Four years ago LaMelo Ball was a 14-year-old who scored 26 points in a Southern Section championship game. He looked like the first basketball player who would change the game before his voice changed.

The ball looked as large in his hands as Neptune, yet he made it behave like a yo-yo. People came to Chino Hills games to see Lonzo, the First Brother. They came back to see Melo.

After he had laid waste to Sierra Canyon at the Honda Center, the kid said he just wanted some “cotton candy and McDonald’s.” Melo’s post-pubescent career was going to be basketball’s biggest story. Instead, it is merely the longest.

Chino Hills’ LaMelo Ball is pictured in the CIF State Championship game in 2016. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/ Pasadena Star-News)

He has played in Ohio, Lithuania and Australia, but he also has grown to 6-foot-8 and will be the pivotal figure in the 2020 NBA draft, scheduled for Nov. 18. He is yet another example of 21st-century law. Four years is a lot longer than it used to be.

“Ever since I was little, when we used to do projects and stuff, that was one of my goals, going No. 1 in the draft,” Ball said Monday, in one of his few interesting answers during a Zoom conference call held by the NBA.

“I thought I’d be going the traditional route when I was younger. I like what has happened. I like being one of one. I kinda like that it’s the first time we’ve ever seen it and it’s all unique. I feel like it’s something new.”

NBA general managers are operating in a denser fog than usual and, remember, this is a league where Luke Dennard was picked ahead of Jamal Murray, and Marcus Bagley ahead of Luka Doncic.

The college season screeched to a halt in early March and the virus eliminated the Draft Combine and person-to-person workouts. But there are still videos, and Melo had an impressive 12-game tour in the Australian Basketball League. He closed his season with back-to-back triple-doubles and averaged 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

He was playing for the Ilawarra Hawks, which played an hour south of Sydney and was not one of the glamour teams. But Ball’s presence sparked the same social-media fervor that he’s known forever, and the Hawks drew an average crowd of 10,511.

They also had to deal with, and deny, rumors that Ball was going to buy their franchise. There is always a yeah-but when dealing with the Balls, as Lithuania learned when Melo and the Middle Brother, Gelo, showed up with LaVar’s Big Baller brand pumping money into the Vytautas franchise. Melo was 16, playing against grown men and living under a sizzling microscope, and it worked out the way you’d expect. They didn’t get through the season.

“I’ve always played ‘up,’ with older players,” Ball said. “It will help you no matter what. Just being over in Australia was just a whole little world, something you gotta see. What I’ve been through has made me what I am today.”

Ball will also be the most recognizable face in this draft even though he didn’t fulfill his early plan to attend USC, with Chino Hills teammate Onyeka Ogonkwu. The draft is no longer dependent on college freshmen. As the advanced descendants of Doncic and Nikola Jokic come from Europe and dazzle the NBA, this pattern will accelerate.

At least four of the top eight picks — Ball, the NCAA-banned James Wiseman, Israel’s Deni Avdija and Germany’s Killian Hayes — will have bypassed the college game.

Minnesota has the first pick and has long been associated with Anthony Edwards, who played one year at Georgia and looks the part. Golden State is No. 2, and nothing about the Warriors indicates they’d be interested in a ball-hoarder like Ball.

That leaves Charlotte, Chicago and Cleveland, in order, although the uncertainty could trigger a hailstorm of trades, even involving Minnesota.

Asked about each of those teams and others, Ball stoutly maintained his style fits in with everybody. “I’ve always tried to see the positive in every situation,” he said.

His dad LaVar has deemed Melo to be perfect for the New York Knicks, as if anything is.

“He has his opinions, I have mine,” Melo said, which is the type of thing Lonzo used to say. They take LaVar seriously but not literally.

Meanwhile, Okongwu will probably be slotted anywhere from fifth to ninth in the first round of the draft after a productive regular season at USC. How many high school teams have had three players reach the top ten in the NBA draft? But when the Balls packed themselves up and left home, Okongwu still led Chino Hills to a state championship in 2019.

No trophies are in LaMelo Ball’s immediate future, but neither is his continental drift.


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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