never on one single player, but LaMelo Ball’s defensive efficiency against his matchup pick-and-rolls on the season was literally the equivalent of allowing a 77% shot from two.

So, that brings us to the unavoidable conclusion of this profile: The Timberwolves cannot draft LaMelo Ball and keep Karl-Anthony Towns.

There would be no salvaging that defensive disaster. No amount of plus defenders in the starting lineup or coming off the bench could ever turn a team built around Ball and Towns into a contender. It would be like pairing an unstoppable force with a second, smaller, unstoppable force, and wondering when they’ll both turn into immovable objects, while paying them both hundreds of millions of dollars for being unstoppable forces.

Towns is arguably the worst defending pick-and-roll big-man who starts in the league. LaMelo will be the worst defending pick-and-roll guard in the league. Ball’s pick-and-roll defense will make D’Angelo Russell look like Tony Allen — it’s that bad. And barring a sudden desire to commit to the defensive end, Ball is unlikely to ever be a good defender, he’s simply skated by with zero effort or, apparently, criticism on that end for far too long, despite possessing the physical tools to contest shots and disrupt drives.

But, there’s still the chance that Ball will become one of the best offensive guards in the league one day. I won’t rule it out, though the numbers scream that LaMelo shouldn’t be touched with a lottery pick. If he bombs out of the league, people will wonder how a guy with his statistical profile out of the Australian League was ever hyped to his point. If he succeeds, people will wonder how the analytics nerds ever convinced the rest of us that a player with LaMelo’s mental and physical gifts were overlooked, because that shot is so smooth that clearly, I mean, clearly, he wasn’t going to keep shooting 28% from three.

The detractions are so clear and apparent, you just can’t take LaMelo high in the lottery. But, the FOMO is so strong that some team will — and probably in the top 3.

Just like Adam Dunn at U.S. Cellular Field, when LaMelo walks up to the plate during the 2020-21 season, conversations in the stands will stop, and every eye in the building will turn towards Ball.

It’s probably going to be a strikeout.

But can you imagine how far it’ll fly if he connects? You wouldn’t want to miss that.

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