One of the NBL's smallest teams has signed one of US basketball's most high-profile teenage talents, with LaMelo Ball joining the Illawarra Hawks.
The 17-year-old guard, whose older brother Lonzo Ball plays in the NBA, has joined the NBL via the league's Next Stars program, which offers projected NBA draft picks the chance to become professional and play in Australia in the lead-up to their draft year.
Ball is projected to be a first round pick in the 2020 NBA draft but he needed somewhere to play after leaving high school early. He has played in Lithuania and then in the Junior Basketball Association, a league created by his father Lavar Ball, who has become a celebrity due to his outspoken comments about his sons.
LaMelo needed somewhere he could work on his game and prove he is ready to play in the NBA and the NBL beat out China as the place to do it, while Illawarra will provide a testing but more low key place for him to develop.
Ball announced his plans on ESPN show The Jump early on Tuesday morning (AEST) and he is expected to head out to Australia when NBL pre-season training begins.
"I think it's the right route for me, I'm trying to be the No.1 pick for the 2020 draft." Ball said on the show.
The Hawks are poised to make more signings, with the club reportedly chasing at least one more former NBA player as an import to join centre Josh Boone on their roster.
It’s believed the Hawks are close to securing veteran NBA guard Aaron Brooks, who played 10 seasons in the league and won most improved player in 2010.
Ball follows fellow US teenager RJ Hampton to the NBL as Hampton, a projected top-five pick in the 2020 draft, will play with the New Zealand Breakers in the coming season after signing under the same Next Stars program.
"I am excited to be a part of the NBL's Next Stars program and to join the Illawarra Hawks team," Ball said in a statement.
"The NBL is a really solid league, with great coaches and players, and I am looking forward to putting all my focus and energy into basketball and getting to work.
"I believe this will be an amazing opportunity for me as I continue in my journey toward fulfilling my dream of playing in the NBA."
While there is plenty of bluster and hyperbole from his father, LaMelo is as promising as player as there is outside the NBA, with the 198-centimetre, thinly framed point guard having a knack for putting up big scoring numbers, including a 92-point game during his high school career with Chino Hills and a 25-point game against men in the Drew League Pro-Am competition last year.
NBL chief executive Jeremy Loeliger kept up talks with the Ball family and their representative for several months before finalising the deal.
"LaMelo is one of the most exciting and talked about young players in the basketball world and he is going to create enormous interest wherever he goes while he’s playing here in the NBL," Loeliger said.
"We're thrilled he is going to come to Australia and develop his talents with the Illawarra Hawks as part of our Next Stars program on his way to what we all hope will be a long and successful career in the NBA.
"Together with RJ Hampton, he will help attract more attention to the NBL, both in terms of fans and importantly NBA scouts.
"All of those scouts are also going to have the opportunity to see the rest of the incredible talent on display here in the NBL."
Despite being one of the NBL’s smallest clubs, the Hawks have punched above their weight when it comes to developing future NBA players, with centre David Andersen beginning his pro career with the Hawks as an 18-year old before moving overseas and eventually to the NBA while import guard Doug Overton was an All-NBL first team player during his one season with the Hawks in 1992 before making the NBA.
Ball won't be the only aspiring NBA talent on his team either, with highly promising Australian forward Sam Froling also signing with the club in the hope he can develop his game for a few seasons before chasing his NBA dreams.
The NBL is hoping this past season's Next Stars player Brian Bowen jnr will be picked up in Friday's NBA draft after he played with the Sydney Kings, although there are differing views about where he will be taken.
Australians Harry Froling and Will McDowell-White also have their names in the draft pool but may have to take the long way to the NBA via the summer league and pre-season training camps.
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