The globe-trotting teenager from Chino Hills keeps his life low-key despite his early splash
It is telling that 19-year-old LaMelo Ball took a look at life in the NBA – with its grinding schedule through 28 of the country’s biggest cities and thought:
Ah, stability at last.
“I thought about that right when I left Australia. I’m like, ‘I can probably be in the States now for a minute,’” Ball said. “It’s better than not knowing where you’re going to go every year. So, that was big.”
Most teenagers find the NBA to be a major upheaval from the life they knew before, but not the youngest member of what is one of California’s most famous basketball brotherhoods. Before his name was called third on draft night in November, LaMelo had been a prep phenom at Chino Hills High, a spindly boy among men playing in the pros in Lithuania, an Ohio prep school student and the biggest name during a short season of Australian basketball. Chaos is the rule, not the exception.
In that light, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that in one of the NBA’s least glamorous markets that Ball is acing his latest test as an NBA rookie: He’s averaging 15.8 points, 6.3 assists, 6 rebounds and 1.6 steals – first among rookies in each category – for the Charlotte Hornets, who are forcing NBA prognosticators to rub their eyes at their fifth-place standing in the Eastern Conference. When he takes the court against the Lakers on Thursday (the team that traded away his brother Lonzo after two star-crossed seasons) it’s expected to be a competitive tilt.
Since he hit the floor, Ball has churned out the kind of special, big-play highlights that have made him steady social media fodder since he was tossing lobs to older brothers Lonzo and LiAngelo back at Chino Hills. He’s had big games, dropping 34 points against the league-leading Utah Jazz. And he does it all with the practiced steady bearing of a much older player: unintimidated and seemingly relaxed, as if slipping into a role he prepared for his whole life.
And in a way, that’s what he’s been doing. When a reporter asked Ball about his forthcoming first on-court matchup with LeBron James, he acted as if he hadn’t thought about it all that much.
“I grew up a little different, not really on basketball like that,” he said. “So, not really. I mean, it will be cool.”
This much is true: Ball used to be a mainstay at Lakers games, back when Lonzo, the 2017 No. 2 pick in the draft, was the Next Big Thing for the franchise. At the time, father LaVar Ball loomed as one of the outsized voices in the sport, and LaMelo was his favorite company, sporting a thick tuft of blond curls and braces and looking even smaller sitting next to his dad.