Back in December, before the chaos of 2020, the future of the National Basketball League was all at once about a talented and highly touted import carrying the weight of international promotion over and above anything a Hemsworth or former Neighbours star like Margot Robbie might ever achieve.
Let’s call it the Allure of LaMelo, a level of global appeal that had hitherto proven difficult to achieve. Everything changed with LaMelo.
American LaMelo Ball truly lit up our local basketball scene in Australia in 2019, and did so with one of the NBL’s smaller and less heralded clubs.
The Illawarra Hawks are an old favourite in the NBL, a perennial underdog that once played homes games in an impossibly tight arena known as the “The Snakepit”. They packed in the Pit like hungry pythons, all 2,000 fans looking like no more than 200 on TV and yet sounding like 20,000. It was impressive.
It was also most certainly an experience for visiting players as they walked onto a floor that wasn’t unlike a the worn wooden boards at grandma’s country cottage. This always made the club seem perhaps much humbler than the likes of the Sydney Kings or Brisbane Bullets, and endeared many of us to the team. Such was the familial atmosphere that you felt you might get a nice cup of tea and cake at the concession stand.
Besides the sheer modesty of such a place, the Hawks overcame very distinct challenges in that venue. For example, they mastered laying the ball up without smashing a shoulder into the brick wall behind the hoop. Yes, there was an actual Double Dare-style wall to greet scorers without the good sense to avoid it.
Aussie Boomer Gordie McLeod was among those nimble Hawks of yesteryear, a great leader and undoubtedly well respected for agreeing to play without a crash helmet strapped firmly around his chin. Hats off to you Gordo.
LaMelo swoops in
The Hawks have come a long way since those heady days when a semi-final appearance seemed as high as they might fly. The red and white uniforms have stayed more or less the same, but the personnel has obviously become far more dynamic (no offense Gordie), most notably with the brief addition of Lonzo Ball’s little brother, LaMelo.
The newer Ball proved himself to be rangy and elusive, springing to the hoop effortlessly. His handle is so smooth, helping him make quick work of opponents using an array of moves, including a killer crossover and a nifty behind the back dribble.
Now we’ve had NBL imports like LaMelo before, so his skill-set wasn’t entirely new, as far off as the NBL might seem to folks around the globe. However, the level of maturity he has seems to have NBA scouts more eager than they might normally have been. For instance, Ball boasts elite court vision and level of anticipation not often seen, certainly not at his 6-6 length, or at the age of 18. It’s truly the “prospect” of LaMelo as a potential All-Star that has media on both sides of the Pacific as excitable as Steve Ballmer after a large Coke.
Melo and media mayhem
Speaking of first-row jumpiness, Fox Sports was among the initial bandwagoners with this headline: LaMelo Ball is now the best draft prospect in the world. When your sports news is relevant to a global audience this is how hyperbolic you can be online. Sure, there are a few international prospects on every draft board, but they made LaMelo sound like Magic Johnson here.
Hey, he might end up being a great passer in the NBA, too, but let’s cool the jets a moment gang. In a highly praised outing against the New Zealand Breakers, LaMelo also turned the ball over faster than the Golden State Warriors are turning over guards. He also struggled from three-point range. These things can be overcome, of course, but in a typical burst of internet-centered positivity, few columnists mention all the numbers in their gushing write-ups.
Thankfully there were some more comprehensive in their takes, including SI’s Jeremy Woo looked beyond the triple-double wow factor. He wrote last year:
Optimistically, Ball’s natural maturation as a player leads to a gradual uptick in efficiency, and playing with more talent leads to easier scoring opportunities. He’s still figuring out how to strike the delicate balance between being scoring-oriented and being selfish, but it’s obvious that his feel for playmaking is going to translate in potentially elite fashion.
NBL’s time to shine
For me, it’s amazing that writers covered our local league in this way – at all! You might never have imagined this Down Under, even with all the great imports we’d had here, including Dwayne McClain, Lenard Copeland and Darryl McDonald and Scott Fisher.
The story of Ball’s development isn’t just interesting for NBL fans, with apparently millions in the US also jumped on to social media posts to catch LaMelo highlights. If he wasn’t in your feed, where were you?
LaMelo Ball just treated the NBL like his play toy! 😤😤
The W in overtime.
— FOX Basketball (@FoxBasketball) November 25, 2019
USA Today’s LonzoWire also followed the young Hawks guard like a presidential candidate, and good for them because Ball’s popularity spike might just lead him to the Oval Office one day. Just like the flying robotic camera in Back To The Future II’s version of the future, USA Today can say they were there.
At least USA Today didn’t adopt the condescending tone of America’s Fox Sports, which implied that the NBL was too easy in a recent post by calling it a “play thing” for Lonzo.
No, thankfully the team at LonzoWire simply noted how pleased the NBL was with LaMelo’s play, which in the grand scheme of it was nothing short of James Ennis III monster jam for the Perth Wildcats. Oh yeh, he was another 6-6 guard that ended up in the NBA via the NBL.