LiAngelo Ball creating a buzz during Summer League tryout
For two hours Saturday afternoon, before Bruno Mars entertained along the Strip and Allegiant Stadium opened to Raiders fans for the first time, the hottest act in Vegas played inside a hot, cramped gymnasium: the latest attempt by an undrafted, 6-foot-5 reserve to land a job in the NBA.
At a time when COVID-19 concerns have largely thinned the crowds at the NBA’s 10-day Summer League, nearly every red seat inside the 2,400-seat Cox Pavilion, the smaller of two, connected venues hosting the action, was taken before tipoff.
Those unable to get in to watch Charlotte face Toronto formed lines outside each of the gym’s pair of double-door entrances, snaking deep into an adjoining concourse. One Summer League official estimated as many as 500 fans were in each line at their largest, calling the demand unrivaled since a 2010 game featuring Jeremy Lin against John Wall.
“The Ball effect,” one fan said to his seatmate before tipoff.
If there were any doubt LiAngelo Ball, the middle son of one of California’s most famous basketball families, could draw interest, he has answered that at Summer League. The question remains whether he will show enough here to ensure that he will have a seat on an NBA bench when the regular season begins.
“I know myself, I’m an NBA player,” Ball said. “In my head, I can play in the NBA. I can play anywhere for real. I don’t really think about how people think about me, I just do my own thing.”
He drew whoops of cheers by merely checking in midway through the first quarter. Fans jumped, arms raised, before the ball had even left Ball’s hand on his first shot, a three-pointer from the wing that swished to roars.
New Lakers teammates LeBron James and Russell Westbrook make their first public appearance together in a surprise Summer League visit on Saturday.
The setting was reminiscent of the overheated high school gym in Chino Hills where the following for LiAngelo, his older brother Lonzo and younger brother LaMelo, first swelled as the teenagers stormed the state’s prep competition with their fastbreak brand of basketball.
But where Lonzo, the 23-year-old second overall draft pick in 2017, further established himself this month with a four-year, $85-million contract from Chicago, and LaMelo’s selection at third overall last year began the 19-year-old’s rookie-of-the-year season with Charlotte, LiAngelo, 22, has yet to find his foothold in the NBA.
Since leaving UCLA in 2017 following a shoplifting incident in China, Ball has lived an itinerant basketball life. COVID-19 ended a G League contract with Oklahoma City just as it began in March 2020, and he was waived after training camp by Detroit last December. He called his past four years “unpredictable.”
It is why, after spending the last two months working out in Charlotte with LaMelo — a run of workouts that left one Charlotte official raving about LiAngelo’s willingness to work — he called himself grateful for the chance to play off of the Hornets’ bench in a summer audition for an NBA contract.
“Of course I’m not happy about it,” he said of the brief nature of his previous stints. “But my confidence don’t go down, ever, really. I always feel like I’m ready for the game. I can play anywhere. When the opportunity presents itself, I’ll be ready.”
Here, Ball is at once the same as, and also completely different from, the other grinders with whom he is competing for a chance to hang around the NBA through training camp and beyond this fall. Few have job security. Then again, no other reserve can boast 1 million more Instagram followers than the team he is trying to make. No one else has spent the last several years living in front of cameras, as part of his family’s Facebook show about their lives. When Dutch Gaitley, the coach of Charlotte’s summer roster, sat Ball in Saturday’s fourth quarter for a breather, the substitution drew jeers.
The muscular, tattooed forward with braids hanging over his eyes has made 12 of his 26 shots, including eight of 18 three-pointers, through three games, while carrying out a role of defense, moving the ball and shooting when open. James Bouknight, a Charlotte rookie, described Ball as a “cool dude.”
When LaVar Ball moved to Chino Hills to start a family, he found a planned community that matched his own ambition. A fascinating relationship ensued.
“I give the kid a lot of credit, you know, being here,” Gaitley said. “He didn’t have to be here, and he’s fighting to try to try to get a roster spot trying to make a team. He’s a great kid, he’s quiet, a little bit different than Melo. You know, Melo’s a little bit more personality and everything … you get to know Gelo, he’s a very nice kid, just quiet. Very happy to have him part of our team.”
In his summer debut, Ball made five three-pointers in 16 minutes, leading Bouknight to say, afterward, that, “I think he should be out there more.” Gaitley called himself “thrilled for the kid, and for him to have this moment right now. Now, anybody can have one game; now, let see, hey can you do it again? Because he’s just put himself in the scouting report.”
With his quotable father, LaVar, the face of the family’s Big Baller Brand, and mother, Tina, watching from the baseline Saturday, Ball played 17 minutes, scoring eight points. During a three-play stretch in the third quarter, Ball followed his layup in traffic with a defensive stop and a three-pointer in transition. As the buzz in the building grew, two fans stood up and shook one another’s shoulders.
Asked to evaluate how he had played up to expectations set by himself, and the team, Ball at first apologized, saying he was too hung up on the Hornets’ one-point loss to think about his own play. He had previously shared that his third NBA audition “feels a lot different, in a better way” than Oklahoma City and Detroit.
“All the coaches show energy towards me, they’re talking to me, they want to see me do good like everybody’s not just — like at the other organizations, I was just playing, nobody really said anything,” he said. “So, I didn’t really know what was going on, but here everybody’s involved so it makes it more fun to be here and more able to play my hardest.”
Asked whether he believed he had shown enough to warrant consideration for a roster spot next season, he responded quietly, “I hope so.”
“It’s really the coaches’ decision but I feel I’m ready for whether the NBA, Summer League, anything, really,” he said. “They just got to tell me what to do and then I’ll be ready.”
Last spring, LaVar Ball said he believed that reuniting his sons on the same NBA roster would be the “biggest thing in the NBA.” For now, the only attraction at Summer League more enticing than Ball is the air conditioning. After the Hornets left Cox Pavilion following Saturday’s loss, half the crowd exited before the next game started. Organizers were relieved to remember that Charlotte’s final game will be held inside the larger Thomas & Mack Center next door.
It will be his last opportunity in Las Vegas to add Charlotte’s brass to his legion of believers.
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