*Between now and the 2020 NBA Draft’s currently-scheduled date of Nov. 18, NBC Sports Chicago will be making the case for the Bulls to select some of the consensus top prospects with their No. 4 overall pick. First up, LaMelo Ball.
The most important player archetype in the modern NBA — lead offensive initiator — isn’t delineated by position, but by skill set. And that skill set, which includes being able to handle, facilitate, and otherwise consistently create for oneself and others, is one the Bulls should look hard at addressing in the 2020 NBA Draft.
This is a team, after all, that ranked near the bottom of the league in most every measure of passing efficiency during the 2019-20 season: turnover rate (26th), assist rate (20th), assist-to-turnover ratio (26th), assist points created (22nd). The list goes on. A high-octane, read-and-react offense was promised last offseason — and remains self-professedly desired by Artūras Karnišovas and Billy Donovan moving forward — but never actualized under the previous regime.
Despite boasting a few (hypothetically) potent offensive weapons in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Coby White — who all, at some point, provided scoring pop in spurts — nothing came easy for last season’s Bulls. They finished the campaign 29th in offensive rating, leading only the zombified Golden State Warriors. Missing was a consistent, connective string to thread the roster’s individual talent together. Or a puppeteer to pull them.
Unfortunately, there’s no one blueprint for finding such a player in this day and age. Think of the engines of some of the most prolific offenses in the league today. Luka Dončić and James Harden are burly two-guards that spin the pace of every game around their fingers. Nikola Jokić is a towering hub of a 7-footer that brings the ball up the floor and takes twisting, one-legged jumpers with regularity. LeBron James, a 6-9 forward, led the league in assists this year. The game of basketball has never been so positionless, and its players so versatile.
Fortunately for Karnišovas, Marc Eversley and the rest of the Bulls’ new-look front office, the highest-upside prospect in the 2020 class could fit the modern mold, while allowing the team to marry skill-set needs and overall talent with their No. 4 overall pick.
LaMelo Ball’s path to top prospect status has been anything but conventional. At 15 years old, he swaggered onto screens across the world for chucking his way to 92 points at Chino Hills High School. Stops in Lithuania and the Spires Institute followed, constituting his final two high-school-aged years. Then, for what would have been his freshman collegiate season, he trekked overseas to Australia. Still a young 19, he’s a basketball nomad — and a notorious one at that.
His most recent, observable, on-court action came across 12 regular-season games for the Illawara Hawks of the National Basketball league (NBL hereafter) in 2019-20. He averaged 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.5 turnovers per game on 37.7-25-72.3 shooting splits in those contests. The Hawks finished the year 5-23, last in the league, and 3-9 in Ball's 12 contests; after a foot injury, he didn’t appear in a game after Nov. 30, and has spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic training in the Detroit area.
Those numbers tell some of Ball’s story, but not all. First, the positive. Standing in the range of 6-foot-7 to 6-8, he owns outstanding positional size to pair with unnatural basketball IQ, each of which manifest in his rebound and assist averages.
But more than the raw tally of assists Balls dished for Illawara, the nature of them stands out. In transition, Ball regular lays overhand and chest-pass ropes to streaking teammates for easy looks. In the half court, he’s patient and capable of delivering leading dimes from any angle, or either hand, off a live dribble — oftentimes, with his eyes completely averted to invisibly bend opposing defenders to his will.
Such creativity stems from a superhuman feel for the game. Ball’s reads are the definition of instinctive.
“What is processing through your head as you’re doing that?” Mike Schmitz asked Ball in a 2019 interview for ESPN — an evergreen inquiry, but for clarity’s sake, asked specifically in reference to this sublime look-off ball-fake combination to bust a blitz and free up an open dunk for a cutting teammate.
“All natural,” Ball answered. “All natural for me.”
“It’s always been that way for you?”
Some might opine a lack of eloquence in that response, and in Ball’s general media dealings. But there’s honesty in there too. While much of Ball’s game will require targeted attention and NBA coaching, that these types of reads are so embedded in his DNA inspires optimism for his playmaking translating, especially with more open NBA spacing.
If it does, and the Bulls are fortunate enough to nab Ball, it would certainly aid a team that loved to get out on the break last season (15.8% of their offensive possessions came in transition, 10th in NBA), and used the seventh-highest share of their offensive possessions in pick-and-roll in the league (21.6%), but weren’t efficient in either context. Their 1.08 points per possession in transition ranked 24th. Their 0.82 points per possession in pick-and-roll ball handler possessions ranked 27th, though NBA.com’s playtype data doesn’t account for ball handlers passing out of pick-and-roll, only scoring.
And, granted, the Bulls’ play style could look markedly different under Billy Donovan. But the point stands.
While Ball's shooting splits leave much to be desired from an efficiency standpoint — his 46.4% true shooting with Illawara is woeful — a tight and inventive handle package, paired with feathery soft touch, could foreshadow his scoring coming along as his body matures. Bungled layups and bricked jumpers permeate his Illawara tape, but so do tantalizing flashes.
The form is admittedly uneven, but seriously, look at some of the touch on some of the floaters and finishes in this reel and tell me this guy isn’t going to be able to put balls in the basket.
The gamble is that ironing out shoddy shot selection and mechanical tweaks will mask some of the more unsightly misses in Ball’s portfolio, and that packing on muscle will help him get all the way to the rim more frequently. He’s at least confident shooting off the dribble, and has shown an ability to make shots from anywhere on the floor with his feet set, which, in the NBA, is a chunk of the battle. His ability to break down defenses with the ball in his hands, at least, should translate, and with it, scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates can follow.
Ball was prone to defensive breakdowns of his own in Australia, an area that’s expected to present a steep learning curve in the NBA. There, the bet is that his length (which propelled him to a 2.62 percent steal rate in his 12 regular-season games), body continuing to develop, and IQ will eventually win out over lapsed possessions and make him playable with proper support around him. Eventually is the operative word, though. That will take time.
Are any of the above safe wagers, per say? Maybe. Maybe not. Like many prospects atop draft boards this season, there are an abundance of pros in Ball’s profile, and numerous red flags too. But his feel, handle, touch and positional size present a blend of skills and attributes that are both undeniable and directly palatable to the modern game.
How would he fit in Chicago? At first glance, it might seem a clunky match. White just usurped Tomáš Satoranský for the starting point guard spot in the last game of the 2019-20 season. He and LaVine are excited to play alongside one another, and both have stated determination to work on their playmaking in expectation of assuming heavy on-ball responsibilities next season.
No one doubts either’s capacity to improve, however marginally, in that area. LaVine has steadily gotten better every season of his career, and is coming off his best campaign. White is 20.
But someone of Ball’s facilitatory acumen can alleviate pressure from two guys whose greatest NBA talents revolve around getting buckets. LaVine was lethal in limited catch-and-shoot opportunities last season, White was fine. LaVine’s athleticism and White’s speed present the potential to be lethal threats playing off a transcendent facilitator, whether in halfcourt sets or transition sprints. With Ball setting the table, some intriguing offensive possibilities arise.
Consider this: The Bulls’ most efficient three-man group on the offensive end of the floor last season (min. 50 mins played) was Satoranský, White and LaVine. Lineups featuring those three scored at a rate of 114.6 points per 100 possessions in 342 cumulative minutes, a mark that would have ranked second in the NBA (albeit in a limited sample), with sterling shooting figures — 55.8% effective field goal percentage and 58.8% true shooting. Introducing Ball’s on-ball dynamism in place of Satoranský could be electric — though the group would have much to prove defensively before it could be leaned on (lineups featuring the Sato-White-LaVine trio sported a 115.0 defensive rating, placing their net rating in the red).
Then think of the Lauri Markkanen-Wendell Carter Jr. frontcourt. Both would benefit tremendously from a truly masterful pick-and-roll creator. Given the handling gravity Ball could one day consistently attract, picture Markkanen or Carter playing off him.
Ball, himself, didn’t bite the bait on the question of team-specific fits during his NBA Draft Combine media availability session.
“No, I haven’t had any contact with them,” Ball said when asked about his communication with the Bulls. “And fit in? I feel like I’ll fit in anywhere.” He went on to reject having spoken to every team he was asked about except the New York Knicks, reiterating that he’d fit with any team all along the way.
So is the enigma of LaMelo Ball. A one of one talent, he may not even be available when the Bulls select at No. 4. Cases can be made for all three of the teams above to select him — the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Hornets, especially.
But if he’s there for the taking, he could be exactly what the Bulls need to inject life into their once-moribund offense and begin dragging them out from under the rebuild.
Full disclosure: This piece doesn’t much touch on the Ball family dynamic, or LaMelo’s personality/his reputation as a teammate behind the scenes, because, having never met LaMelo or anyone in his family, I don’t feel qualified to write about or analyze that.
Here are two fairly recent features that do a good job coloring in his background if you’re interested in learning more there. Take from them what you will: