2020 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: LaMelo Ball is this year’s best prospect

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There is not a player at the top of the 2020 NBA Draft class who has red flags that are more obvious and well-defined than that of LaMelo Ball.

He’s a gunner that doesn’t shoot the ball all that well, finishing his two months in Australia shooting 38 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three. His effort level defensively is, at best, wavering. He shot selection is questionable, to put it nicely, and selfish when we’re not being so generous. The path that he took to get to this point — from Chino Hills to Lithuania to the JBL to Spire Academy to Australia — was, in a word, circuitous.

And that’s to say nothing of the concerns that teams will have given who his father is.

We’ll get into all of that.

But before we do, I think it is important to say this up front: There is a strong argument to make that LaMelo, even with all the red flags, may actually have the highest ceiling of any prospect in the 2020 NBA Draft class.

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Could LaMelo Ball be the top pick in the NBA draft? (Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

First and foremost, it needs to be said that LaMelo is no longer that 6-foot-nothin’ kid with braces and a blonde mohawk jacking up 45-footers and cherry-picking to try and score 100 points so he can go viral. He’s now 6-foot-7, and while he has a frame that could clearly use some time in an NBA strength and conditioning program, he is a late-bloomer. He won’t turn 19 until August 22nd. He’s throwing down tip-dunks now, and there’s still plenty of room for him to develop physically.

I think it’s also important to note that LaMelo has never really been coached all that hard. Before he got to Australia, every team LaMelo played for was either controlled by his father or coached by his now-manager. And while he was only with the Illawarra Hawks for a little more than two months, you could see him starting to figure things out.

In the first six games LaMelo played in the NBL, he averaged 12.0 points, 5.7 boards and 5.3 assists while shooting 34 percent from the floor, 15 percent from three and 68 percent from the line. Over the last six games, however, he averaged 22.0 points, 9.2 boards and 8.2 assists with shooting splits of 40/31/75. He closed out the season with back-to-back triples-doubles — including 25 points, 12 boards and 10 assists in his final game, which came against R.J. Hampton’s team — before an ankle injury led to him shutting things down.

Offensively, LaMelo has the potential to be special. He is, simply put, an unbelievable passer, able to make any and all reads out of ball-screens while also being capable of throwing every pass in the book with either hand at whatever angle is necessary to get the ball where it needs to be. He knows how to move a defense with his eyes, creating angles and space to get his teammates dunks, layups and open threes. He’s just as adept at hitting rollers — with both pocket passes and pinpoint lobs even when dribbling at full speed — as he is at reading what a tagger is doing on the weakside of the floor. He’s terrific at firing full-court passes to bigs that get out and run the floor, both in transition and off made baskets. He’s exceptional at anticipating when and where a player is going to come open in transition.

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He is a basketball savant, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that he will be one of the 10-15 best passers in the league by the end of his rookie season. In recent years, we’ve seen other lead guards with elite passing ability — Trae Young, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, etc. — have a major impact early in their career.

Now, it’s also important to note that LaMelo really is not anything like any of those players. Young is an elite shooter, LaMelo is not. (More on this in a second.) Morant is an elite athlete, LaMelo is not. Doncic was 19 years old when he won MVP of the Euroleague, the second-best league on the planet, and MVP of the Spanish ACB while LaMelo’s Illawarra team was just 3-9 with him on the roster in the NBL, a much less competitive league. Some of that was not his fault — Aaron Brooks was injured early in the season, and his teammates shot just 32 percent from three in the games LaMelo played in — but LaMelo should not be mentioned in the same breath as any of those three just yet.

There are essentially two reasons for that.

The first is the shooting.

LaMelo shot just 20-for-80 from three during his 12 games in the NBL. Like his brother Lonzo, LaMelo has a weird shooting stroke. His release has seemingly not changed since he was young. It’s a push shot, one where his left hand remains on the ball for far too long. His lower body is never consistent, and he relies on floaters from as far out as 20-feet because, it appears, he cannot actually shoot mid-range jumpers. The fact that he has a bad habit of settling for deep, deep threes way too early in the shot clock certainly contributed to those numbers, but shot selection is why he’s a 25 percent three-point shooter instead of 30 percent. Either way, it’s a concern.

LaMelo is also a mess defensively, and that’s putting it kindly.

He consistently finds himself out of position, failing to rotate from the weakside of the floor and and unaware of when he is supposed to be tagging rollers. He really struggled to keep drivers from getting right to the front of the rim. He’s a gambler, preferring to try and jump a passing lane than to play solid defense even if it leaves his teammates out to try, and while he does have the anticipation and IQ to pick off a few passes, overall it was a net-negative.

But to be frank, all of that is, theoretically, fixable. He can be taught to shoot. He can be taught how to better position himself defensively. If he’s held accountable on the defensive end — like, for example, if he has a coach that will park him on the bench if he gets caught wiping his shoes instead of rotating defensively — I think he has a chance to at least be an average defender. He has the tools.

And that, to me, is what makes LaMelo so intriguing.

The basketball IQ is there. The passing ability is there. The athleticism to get to the rim, the size, the physical tools, it’s all there. For the most part, the things that he struggles with can all be coached up. I hesitate to compare him to Lonzo because they are very different players, but we’ve seen the oldest Ball brother develop into an excellent defender and a 38 percent three-point shooter after getting to the NBA.

LaMelo should be able to follow a similar developmental path.

The risks are always going to be there. If he ends up in an organization that is too close to home or doesn’t have veterans that will hold him accountable if he doesn’t put in the work, it may not end well for him. You have to know that when you draft him.

But you cannot teach his basketball IQ, his passing savvy, his understanding of the game.

And in a draft where there is no one that is a clear-cut NBA superstar, I think that makes LaMelo Ball worth the risk at No. 1 in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.