It’s LaMelo vs. Lonzo Ball, and this matchup might best reveal their star potential
When you’ve grown up the stars of your own television show as the Ball brothers of Chino Hills have, there is little the basketball world has not seen. It has watched as they changed teams, countries and hairstyles. It has followed them through conversations with their father, LaVar, into their living rooms and cars and out of their comfort zone.
But out of all that saturation coverage came something unique Monday: the oldest and youngest facing off in a game carrying actual stakes.
Just two seasons ago, a November game between Chicago and Charlotte barely would have registered, just as Lonzo and LaMelo’s first two matchups as NBA opponents last season were notable solely because of their family storyline and not the standings.
What if the way the Lakers stumbled through a triple-overtime loss Friday to perennially downtrodden Sacramento turns out to be who they really are?
Monday, though, was a status check on two of the NBA’s early surprises, with the Bulls (14-8) tied for the most victories in the Eastern Conference and the Hornets (13-10) sixth in the Eastern Conference standings.
The game had buzz. Perhaps not coincidentally, it had the Balls.
“It’s 100% a product of who they are,” said Steve Baik, the coach of Chino Hills High’s 2016 state title team that starred Lonzo as a senior and LaMelo as a freshman. “Whatever team they go to there’s an instant chemistry that’s built and the chemistry is because of their play and their play consists of passing the ball.”
It was a matchup LaVar Ball grudgingly accepted. Their training on a concrete backyard court in Chino Hills never was designed to be one-on-one but three-versus-everybody, with the trio regularly taking on teenagers when they were still in elementary school. The father’s dream remains seeing all three reunited again on an NBA roster, saying he now prefers the Clippers. After drawing some of the largest crowds at August’s Las Vegas summer league, LiAngelo Ball has spent this season with Charlotte’s G League affiliate.
“Until they’re all on the same team on the West Coast, that’s when I’m going to be like, OK, now these folks get to see what I’m talking about,” LaVar said. “By themselves they good, but together they great and at some point they will be all three together on the same team.
“Somebody’s going to be smart enough to say hey, I want the best show in the NBA.”
Since joining Chicago from New Orleans in an August sign-and-trade deal worth $80 million over four years, Lonzo has helped lead a Bulls revival by averaging 12.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.7 rebounds and nearly two steals. Not since the 6-foot-6 guard left Westwood in 2017 has former UCLA assistant David Grace seen Lonzo so happy on the court, he said, a shift in attitude Baik also noticed in his body language.
In between was a failed union with the Lakers followed by scarce success in New Orleans.
“What people don’t understand is Lonzo makes everybody around him better.”
— LaVar Ball
“Sometimes it’s good to have a coach really believe in you and let you kind of play your way,” LaVar said. “You’re going to be happier especially if you’re winning.”
Lonzo “thrives around other good players,” one NBA scout said. “He can play in the background in Chicago and knock down big shots like he does. [Zach] LaVine and [DeMar] DeRozan get all the recognition in Chicago; Lonzo can just play free, something he couldn’t do in L.A. or New Orleans.”
Lonzo’s assist percentage sits at a career low, but he is Chicago’s most frequent passer by far, and the way he scans for ways to push the ball upcourt to streaking teammates is a threat that tests opponents’ focus, Clippers star Paul George said this month. It has helped Chicago generate the NBA’s second-most points-per-possession off of turnovers. First? LaMelo’s Hornets.
“What people don’t understand is Lonzo makes everybody around him better,” LaVar said. “I mean he made every guy on Chino Hills get a scholarship; he was the only senior on that team. He made UCLA, he made all those guys get drafted, you don’t even hear about them now.
”... Then you go Brandon Ingram, he’s never going to make another All-Star game but he played with Lonzo and Lonzo make him an All-Star. Zion [Williamson] looked great; he ain’t gonna never look that good again because you’re not going to have that guy that’s going to throw you that full-court lob and know that you’re going to get out there and know your game and keep you right.”
While Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant dominate the NBA MVP discussion, the Clippers’ Paul George is putting up worthy numbers and providing leadership.
If that is hyperbole, it also contains a truth acknowledged within the NBA. After a loss to Chicago this month, George noted that Lonzo “just makes the game easy for everybody out there,” and off of turnovers, Chicago’s transition opportunities have flourished with Lonzo on the floor.
He has done it not only with the pass but also by keeping opposing guards from getting to the paint and improving Chicago’s spacing on offense by increasing his own threat to score beyond the arc. His 61% shooting on corner three-pointers is 19 percentage points higher than his previous high. He’s shooting a career-best 44% from three overall.
“Before, you could kind of load off him, help off him,” George said. “But he’s shooting the ball well.”
His 6-8 youngest brother, meanwhile, is following last season’s rookie-of-the-year award by turning his lob-throwing combination with Hornets teammate Miles Bridges, an early favorite to win most improved player, into a content mill for NBA highlights. LaVar‘s response to those who congratulate him on his sons’ success is that he has seen them play better. Then again, LaMelo is on pace to average at least 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists — something only Luka Doncic and LeBron James accomplished at 20.
Among all 20-year-olds in NBA history, only two have grabbed more rebounds than the 7.9 he averaged entering Monday — at the same age Magic Johnson averaged 7.7, and Lonzo 6.9. Only Doncic, Stephon Marbury and Trae Young averaged more than LaMelo’s eight assists
Did we mention he arrived for Charlotte’s season opener in a fluorescent suit that matched his Lamborghini?
“They both have flair, but when you watch LaMelo, it’s a different vibe,” one front office’s talent evaluator said of the differences between LaMelo and Lonzo.
To Baik, it recalls the few times he played Lonzo and LaMelo against one another, in late-season practices when he felt a need to liven up the team’s competitiveness.
“He’s a kid that literally plays with no fear and no doubt,” Baik said of LaMelo. “We put him on the second team and he would many times beat the first team. Melo by himself would beat as a freshman the first team several times in practice. That’s when I knew that this kid, he is special.”
It is the same word his father used to describe his boys for years, telling anyone who would listen. Such declarations have delivered criticism, at times mockery, but Lonzo and LaMelo are the only brothers to each be drafted among the first three picks and have become dependable, dynamic players, with Baik saying that neither has come close to reaching his potential. LaVar’s confidence was never subtle. But in many ways, Baik said, it also wasn’t misplaced.
The Lakers fall to the lowly Sacramento Kings in triple overtime, 141-137, to fall below .500 again.
“No, I don’t need to feel vindicated on the fact that all my boys knew they were going to the NBA so they believed in me and I believed in them,” LaVar said. “We don’t worry about the outside noise, folks saying, ‘They can’t be this good, they can’t be that bad.’ At the end of the day like I said, it’s just entertainment.
“As long as we good as a family and understand what all of this is about, it doesn’t matter what people are saying.”
For all of the bold-faced names whose company LaMelo now shares, he is not motivated by chasing their accomplishments, LaVar said. The younger brothers would rather catch up to, and beat, their older brother. And anyone who has watched the family’s hours of footage should know that.
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