In his first professional match in Australia, NBL Next Star LaMelo Ball met all expectations and showed flashes that will excite local fans and NBA scouts alike.
In front of more than 3,500 fans in Wollongong, including father Lavar & Co., Ball had the fans on the edge of their seats with every touch and did everything he could to deliver the home team a win.
From the outset, it was clear we wouldn't see the "cherry-picking, ball-heisting, 40-foot air-ball-jacking prop in the family business" that was predicted coming out of high school. We saw a much more calm and well-rounded performance.
LaMelo was breaking ankles and throwing down two-handed slams in a display that will quiet a few doubters.
The 6-foot-6 guard looks like a triple-double waiting to happen, and he racked up 12 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to go with four steals in his debut.
In a strong show of faith, the youngest player in the league was handed a start from coach Matt Flinn alongside fellow young gun Emmett Naar, and Ball looked the more confident of the pair from the outset.
Acting as the primary ball handler, Ball showed great composure against a constant press from the Brisbane defence, pushing the ball hard up the court and using his height and court vision to beat the press.
On offence, Ball got on the board early, finishing one of his unique floaters from close range and reaping the rewards of an early drive and dish.
Ball continued to attack the basket as his primary source of offence throughout the game, often resulting in a dump-off under the basket early, but as his confidence improved, so did his attack on the rim.
His long wingspan allowed him to stay active in the passing lanes, with a quick steal from an inbounds pass resulting in a two-handed jam that brought the locals to their feet in the first quarter.
Although he was causing havoc in passing lanes, the Hawks' Next Star looked slightly outmatched on the defensive end, getting caught in some on-ball screens and allowing some hot outside shooting from the Bullets guards. There was some recompense in his continued willingness to crash the defensive glass.
The rangy guard managed four steals and two blocks, including this big stop.
The Hawks reverted to their starting lineup in the third, and the offence struggled as a result. The Hawks and consequently Ball were at their most dangerous when fellow American Aaron Brooks was on the floor. He looks to be building strong chemistry with his young protégé already.
With the game on the line late in the fourth quarter and the Hawks down five, Ball made his most confident drive of the afternoon and spun his way to the rim, showing a flash of athleticism that couldn't be matched.
That drive was followed by a defensive rebound that he pushed up the court and drove to the basket, finishing with confidence to bring his team within one with less than four minutes on the clock.
The momentum Ball built and the love shown by the Illawarra faithful awoke something within him as he charged down court to pull up for a transition 3-pointer that fell well short. That was the story of his game from behind the arc, as he went 0-for-5 in what was probably the weakest part of his overall strong performance. His willingness to step up in big moments is a promising sign, however.
In the end, it wasn't enough, with Lamar Patterson and the hot hand of Nathan Sobey leading the Bullets to a 90-81 win.
Overall, the Hawks' Next Star improved his NBA draft stock but will want to be more active in the half-court defence and improve his shooting percentage, all things that will likely come as he continues to find his feet in a new league and get used to new teammates.
Coach Flinn will be more than pleased with his young guard's performance and is already rewarding him, giving him 32 minutes on a night when the Hawks went 12 deep into their rotation.
The main takeaway? This is just the beginning for the youngest Ball brother, which is a scary proposition for opposing NBL defences.