LaMelo Ball is a one-of-a-kind prospect for a unique NBA Draft – Press Enterprise

Why wouldn’t LaMelo Ball go No. 1?

He’s “1 of 1,” as he likes to say; using the phrase as his bio on an Instagram profile with 5.6 million followers and counting.

He has a winged No. 1 – his jersey number – tattooed on his chest.

The much-hyped 19-year-old prospect’s non-traditional journey – from Chino Hills to Lithuania to Ohio to Australia – has made him the headliner of a draft process unlike any before in the NBA. And that’s fitting, he thinks: “I kind of like how it’s like the first time we’ve ever seen it,” Ball said during a Zoom call with reporters in late September. “It’s all unique, (and) I feel like I’m like that, too.”

His pops, to absolutely no one’s surprise, is sure the youngest of the Ball brothers is “gonna go No. 1.” As LaVar Ball recently told Sports Illustrated, “You can say what you want, but you take the most skilled and the most popular (player).”

LaVar isn’t alone in thinking LaMelo, a deft-passing, 6-foot-7, 180-pound point guard, is the most desirable prospect in this year’s draft, which will emanate Wednesday evening from ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., but otherwise be held virtually, with draftees spread far and wide instead of converging at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Ball has emerged as the popular choice among those predicting whom the Minnesota Timberwolves will take with the top pick in the draft, an event that will tip off a flurry of NBA activity, with free agency, trades and training camp all crammed into a few weeks ahead of opening night Dec. 22.

For his part, Ball was busy this past week, reportedly participating in individual workouts in Southern California for the T-wolves on Wednesday, and then Thursday for the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons, who have the Nos. 2, 3 and 7 picks, respectively.

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Like his oldest brother, New Orleans point guard Lonzo Ball – and unlike their loquacious father, LaVar – LaMelo is not a man of many words, at least not for the media, but during the video conference with reporters, he was quick to acknowledge how meaningful it would be to be picked first.

“Yeah, ever since I was little, when you do little projects and stuff,” LaMelo said. “That was one of my goals, go to the NBA, be the No. 1 pick.”

Ball is poised to perhaps go No. 1, but he isn’t a perfect prospect. There are questions about the accuracy of his quick-trigger shot and about his defensive commitment.

If he is first off the board, it will be because he’s possibly the best distributor in the draft, capable of using both hands to deliver pinpoint passes to teammates. He’s also a smooth ball handler, a good rebounder for his size, and a confident playmaker whose on-court savvy – and, yes, star power – is the result of a uniquely circuitous route to the NBA’s doorstep.

Ball grew up playing up, competing against his older brothers and their friends. Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo dominated on LaVar’s Big Ballers AAU team and played together for their hometown Chino Hills High, helping turn the Huskies into a national power. When LaMelo was a freshman in 2016, the splashy trio led Chino Hills to a CIF State Open Division title, finishing the season 35-0 and earning the consensus national No. 1 ranking.

As a sophomore, LaMelo got basketball fans across the country talking on one occasion by dribbling the ball up the court, calling his shot by pointing at the midcourt logo and burying the half-court basket as if it was nothing. And then, in another game, he scored 92 points.

He verbally committed to UCLA at 13, but in 2017, when LaVar launched the Big Baller Brand and put out a signature shoe named for his youngest son, it curtailed his son’s college opportunities. (Last month, LaMelo signed on to serve as a Puma brand ambassador).

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LaMelo left Chino Hills before the start of his junior season and, at 16, became the youngest American professional basketball player ever, signing on for a three-month stint with BC Vytautas, a middling club team in Lithuania.

He resumed his high school career at SPIRE Institute in Ohio and served as the face for LaVar’s short-lived Junior Basketball Association, but he really began to legitimize himself as an NBA prospect after signing with the Illawarra Hawks of the Australia-based National Basketball League in June of 2019.

A foot injury sidelined Ball after just 12 regular-season games there, but before that, he impressed against high-level competition, averaging 17 points, 7 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. He became the first NBL player since 2005 to record consecutive triple-doubles and earned recognition as the league’s Rookie of the Year.

All those varied experiences, LaMelo said, add up to the prospect who has positioned himself at or near the top of a draft board that has been compiled without the benefit of tournaments, combines, group workouts, in-person interviews and scrimmages.

“I feel like that’s how I am now, with any team that picks me, I’m good, just ’cause being over there, it’s just a whole different world, ya know?” Ball said. “Something you gotta see. Even with Lithuania, been through that too. So it’s just a whole lot of stuff I’ve been through to make me who I am today.”

He spoke to reporters in September from Detroit, where he spent much of his time during the pandemic with his manager Jermaine Jackson, preparing for his future to a steady soundtrack of popular rappers such as Gunna, Young Thug, Drake, Lil Baby, Future, BabyFace Ray and Baby Smoove.

“When I was real young, I thought it was gonna be that traditional route, but then when I made that first move to Lithuania, then that’s damn near when I grew up and stuff, realized what was going on and all that stuff,” Ball said. “And I wouldn’t change my journey; it’s one of one, I like it.”

The Ball family is familiar with the draft process, of course. The Lakers selected Lonzo second overall in 2017, making real one of LaVar’s bold prophecies.

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In March of this year, LaVar seemed intent on willing LaMelo to the New York Knicks, saying during an appearance on FS1’s “Undisputed” that the team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013 was “the best fit in my eyes.” Conversely, LaVar told NBC Sports Bay Area that LeMelo wouldn’t be a good fit on the Warriors because of the presence of superstars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who already occupy Golden State’s backcourt: “… don’t be like Melo got to (wait) his turn and wait for two or three years to go by and learn from the veterans,” LaVar said.

LaMelo brushed off his father’s analysis: “My old man, he’s his own man,” the son said. “He has his opinions, I have mine. I feel like I can play on any team, do good anywhere I go. So anything that happens, I’m positive.”

Positive and, he said, committed to doing it his way.

That’s the type of advice he said he gets from Lonzo, who “gives me a lot of little hinters,” including, “just be yourself.”

One of one.