2020 NBA Draft: LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton & the NBL

Over the last three weeks, I’ve watched about 15 NBL games in preparation for the 2020 NBA Draft. Two top prospects, LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, moved across the world to play there and prepare themselves for next year. While they spurned the typical college process, very little about their seasons and experiences were similar.

International basketball is a blind spot for many American scouts and journalists who readily give draft intel and help shape the public perception of prospects that even front offices work off. In my own attempts to understand the NBL better, I came away with three pretty sweeping thoughts:

  1. The league is good: Talent meshes well, and there’s a lot of thought that has gone into roster construction. They’re not just grabbing talent.
  2. The league is physical. Young players have every reason to struggle with the older men they face.
  3. The Illawara Hawks, the franchise LaMelo played for, was far and away the league’s worst team, with or without him.

This conversation has certainly come up with top prospects over the last few years: Do we use a lack of team success as a reason for avoiding taking a player with the top pick?

Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz failed to make the NCAA Tournament, but Simmons has turned out just fine. Nobody here should punish Ball solely because his team was pretty putrid. Instead, we should examine whether giving Ball the keys to the car is about his ability or the team’s lack of it.

The more games and clips of the season I watched, the more I began to shift away from public perception. For full disclosure, I’ve been skeptical of LaMelo since early in his NBL tenure due to his defensive struggles. While some of that view was reaffirmed, I left my homework feeling much higher on Hampton than anticipated and struggling with the notion that Ball is viewed as a much greater prospect in this class.

LaMelo Ball – W, Illawarra Hawks

Jul 5, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Basketball player LaMelo Ball in attendance of the New Orleans Pelicans against the New York Knicks game during the NBA Summer League at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ball is a highlight factory; there’s no denying that. Playing with flash and fanciness rarely matched for his age, he is a franchise-changing prospect in the buzz he creates as much as the wins he contributes to. People know him and are ready to marvel over his ball skills. (No pun intended.)

They want to be dazzled, buy his jersey and see him as everything his older brother was supposed to be.

The temptation to draft such a star figure is difficult to pass up, especially in a class without other high-caliber star prospects. A lot of what Ball does is pretty functional in a lead role, too. His passing can get the most out of teammates, he’s such a strong ball handler that he can get to the rim and create openings to score, and at his size, he’ll be versatile in certain areas.

It’s hard to quantify his basketball IQ, but that’s certainly a strength of his game. He has an unbelievable feel, particularly out of the pick-and-roll.

But Ball was asked to shoulder a lot of the scoring load this year. He took an insane 21.3 shots per 40 minutes but made only 37.5 percent of them. Many of those looks came out of isolation situations where he’d leverage his dribbling prowess to try and go one-on-one with his opponent.

Some may see that as an upside of what he’ll be able to do when he refines his jumper, while others see irrational confidence that will lead to horrid shot selection. It’s difficult to know how the long leash he was granted enabled those misfires, or whether he took liberties with a system that he was able to abuse.

As far as a highlights package, Ball certainly provided that, even in a limited, injury-shortened season:

All of LaMelo’s strengths revolve around having the rock in his hands. But that begs two questions.

First, is he good enough to deserve that role every chance he gets? Second, will he have a reasonably positive impact if he’s sharing that responsibility and playing off-ball?

Players like LeBron James, Chris Paul and James Harden, (our generation’s most impactful creators and high-IQ players), all have shared responsibilities with other stars at their peak and found ways to thrive.

All developed consistent jump shots and competed for championships by learning how to impact the game without the ball in their hands every possession. All three went through phases when they’d be ball-dominant, and all three struggled to achieve team success that way.

Ball’s shooting isn’t on par with these three, and he might rival Harden for (lack of) defensive awareness and attentiveness. But there’s a lot of proof available that shows Ball, a poor catch-and-shoot threat and consummate over-dribbler, won’t thrive in an off-ball role next to another elite scorer in the way those talents do.

Isolation scoring is a necessary skill, but there’s a certain turnoff that comes from watching young players clear out their teammates and try to do everything themselves. With Ball’s scoring numbers and percentages, there was way too much isolating going on this year. His shooting was good enough to garner respect, but still statistically poor.

More importantly, and without exaggeration, Ball is the worst perimeter defender in this class.

There’s a notion that his offensive outputs will more than atone for his shortcomings there, and I understand the argument. I’ve yet to hear an argument about his defense being a fixable, improvable skill other than those who talk about how long he’s become.

To me, that’s part of the problem. Ball isn’t physical enough to guard the post like Harden does in Houston, and he’s rarely in a stance or quick enough to stay with elite athletes on the perimeter. I’m not sure where he gets hidden.

Offense is the easiest way to evaluate a prospect, and it’s what drives public perception about a player’s value. Perhaps it’s the coach in me speaking too loudly, but the defensive concerns aren’t just something to be pushed aside.

They’re a real wart that drives Ball outside of contention for the top pick in my book.

RJ Hampton – CG, New Zealand Breakers

Oct 5, 2018; Colorado Springs, CO, USA; USA Men’s Junior National Team participant RJ Hampton (72) during minicamp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Context is always an important tool. RJ Hampton was the 5th-rated recruit on ESPN’s Class of 2019 rankings a year ago, scoring the same grade as Anthony Edwards and Cole Anthony. Other guards in this draft class on the one-and-done level were far behind Hampton: Tyrese Maxey was 13th, Ball 21st, and Jahmi’us Ramsey 31st.

Rankings aren’t everything, nor should they hold a ton of water in draft evaluation, but they tell a larger story with Hampton. He’s been out of sight and out of mind.

For a little more context on the NBL, examine the difference between Hampton’s situation and that of LaMelo. Ball went to the Illawarra Hawks, the bottom-feeder club where he was given free rein over the offense. His numbers popped, his opportunity to showcase skill was high and scouts drooled over his playmaking prowess as a result.

Hampton had a very different path with the New Zealand Breakers. They won four titles in five years earlier in the decade and entered this season ready to push for a postseason spot.

Former NBA players Glen Rice Jr. and Scotty Hopson were due to star for the team, while NBL veterans Thomas Abercrombie and Corey Webster manned the backcourt. Hampton began as a starter on the wing, playing out of position to accommodate his win-now compadres.

Think of this from the Breakers’ perspective. This flashy American kid, 18-years-old, comes to town and is certainly here for only one year. But developing his long-term skill in the area he’ll be best at does the team little good.

They needed to find a way to plug him into a fitting role, let him improve in that role and try to win a championship with him there. The Breakers had little reason to cater to Hampton, so the version of RJ we saw was undoubtedly not his best.

The Breakers endured a drama-filled season.

Rice lasted three games before being dismissed from the team, and owner Matt Walsh was caught up in a scandal of his own. The Breakers didn’t qualify for the postseason by virtue of tiebreakers and went 2-8 in their last 10.

Jettisoned to the aforementioned off-ball role, Hampton shot only 29.4 percent from 3-point land and 41.7 percent from the field. The combination of statistical output and lack of consistent impact have seen him drop from an elite 2020 prospect to a mid-first-round name.

Understanding the season Hampton underwent is key. The knock on him coming into the year was his shooting, and he was asked to play an off-ball role. He still finished with a strong 42:25 assist to turnover mark and was one of the Breakers’ most talented defenders.

There were more positives than might appear at first glance:

That jump shot needs a ton of work, but Hampton is a multi-tool player in almost every other facet of the game. He’s a great kid and a worker by all accounts, too.

He’s one of the fastest end-to-end athletes in this draft, a ferocious finisher and a dynamic on-ball defender:

There are certain areas Hampton must continue to polish.

That jumper is consistently low on his release, particularly off the bounce. He’s a score-first guy, so the polish to make plays for others has to improve, and he can get a little too spin-happy with his finishes at the rim.

But overall, he shot better than LaMelo from 3 and when finishing (he was over 50 percent at the rim), so he’s really not that far off. If you’re gonna look at shooting through a purely numerical lens, Hampton is no worse than LaMelo from deep. The form needs consistency, but there’s a lot to like.

Overall Analysis

Teams with top-ten selections who are examining guards need to get their pick right. Unless those squads have a franchise point guard in place, they’re drafting someone to hand the keys to, not to sit shotgun and help navigate.

LaMelo’s volume and opportunity to test drive in Illawarra this season has shown teams what he can do in that position, and that familiarity with the role can provide comfort.

But Hampton’s film, with how he attacked out of the pick-and-roll and pushes the ball with tight handles in transition, along with his now-forgotten high school pedigree, reveals the same identity. Being an 18-year-old pro is atypical, and Hampton entered a situation that wasn’t conducive for his individual gain.

But he gained the proof to show he can coexist with another driver and will be competent in the passenger’s seat as well.

Thus, Hampton edges out Ball on my overall board. The defense is the largest difference-maker: I can see Hampton being a very good on-ball defender with the versatility to guard 1 thru 3 while LaMelo will hover around mediocrity and struggle against quickness.

The similarity in shooting prowess shouldn’t give the edge to one over the other in areas where they both struggle, but the context is driving this decision for me. Being catered to and built around makes it easier to fall in love with what you show us, but

If you had put Hampton on the Illawarra Hawks this year, I’d bet he’s the guy we’d be talking about as a potential top pick.