To watch LaMelo Ball is to experience firsthand a roller coaster, and all the ups, downs, twists, and turns that come with it. The 18-year-old point guard prospect on the court has dribbling skills that dazzle and no-look passes that will have your mouth agape in amazement. He has a flair for the dramatic that will draw you in and a sweet shooting touch from anywhere on the court that will keep you engaged. Anytime he has the ball he's a threat to score. But all those traits have their own trade-offs. They're equal parts mesmerizing and infuriating at times. He can do more than anyone in this draft as a playmaker, but sometimes tries to do too much on his team. Here is how I graded LaMelo Ball’s biggest skills.
No area highlights both the good and the bad of LaMelo Ball's game quite like his passing. He can make an advanced read in a jiff with ease, but then sail a basic entry pass to an open teammate a possession later. Then you'll blink again and he's dropping a no-look dime in the breadbasket for an easy bucket. The only way to describe the chasm between the two extremes is when he's locked in, he’s locked in. And when he’s not, he’s not.
When he's in a zone, though, the passing is incomparable to any in this class. He does so with great anticipation, and I deeply enjoy how he constantly pushes the tempo to find open looks on quick leak outs. In the NBL, he was often a step ahead of even the camera operator, who would pan in for a sideline check briefly only to find Ball had already delivered a full-court rocket for a quick layup to a teammate on the other end, all out of camera sight. Ball knows how to work angles and contort his body to get where he needs to be to deliver the ball on time and in place, and that’s not something that can be easily taught, either.
The glue of LaMelo's game is held together by his handles. He couldn't be a great passer if he dribbled it high and loose, nor could he read plays as they develop the way he can if he was always looking down at where he was going or bobbling the ball off his feet.
He's crafty with the ball in his hands and can navigate tight windows with ease. In transition, he can push the pace with the ball on a string and fire lasers across the court in an instant. Or, at least in one instance, he can jump over a defender's leg, cross the ball behind his back and keep his eyes up in leading the break. His creativity is sparked by his ability, and he's got a ton of both. Ball can juke and jive his man and create separation for a jumper. Or he can lull his man to sleep before crossing his body over as he attacks the hoop. He had plenty of turnovers last season dribbling straight into someone's foot in transition or dancing too much on the perimeter. But generally, his tight handle and ability to maneuver through traffic to create off the dribble is going to be the base on which he builds his NBA career.
To say the least, Ball isn’t the 2nd coming of Stephen Curry. At least not entirely. Sure, he'll still willingly pull off from five feet off the 3-point line. But shooting isn't his selling point, it's his swing skill. He shot just 45.8% from 2-point range in the NBL and a woeful 25% from 3-point range on 80 attempts before his season was over. If he was a more consistent shooter, he'd be viewed close to a near-consensus No. 1 prospect in this class.
The shot selection doesn't help his cause. And frankly, neither does his form. Sometimes he'll lean into running floaters from just inside the arc completely off balance, or launch a fadeaway with a hand in his face. Just careless or unwise shots that might fit in a game of 21 in the backyard but aren't great for professional basketball. His lack of strength seems to affect him, too, as he either leans out from contact or tries herculean circus shots to navigate around it.
All that said, it's hard to ignore the touch. There's plenty of promise. When his hips are squared and his feet are aligned, he can be a deadeye shooter. Not automatic, but smooth enough to trust in big-time situations.
Brad Smith talks about the Washington Redskins, Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals, and the Washington Wizards, as well as some of the hottest topics in the NFL, NBA, and MLB on his SportsCastr channel.
Defense is about anticipation and effort, but it's also about positioning, rotating, and foot speed. LaMelo has many of those traits but the effort and focus vanishes. When he's locked in he's shown he can capably stay in front of his opponent by sliding his feet and using his 6-foot-7 frame to his advantage, causing deflections or piling up steals. But other times he drops the rope by either missing a rotation entirely, losing track of his man, or downright quitting on plays knowing he's beat. Sam Vecenie of The Athletic said this about Lamelo’s defense:
“There is reason for optimism, but it's hard to look away at the rough patches. They sear into your brain. It's disastrously bad in spots while also providing glimmers of hope. On the ball, he's just genuinely terrible right now. He has really awful mechanics regarding his defensive stance, often standing straight up and down. He gets blown by at the point of attack with relative ease despite being bigger and longer than most guys because of that. His mechanics are also terrible when closing out on shooters. Just in general, he tries to take the easiest way out possible on defense while also trying to make a play.”
The one good thing about his defense is he can't get much worse. Finishing 2nd in the NBL as an 18-year-old in steals per game is quite impressive. Where he may lack in positioning or foot speed moving laterally he at least makes up for, in some capacity, as a disruptor. Even if the mechanics aren't ideal his instincts help him hold his own and might make him a more reliable defender in time.
Physical profile: B+
I'm not overly optimistic about any player weighing 180 pounds entering the league, but one of his biggest assets is his size. Sure, LaMelo needs to add some weight, but simply being 6-7 has its advantages. He'll be taller than most defenders who draw him and, with his vision, he should be able to use it as he sees over defenses and reads them. He's not quite Ben Simmons (Simmons is 6-10), but it's the same concept: being big presents an edge as a lead guard. As he builds on his frame and adds muscle it should be a real positive for him in the NBA.