Two Bruthers in the NBA. One drew a second combination, the other a third. They will face off Friday night (7:30 p.m., ESPN), one for the New Orleans Pelicans and one for the Charlotte Hornets. They will protect each other for the first time in an organized game, a pair of bigger game leaders with similar talents and different personalities.
You’re already here… or maybe because of? – Everything revolves around them: the static generated by their celebrity appearance; the criticism of their play; the incessant screaming of LaVar Ball, their father, and a con man who insists that everything was predestined, that he knew his sons would play in the NBA before they left their mother’s womb. But it’s worth pausing to realize how unlikely that moment is.
It was Lonzo Ball who started it all. He went the more traditional route, spending a season at UCLA, before being selected by the Los Angeles Lakers with the second pick in the 2017 draft. He was the scout for the Ball family, walking ahead looking for dangers and reporting back. He had LaMelo and his younger brother LiAngelo call him as he gathered and passed on the knowledge he had gained along the way. He is the first incarnation of his father’s prophecy, a circumspect older brother who has seen enough of the world to question its motives and intentions.
LaMelo Ball’s career has certainly been unconventional, due in part to his brother’s success. Without Lonzo, there would have been no Big Baller brand, which means LaMelo wouldn’t have scored shoes in his sophomore year of high school, which means he wouldn’t have had the college admissions problems that eventually sent him around the world, from Lithuania to Ohio to Australia, before being recruited by the Hornets with the third pick in November.
Thanks to Lonzo and his precocious talent, LaMelo was protected and exuded an almost impossible innocence. He is the fulfillment of prophecy, a younger brother who glides through life like the heat rising from the street.
None of this was guaranteed. The child actors are on fire. Children who are repulsed are repulsed. The prodigies get bored and master everything they are programmed to do before they move on to what seems interesting.
But Lonzo and LaMelo are here despite… and yes, because of everything that happened before. For one night at least, it’s a performance that should stand on its own.
— Tim Keown
- 16. June 2015: Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball play their first high school game together at Chino Hills High School in Chino Hills, California. LaMelo scored 27 points and Lonzo finished with 18.
- 26. March 2016: Chino Hills is making a 35-0 season by winning the state championship.
Senier’s night at Chino Hills High School would be LiAngelo’s night. But after an ankle injury, his last home game in high school was limited to a half-court with his parents and a pre-game photo with his younger brother, Ball.
It was the 7th. February 2017. LaMelo Ball, then a sophomore at age 15, scored 92 points.
The goalie dedicated the game to his hospitalized classmate Lexi Anderson by shooting 37 for 61 – 7 for 22 from 3-point range in a 146-123 victory over Los Osos.
Surprised? I wouldn’t say that, LaMelo said in an interview with sportscaster Jim Hill. But it’s pretty cool, you’re 92 years old. I didn’t expect to be this high.
If I knew that, if I went that high, I think [it] hundreds, LaMelo added, eliciting a laugh from LaVar’s father, who was conducting the interview with him. Because in the first half I was really trying to get through.
LaMelo was already a five-star contender. Number 21 on the ESPN 2019 roster of 100 recruits has applied to UCLA, where Lonzo’s older brother was a freshman, and LiAngelo will compete in the fall.
But the performance made LaMelo’s ball one of the hottest tickets in Southern California.
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After LaMelo Ball was dropped by Chino Hills High School, we go back to February, when the SVP responded to the 92-point game for the school.
LaMelo’s burgeoning reputation also met with skepticism. Charles Barkley didn’t like the highlights he saw in the 92-point explosion, which was filled with easy transition saves as LaMelo rarely went off the field after the end of the onslaught.
I never went back on the defensive. So I had some issues, honestly, Barkley said on ESPN’s Mike and Mike radio. Watch the game. The boy waited on the other side of the field, and every time the other team kicked the ball, they threw it into half or three quarters of the field.
Los Angeles head coach Dave Smith told the Los Angeles Times that he thought the performance was a joke and an embarrassment to high school athletics. Smith said Chino Hills’ players deliberately struggled to prevent the ball from crossing the goal line.
LaMelo, on the other hand, seemed comfortable in the spotlight.
I think it’s like [NBA] 2K on a small PlayStation, Lavar said of LaMelo’s 92-point performance. He truly believes that if one player scores all the points, it’s him. He treats it as entertainment.
— Om Yongomisuk
- 25. February 2017: LaVar Ball says Lonzo will play for the Lakers: I’ll talk about it.
- 24. March 2017: Lonzo Ball declares for the NBA draft after losing in Sweet 16 to UCLA at Kentucky.
- 31. August 2017: LaMelo Ball becomes the first senior to own a shoe: Melody 1.
MAGIC JOHNSON Relieve the pressure. One of the NBA’s biggest winners and one of the world’s greatest clutch artists practically slid onto the stage of the Hilton Midtown in New York City.
It was the 16th. May 2017 in the NBA Draft, and if the Lakers’ first pick didn’t get him into the top trio, he went to the Philadelphia 76ers. But as soon as NBA Assistant Commissioner Mark Tatum announced that the Phoenix Suns had dropped to fourth place, Johnson’s famous smile lit up the entire ballroom and the Lakers team burst into a row of seats in the back of the room on his arm with a simultaneous YES!
It wasn’t until a month later, during the NBA selection process, that the project became official, but it was then that Lonzo Ball became the Los Angeles Lakers’ next big hope.
Error! The file name is not specified. Kyle Kuzma (left) and Lonzo Ball (right) helped lead the Lakers to the 2017 summer championship. Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Lonzo has been one of the most prominent candidates for years thanks to LaVar’s talent for making headlines with sensational quotes. But Johnson took the Lonzo machine to warp speed, proclaiming that the new Laker leader will one day become one of the greatest franchises of all time.
I’m going to put a little pressure on you right now, Johnson said, pointing to the wall in the Laker practice facility at the opening of the press conference. You look to your right, there are T-shirts on the wall. We hope to hang a ball jersey there someday, okay?
Johnson and LaVar set the bar very high before Lonzo made his first professional dribble. He made his summer debut with the Lakers in Las Vegas with an electric drive by Brandon Ingram.
Despite shooting 2-15 in his first game, the hype around Ball only increased. The second Laker Summer League game against Jason Tatum and the Boston Celtics was played the day before at noon in front of a sold-out crowd. It was the first time in the 14-year history of the summer league that the entire day was sold out.
- 26. June 2017: Lavar, Lonzo and Lamelo will appear on WWE Raw.
- 17. July 2017: The Lakers won the Las Vegas Summer League and Lonzo was named MVP (16.3 points, 9.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 steals, 1.0 block per game).
- 26. July 2017: LaMelo and the AAU Big Brand baseball team (coached by LaVar) lose to SC Supreme’s Zion Williamson at the World Series in Las Vegas. LaMelo scored 31 points and Williamson finished with 28.
- 31. August 2017: The Family Reality Ball series debuts on Facebook with 17 million viewers.
- 8. September 2017: Lonzo takes down Melo Ball 1, a rap single in honor of LaMelo.
- 2. October 2017: LaVar picks up LaMelo from Chino Hills High School.
BUZZ was back at Staples Center, something not seen since the retirement of Kobe Bryant in 2016, when Ball made his pro debut against the Los Angeles Clippers. But Patrick Beverley was not about to let the Lonzo legend grow up on his watch.
The Clippers’ defensive dynamic allowed the Lakers to hold on to three points, four assists and nine rebounds in their NBA season debut.
Idiot, mother… Beverly was heard screaming in Staples Hall after the game. Take him to the square and I’ll kick his ass.
Lavar retaliated immediately.
Who’s Patrick Beverly? He said after the game. He played all last year and nobody said anything about him. Now let’s see your first match. What’s it for?
Because Lonzo’s name is attached to it.
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The next night in Phoenix, Lonzo almost went into the record books. He is one pass away from becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score a triple-double with 29 points, topping his career record with 11 rebounds and nine assists against the Suns.
Early in his game, Lonzo compared him to another great playmaker who struggled shooting early in his career, but was also able to do triple-doubles and had excellent vision: Jason Kidd. But Kidd says it’s too early to compare the Laker rookie to a Hall of Famer in a month.
I really think he has talent, said Kidd, then head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Today we want everything in the microwave, we want everything in the microwave, we want everything in the microwave or we want everything Google. We want to see the answer now.
Motivated by Kidd’s comments, Lonzo had 19 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds against the Bucks and became the youngest player in history with a triple-double in 20 years and 15 days, surpassing LeBron James’ previous mark.
Error! The file name is not specified. The Ball family poses with artists Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka after a press conference showcasing Lonzo Ball as the Lakers’ top pick for 2017. Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE / Getty Images.
Many more single-digit boxing scores followed as Lonzo wrestled with his jersey. He also missed 30 games during his rookie season due to knee and shoulder injuries. (He missed 65 games in two seasons as a Laker due to injury).
Johnson said Lonzo’s first offseason was the biggest summer of his life because the Lakers wanted their playmaker to add muscle. But Lonzo couldn’t work on his game. He spent much of the summer recovering from his knee injury and even underwent an examination with platelet-rich plasma before undergoing arthroscopic surgery.
Once back on the field he began to adjust his pitching form, pushing the ball forward and straight, and his next outfield run was also more forward than to the side. And, man, it’s beautiful, Johnson said during camp.
Johnson had an extraordinary vision for Ball, and the core group of young Lakers took a big step forward with their newest acquisition: James, who signed a four-year contract in the summer.
Sometimes he doesn’t realize how big he is, James said of Ball during their first month together. The things that he has on the field, when Zo realizes how good he is on the field, make him a very dynamic player and that makes us even better.
James saw potential, but the franchise didn’t have the patience to rebuild itself with a young core. The Lakers were in no-win mode.
- 15. February 2018: Lonzo released Born 2 Ball, his debut album (on the same day as his performance with LaVar at Lip Sync Battle).
- 17. July 2018: Lonzo underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee to repair a torn meniscus.
- 19. January 2019 : Lonzo sprained his ankle and leaves the game against the Houston Rockets, his last in a Lakers uniform.
BETWEEN CHINO HILLS and the NBA, there was a real question about Ball’s younger brother:
Where the hell is LaMelo?
Before LaMelo’s junior season began, LaVar pulled his son out of school and talked about the homeschooling he has done the past two seasons. Two months later, LiAngelo Ball was dropped by UCLA. A few days later, the two Ball brothers signed with an agent with the intention of playing overseas. They landed in Lithuania.
LaMelo, 16, played for Prienai of the Lithuanian Basketball League and was about to make the winding road to the NBA.
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The Big Baller Challenge games were streamed on Facebook. Lavar coached the team at one point. LiAngelo actually scored 72 points in the game against extremely weak competition.
With the end of this experiment in April 2018, LaMelo needed a team. After signing with an agent, his amateur status was questioned, but the SPIRE Academy in Ohio welcomed him. SPIRE was not part of the Ohio High School Athletic Association and LaMelo was able to play, helping the team to a 17-2 record.
Following his time at SPIRE, Ball played for the Los Angeles Ballers in the newly formed LaVar Youth Basketball Association. In fact, the competition served as a showcase for LaMelo and LiAngelo. It was a quick stop before LaMelo’s next big move.
LaMelo signed with the Illawarra Hawks of the National Basketball League of Australia in June 2019. The league recruited LaMelo into the Next Stars program, which is designed to attract potential players looking to bypass the NCAA’s one-time rules. Denver Nuggets rookie R.J. Hampton also distinguished himself through this program.
They’ve grown and they’re getting paid, said Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak of LaMelo Ball’s time with the NBL.
And they don’t let some media sensation show up and take the food off the table. I think there’s no doubt that it dragged him down a bit.
LaMelo turned professional with 18 points, averaging 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. A leg injury limited him to just 12 games, but he was still named the league’s Rookie of the Year and entered the discussion for the number one pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
— Andrew Lopez
- 6. July 2019: Lonzo, Ingram and Josh Hart are traded to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis with the Lakers.
- 19. August 2019: LaMelo has been named a New School Leader – an award for the best rookie in the Drew League.
On his way to the Drew League to see LaMelo play on a sunny Saturday in June, Lonzo was in the car when news came to him of the company shocking Los Angeles.
Ball’s era with the Lakers is over after just two seasons and 99 games – Lonzo, Ingram, Hart and three first-round picks were sent to the Pelicans for Davis.
As the Ball family sat in the stands and watched LaMelo work on his offense, the excitement was palpable – everyone in the gym knew Lonzo was going to New Orleans. But Lonzo felt no sadness. He was excited about his new start.
Error! The file name is not specified. Lonzo and LaMelo are on the field during the 2019 Summer League in Las Vegas. Garrett Ellwood/NWAE via Getty Images
Obviously the injuries have turned things upside down a bit, Ball said of his time with the Lakers. But you keep up with the bruises and you keep moving.
Throughout Los Angeles’ season – James’ first with the Lakers – Lonzo, Ingram and Hart were the subject of constant trade rumors. Trading in New Orleans was a new beginning for the trio.
Once in New Orleans, Ball was unable to train for the start of training camp as he was still recovering from an ankle injury that ended the 2018-19 season. And when he finally got on the field, the first thing he had to do was work with the Pelicans’ assistant coach, Fred Vinson, to make the shot.
In 99 games with the Lakers, the ball shot 31.5% to 3 points on 5.3 attempts per game. To move to the next phase of his career, he needed to change his shot and become more consistent.
We’re just taking it one step at a time, Ball said in December 2019 about the process with Vinson. At first, it wasn’t a radical change. I came here and he just started following me. Then we started on the legs. Then we started with the left to move it to the right.
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After a number of injuries early in the season, Lonzo returned to action on the 23rd. December 2019 against the Portland Trail Blazers to return to the starting lineup for good. It was during this game that he took the lead in the third quarter and at one point said he finally felt free from preseason injuries.
From that point until the start of the regular season, which was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Lonzo averaged 13.8 points, 8.1 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 40.9 percent to three points on nearly seven attempts per game.
I’m trying to take this one down, Ball said of his recycled shot. I hope he can have more than 40% success at 3 and 50% in the field.
The bullet retracted into the bladder. His average points (7.1), assists (6.6) and rebounds (5.0) are down. He’s shooting at the tank. It went from 3% to 28.1%.
It is this inconsistency that may have occurred when Ball’s contract status appeared in the off-season. If he had played the last 34 regular season games before closing, he might have gotten a contract extension. Instead, Ball is playing for a contract in his senior year.
I feel like I’m letting the team down, Ball said in August, a day after the Pelicans were eliminated from the playoffs. When I play well, we usually win. Obviously, I didn’t play well on this trip. We’ll be home early, and I’ll have to live with that.
During the 2020-21 season, under the new system and new coach Stan Van Gundy, Ball looked like a player who could make $20 million at a time, shooting half-court shots with the accuracy of million-dollar passes at Williamson.
- 29. December 2019: Lonzo reached the pinnacle of his career with seven triples and recorded his first triple (27-10-10) as a Pelican.
- 26. January 2020 : In the third game of his career, Lonzo Williamson set a new milestone with 15 assists.
- 16. February 2020: LaMelo wins NBL Rookie of the Year.
- 18. November 2020: LaMelo was ranked No. 3 by the Charlotte Hornets. That same night, Lonzo revealed himself as the character of Whatchamacallit in The Masked Singer.
It seems that the LAMELO BULL PROJECT process has gone completely off the rails. It was about putting him first. There are rumors that he may be out of the top three.
He was eventually selected No. 3 by the Hornets – a pick behind Lonzo’s in 2017. Yet they became the first brothers to finish in the top three in NBA history.
LaMelo] is fortunate to be an elite passer, and he has a unique feel for the game, said Kupchak, who also helped spot Lonzo Ball as the Lakers’ general manager before he was fired in February 2017.
Everything else – his body, it has to get stronger – has to develop over time. Defensively, you can imagine jumping from country to country for three or four years without any consistency. Defensively, he still needs work.
LaMelo did not score in his preseason debut, but did manage 10 rebounds and four assists. His regular season debut was also boring: He scored no points and had just three assists, two steals and one rebound.
Since then he has found his rhythm.
LaMelo, who enters the season as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, averages 11.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 34.3 percent from three-point range. It contributes to the passing game and generates social media hype with pieces like this.
And on Friday night, LaMelo and Lonzo Ball crossed paths for the first time on the NBA court.
I’m sure [Lonzo] has one on his calendar, and it’ll be a bit of a playground hit as they always have, the Pelican’s Hart guard said. It’ll be fun.
Baxter Holmes of ESPN contributed to this story.