When the news on LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball signing in Lithuania came out, I’ll admit I was somewhat skeptical, but also really curious at the same time. I was so interested to see these two boys play professional hoops in Lithuania, which IS a basketball powerhouse that has produced several NBA players, and whose national team has won three Olympic bronze medals. Also, I wanted to figure out how good (or bad) they actually are, regardless of all the noise and the entertainment stuff that they have to carry on their shoulders.
The reasons I was so interested to watch these guys play are polar opposites for each of them. On one hand, I was wondering if LaMelo is really a projected top-10 NBA draft pick or is just overhyped. On the other hand, I wanted to see why LiAngelo hadn’t been given as much attention as his brothers by the media.
Well, almost three months since the Balls’ arrival in Europe, I can say I’ve been impressed and intrigued with what LiAngelo Ball has been able to bring on the court for his new team, BC Vytautas. Here are some strengths he has shown over his first eight games in the LKL, the Lithuanian’s first division, and also some of the aspects of his game he needs to work on.
First off, the deadliest weapon LiAngelo has been able to showcase in Lithuania is definitely his 3-point shooting, most notably in catch-and-shoot situations. He can find a rhythm and knock down open shots thanks to a pretty quick release, which makes him a potential No. 1 option on the offensive end. I said “potential”, not “actual” because unfortunately, his team is not involving him on offense as much as they should, especially in the clutch moments, even though he proved he can hit important shots like the key triples he made in the win over Siauliai. He is averaging 14.1 points, shooting 40.4 percent on 6.5 attempts per game from beyond the 3-point line in less than 24 minutes per game. These stats translate to 23.8 points per 40 minutes. Oh, yes, obviously I’m only talking about legit LKL stats, not the Big Baller Brand Challenge or any exhibition stuff like that.
It’s worth to mention that Ball had his season-high performance against the best team in the Lithuanian league as he posted 25 points on 6-of-12 shooting from three against Zalgiris Kaunas. Zalgiris Kaunas is a very renowned club that is having a great season also in the EuroLeague, the most competitive league in the world outside of the NBA. Zalgiris’ roster includes former NBA players Beno Udrih and Axel Toupane, Wizards draft-and-stash Aaron White, 76ers draft-and-stash Vasilije Micic, and former Gonzaga star Kevin Pangos. Here are some flashes of LiAngelo’s catch-and-shoot ability from that matchup and the other games he has played so far in the LKL:
LiAngelo Ball came to Lithuania with a great body that has allowed him to be physically ready for professional basketball. He appears lighter than in his Chino Hills days, but yet he has a strong frame that gives him the potential to defend multiple positions. While playing in Lithuania, LiAngelo has also shown some pretty intriguing plays in the low post when he uses his size to get to the basket or draw fouls. You can check out some of these here in the video below:
He’s been using this experience in Lithuania to keep developing, and it looks like he has the right mindset to work hard and get better. In fact, Vytautas head coach Virginijus Seskus has been praising LiAngelo’s work ethic in practices, saying he’s trying as hard as he can to get more and more used to the team’s system and improve on the defensive end. Now, that’s something interesting, because if he gets better on that end, where he currently lacks focus but does have potential thanks to his good size, then he’ll be even more intriguing as a potential 3&D type of player.
But what has impressed me the most about LiAngelo Ball so far in Lithuania is his consistency. As a 19-year-old who’s playing professional basketball overseas for the first time in his career, I didn’t expect him to get used to it this fast and be this consistent. I mean, a lot of 22-year-old seniors coming out of college need time to adapt to European basketball and their first professional seasons include many ups and downs. But in LiAngelo’s case, who’s 19 and has basically come straight out of high school, he’s been able to get buckets right away; and do it consistently. He has gone in double digits in seven out of eight LKL games (if only he hadn’t played just nine minutes in his debut that might’ve been eight of eight), and I give him a lot of credit for that.
While he has some room for improvement in regards to his on the ball defense, LiAngelo Ball has shown some lack of focus and attention in off-the-ball defense situations. He often loses his opponent, then tries to make up for it but closes out when it’s too late. In this case, I’d put the blame on the fact that he and his younger brother were not asked to play any defense at Chino Hills, so that’s likely why both of them are struggling on the less glamorous end of the court in Lithuania. LiAngelo is working on that and some signs of improvement were already showed last Monday against Dzukija.
Another aspect LiAngelo Ball proved last Monday that he can work on is rebounding. With his size, he has to be effective on the boards and help Vytautas avoid giving second chance opportunities to the opponents. He hasn’t done that much so far, averaging just 2.5 rebounds per game. But in the last LKL game, he grabbed seven of them. He showed, at least a little bit, that he can use his body to hustle in the paint.
On offense, his main weakness is creating off the dribble. He rarely can drive to the basket one-on-one or create his own shot, not because he can’t handle the ball, which he actually has been improving, but because he lacks athleticism and is not quick enough to beat the tough professional defenders. He needs a lot of work in this department.
LiAngelo Ball does have to improve on some aspects of his game, but he also has shown several things that have impressed me during these first 2-3 months in Lithuania. He certainly looks better than at Chino Hills, both physically and technically. As far as what the future holds for him, we know that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers with his brother Lonzo. Even though there are many doubts that he will get drafted this June, I do believe he might get the opportunity is looking for in some form. At the same time, he may find a situation where he can continue to develop his game and work on the aspects he needs to improve, possibly with NBA coaches.
In my opinion, there are two options for him if he doesn’t get drafted. On one hand, he can return to Europe, a place where he can develop and play with LaMelo. This can be a win-win scenario also for the 16-year-old Melo: in fact, LaMelo isn’t draft eligible until 2020 and is expected to spend the next two seasons in Lithuania. I definitely think he’d be rather happy to play alongside his older brother another year than being alone in a place that is so far away from his hometown. Then, after another development season in Lithuania, maybe he will have more chances to get looks from NBA teams. On the other hand, he can pursue a shot with the Lakers right away by developing in the NBA G League, maybe under a two-way contract that can allow the Lakers to have flexibility. They could attempt to develop LiAngelo in South Bay, make LaVar happy and quiet, and call the boy up if they ever need some 3-point shooting off the bench.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot to say this: hey, mid-high level European teams, make sure to keep an eye on him in case the NBA doesn’t knock on the door. He is looking like he will be a solid player someday.