Lonzo vs. LaMelo: Opposite paths to the Ball brothers showdown

TWO BROTHERS IN the NBA. One drafted second overall, the other third. On Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) they will play against each other, one for the New Orleans Pelicans and one for the Charlotte Hornets. They will guard each other for the first time in an organized game, a couple of oversized point guards with similar talents and different personalities.

They’re here despite — or maybe because of? — all that swirls around them: the static created by their celebrity; the criticism of their games; the endless bellowing of LaVar Ball — their father and hype man — who insists it was all preordained, that he knew his sons would play in the NBA before they left the womb. But it’s worth pausing to recognize just how unlikely this moment is.

Lonzo Ball started all of this. He took a more traditional route, a season at UCLA before being chosen by the Los Angeles Lakers with the second pick of the 2017 draft. He was the Ball family’s forward scout, running ahead to check for danger and report back, allowing LaMelo and middle brother LiAngelo to draft behind him as he accumulated and passed down the knowledge gained along the way. He is the first incarnation of the father’s prophecy, the circumspect one, the older brother who has seen enough of the world to question motive and intent.

LaMelo Ball’s route was decidedly untraditional, created in part by his brother’s success. Without Lonzo, there wouldn’t be a Big Baller Brand, which means LaMelo wouldn’t have had a signature shoe as a sophomore in high school, which means he wouldn’t have had the college-eligibility issues that ultimately sent him on a worldwide journey, from Lithuania to Ohio to Australia, before being drafted by the Hornets with the third pick in November.

Because of Lonzo, and because of his precocious talent, LaMelo was the protected one, projecting an air of almost impossible innocence. He is the fulfillment of the prophecy, the youngest brother gliding through life like heat rising off a road.

None of this was guaranteed. Child actors flame out. Kids who get pushed push back. Prodigies get bored, mastering whatever it is they’ve been programmed to achieve before moving on to whatever else seems interesting.

But Lonzo and LaMelo are here despite — and, yes, because of — everything that came before. For one night, anyway, it’s an achievement that should stand on its own.

— Tim Keown

  • June 16, 2015: Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball play in their first high school game together at Chino Hills (California) High. LaMelo scores 27, Lonzo finishes with 18.

  • March 26, 2016: Chino Hills caps a 35-0 season with a state championship victory.

SENIOR NIGHT AT Chino Hills High School was supposed to be LiAngelo’s night. But after an ankle injury limited his final high school home game to walking to half court with his parents and taking pictures before the game, the stage was set for the youngest Ball brother.

It was Feb. 7, 2017. LaMelo Ball, then a 15-year-old sophomore, scored 92 points.

Dedicating the game to Lexi Anderson, a hospitalized classmate, the lanky guard shot 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 CBS Los Angeles sports anchor Jim Hill. “But it is kind of like cool, you got to 92. I wasn’t expecting to get that high.

“If I knew, if I was going for that high, I believe [it would have been] in the hundreds,” LaMelo added, drawing a chuckle from father LaVar, who did the interview alongside him. “Because in the first half I was actually trying to pass.”

LaMelo was already a five-star prospect. The No. 21 recruit in the 2019 ESPN 100 had committed to UCLA, where older brother Lonzo was a freshman and LiAngelo would attend in the fall.

But the performance turned LaMelo Ball into one of the hottest tickets in Southern California.

LaMelo’s budding fame was also met with skepticism. Charles Barkley didn’t like highlights he saw from the 92-point outburst, which was filled with easy transition layups while LaMelo rarely made it past half court after an offensive possession.

“Never went back on defense. So I had a problem with it, to be honest with you,” Barkley said on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike. “Go look at the game. The kid waited at the other end of the court and just every time the other team shot the ball, they just threw to him at half court or three-quarters of the court.”

Los Osos High coach Dave Smith told the Los Angeles Times that he thought the performance was “a joke” and “embarrassing to high school athletics.” Smith said Chino Hills players fouled on purpose to keep his team from running out the clock in an effort to prevent Ball from padding his stat line.

LaMelo, though, seemed cozy in the spotlight.

“I think he’s wired like [NBA] 2K on the little PlayStation,” LaVar said of LaMelo’s 92-point performance. “He really think he out there where you get one player scoring all the points, that’s him. He treats it like entertainment.”

— Ohm Youngmisuk

  • Feb. 25, 2017: LaVar Ball says Lonzo will play for the Lakers: “I’m going to speak it into existence.”

  • March 24, 2017: Lonzo Ball declares for the NBA draft after UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky.

  • Aug. 31, 2017: LaMelo Ball becomes the first high schooler to have his own signature shoe: The Melo Ball 1.

MAGIC JOHNSON FELT the pressure. One of the NBA’s all-time greatest winners and clutch performers was practically squirming on stage inside the New York Hilton Midtown.

It was May 16, 2017, at the NBA draft lottery, and if the Lakers’ first-round pick didn’t land in the top three, it was headed to the Philadelphia 76ers. But once NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced that the Phoenix Suns had dropped into the fourth spot, Johnson’s famous smile lit up the entire ballroom and Lakers brass on hand erupted with a simultaneous “YES!” in a row of seats in a far corner of the room.

It wouldn’t be official until a month later at the NBA draft, but this was the moment Lonzo Ball became the Los Angeles Lakers’ next great hope.

Lonzo already was one of the most hyped draft prospects in years due to LaVar’s talent for creating headlines with sensational quotes. But Johnson sent the Lonzo hype machine into warp speed by declaring the Lakers’ newest point guard would one day join him among the franchise’s all-time greats.

“I’m going to put a little pressure on you right now,” Johnson said as he pointed to a wall inside the Lakers’ practice facility at Ball’s introductory news conference. “You look to your right, there’s some jerseys hanging on that wall. We expect a Ball jersey hanging up there one day, all right?”

With Johnson and LaVar setting the bar that high before Lonzo took his first professional dribble, he made his Lakers debut in summer league in Las Vegas with an electric alley-oop to Brandon Ingram.

Despite shooting 2-for-15 in his first game, the Ball hype only grew. The Lakers’ second summer league game, against Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics, sold out the day before by noon — the first time in the summer league’s then-14-year existence that an entire day’s session sold out in advance.

— Youngmisuk

  • June 26, 2017: LaVar, Lonzo and LaMelo appear on “WWE Raw.”

  • July 17, 2017: The Lakers win the Las Vegas Summer League, with Lonzo taking home MVP honors (16.3 points, 9.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 steals, 1.0 block per game).

  • July 26, 2017: LaMelo and the Big Baller Brand AAU squad (coached by LaVar) lose to Zion Williamson’s SC Supreme at the Adidas Summer Championships in Las Vegas. LaMelo scores 31 points while Williamson finishes with 28.

  • Aug. 31, 2017: The “Ball In The Family” reality series debuts on Facebook with 17 million viewers.

  • Sept. 8, 2017: Lonzo drops “Melo Ball 1,” a rap single honoring LaMelo.

  • Oct. 2, 2017: LaVar pulls LaMelo from Chino Hills High School.

BUZZ WAS BACK at Staples Center, something that hadn’t been felt since Kobe Bryant retired in 2016, as Ball made his pro debut against the LA Clippers. But Patrick Beverley wasn’t going to let the Lonzo legend grow on his watch.

The Clippers’ defensive dynamo held the Lakers point guard to three points, four assists and nine rebounds in his NBA regular-season debut.

“Weak ass motherf—er,” Beverley was heard screaming in the Staples hallway postgame. “Bring him out on the court with me and I will tear his ass up.”

LaVar fired back immediately.

“Who is Patrick Beverley?” he said postgame. “He played all last year and nobody said nothing about him. Now we are looking at your first game. Why?

“Because Lonzo’s name is attached to it.”

The next night in Phoenix, Lonzo nearly put his name in the record books, falling one assist shy of becoming the youngest player in NBA history to post a triple-double with 29 points — still his career high — 11 rebounds and 9 assists versus the Suns.

Lonzo’s early play drew comparisons to another tall point guard who struggled with his shot early in his career but had a knack for triple-doubles and elite vision — Jason Kidd. But Kidd said that it was too early and “a stretch” to compare the Lakers rookie to the Hall of Famer after one month.

“I truly think he is talented,” Kidd, then the Milwaukee Bucks’ head coach, said. “Today we want everything microwaved, we want it overnight or we want it Googled. We want to see the answer now.”

Motivated by Kidd’s comment, Lonzo went for 19 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds against the Bucks and became the youngest player ever with a triple-double at 20 years, 15 days, topping LeBron James’ previous mark.

What followed were far more single digits posted in the box score as Lonzo struggled with his jumper. He also missed 30 games during his rookie season with knee and shoulder injuries. (He missed 65 games in his two seasons as a Laker because of injury.)

Johnson declared Lonzo’s first offseason as the biggest summer of his life, as the Lakers wanted their franchise point guard to add more muscle. But Lonzo wasn’t able to work on his game, spending much of that summer trying to recover from a knee injury from his rookie season, even getting a platelet-rich plasma shot before undergoing arthroscopic surgery.

Once he was able to get back on a court, he began to tweak his shooting form, bringing the ball a bit more in front and straight away, with his follow-through also more out in front than to the side. “And, man, it is beautiful,” Johnson said during camp.

Johnson had grand visions of Ball and a young Lakers core taking a massive step forward alongside their latest acquisition: James, who signed a four-year deal that summer.

“Sometimes he doesn’t realize how great he is,” James said of Ball in their first month together. “The things that he possesses out on the floor, when Zo realizes how good he is on the floor, it makes him a very dynamic player, and it makes us even better.”

James saw the potential, but the franchise didn’t have the patience for rebuilding with a young core. The Lakers were in win-now mode.

— Youngmisuk

  • Feb. 15, 2018: Lonzo drops “Born 2 Ball,” his first album (the same day as his appearance with LaVar on “Lip Sync Battle”).

  • July 17, 2018: Lonzo has arthroscopic surgery on his left knee to repair a torn meniscus.

  • Jan. 19, 2019: Lonzo sprains his ankle and leaves a game against the Houston Rockets, his last in a Lakers uniform.

BETWEEN CHINO HILLS and the NBA, one valid question surrounded the youngest Ball brother:

Where in the world is LaMelo?

Before LaMelo’s junior season kicked off, LaVar pulled his son out of high school, with talk of home-schooling him over his final two seasons. Two months later, LiAngelo Ball was pulled from UCLA. Days after that, both Ball brothers signed with an agent, with the intent of playing overseas. They ended up in Lithuania.

Playing for Prienai of the Lithuanian Basketball League, a 16-year-old LaMelo was about to start on a winding road to the NBA.

“Big Baller Challenge” games streamed on Facebook. LaVar coached the team at one point. LiAngelo even scored 72 points in a game against extremely inferior competition.

That experiment ended in April 2018, leaving LaMelo in need of a team. After signing with an agent, his amateur status was in doubt, but SPIRE Academy in Ohio accepted him in. SPIRE wasn’t a part of the Ohio High School Athletic Association and LaMelo was able to play, helping lead the team to a 17-2 record.

Following his stint with SPIRE, Ball played for the Los Angeles Ballers of the newly formed Junior Basketball Association, created by LaVar. Practically, the league served as a showcase for LaMelo and LiAngelo. It was a small stop before LaMelo’s next big move.

In June 2019, LaMelo signed a contract with the Illawarra Hawks of the National Basketball League in Australia. The league attracted LaMelo with its Next Stars program, which was set up to bring in prospects looking to skip the one-and-done rules of the NCAA. Denver Nuggets rookie R.J. Hampton also ended up in the NBL thanks to the program.

“They’re grown men and they’re earning a paycheck,” Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said of LaMelo Ball’s time in the NBL.

“And they’re not going to let some ‘media sensation’ come in and take food off their table. I don’t think there’s any doubt it toughened him up a little bit.”

LaMelo, at 18, held his own in the professional ranks, averaging 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. A foot 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 No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

— Andrew Lopez

  • July 6, 2019: Lonzo, Ingram and Josh Hart are traded to Pelicans by the Lakers in exchange for Anthony Davis.

  • Aug. 19, 2019: LaMelo is named “Leader of the New School,” an award for the Drew League’s top rookie.

ON THE WAY to the Drew League to watch LaMelo play on a sunny June Saturday, Lonzo was in a car when news of the trade that shook Los Angeles made its way to him.

The Ball era with the Lakers was over after just two seasons and 99 games played — 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, there was a palpable buzz — everyone in the gym knew that Lonzo was on his way to New Orleans. But there wasn’t a sense of sadness from Lonzo. He was excited for his new beginning.

“Obviously, injuries kind of messed up things a little bit,” Ball said of his Lakers tenure. “But you take the bumps with the bruises and keep moving forward.”

Throughout the season in Los Angeles — the Lakers’ first with James — Lonzo, Ingram and Hart found themselves the subject of constant trade rumors. The trade to New Orleans represented a fresh start for the trio.

Once in New Orleans, Ball was unable to work out until just prior to training camp because he was still recovering from the ankle injury that ended his 2018-19 season. And when he finally made it onto the court, the first order of business was working with Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson on getting his shot right.

In 99 games with the Lakers, Ball shot 31.5% from 3-point range on 5.3 attempts per game. To take the next step in his career, he needed to change his shot and become more consistent.

“We just take it step by step,” Ball said in December 2019 about the process with Vinson. “It wasn’t a drastic change from the beginning. I kind of got here and he just started with my follow-through. We started with legs after that. Then we started from the left to the middle to get it to the right.”

After fighting various injuries to start the season, Lonzo found himself back in the starting lineup for good on Dec. 23, 2019, against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was in that game when he caught a tip dunk in the third quarter, a moment he said felt as though he was finally free of his preseason injuries.

From that date until the regular season was halted because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lonzo averaged 13.8 points, 8.1 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 40.9% from 3-point range on nearly 7 attempts per game.

“I’m trying to get it down,” Ball said of his reworked shot. “Hopefully I can get it to where it’s over 40% from 3 and 50 from the field.”

In the bubble, Ball regressed. His scoring (7.1), assists (6.6) and rebounding (5.0) averages all dipped. His shooting tanked. He dipped to 28.1% from 3.

It was that inconsistency that might have reared itself when Ball’s contract status came up in the offseason. If he played like the player in the final 34 games of the regular season before the stoppage, maybe he would have picked up a contract extension. Instead, Ball is playing for a contract in the final year of his rookie deal.

“I feel like I let the team down,” Ball said in August, the day after the Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention. “Usually when I play well, we win. Obviously, I didn’t play well this trip. We’re going home early, and I have to live with that.”

In 2020-21, in a new system and under a new coach in Stan Van Gundy, Ball has at times looked like a player who could command $20 million, firing half-court passes with pinpoint accuracy to Williamson.

— Lopez

  • Dec. 29, 2019: Lonzo sets a career high with seven 3-pointers and notches his first triple-double (27-10-10) as a Pelican.

  • Jan. 26, 2020: In Williamson’s third career game, Lonzo sets a new career mark with 15 assists.

  • Feb. 16, 2020: LaMelo wins NBL rookie of the year.

  • Nov. 18, 2020: LaMelo is drafted No. 3 overall by the Charlotte Hornets. The same night, Lonzo is revealed as the character “Whatchamacallit” on “The Masked Singer.”

LAMELO BALL’S DRAFT process was seemingly all over the place. There was talk of him going as high as No. 1. There was talk he could slip out of the top three.

When it was all said and done, he wound up being selected by the Hornets at No. 3 overall — one pick behind where Lonzo went in 2017. Still, they became the first brothers drafted in the top three in NBA history.

“[LaMelo] has a chance to be an elite passer, and he does have a unique feel to the game,” said Kupchak, who also helped scout Lonzo Ball as Lakers GM before his firing in February 2017.

“Everything else — his body, he needs to get stronger — should develop over time. Defensively, you can imagine, bouncing around from country to country for three or four years without having any consistency. Defensively, he needs to work.”

In his preseason debut, LaMelo was held scoreless but he pulled down 10 rebounds and dished out four assists. His regular-season debut was also uneventful: He didn’t score and had just three assists, two steals and one rebound.

He’s found his groove since.

A Rookie of the Year favorite entering the season, LaMelo is averaging 11.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 34.3% from 3-point range. He’s making his mark in the passing game and creating a social media buzz with dimes like these.

And Friday night, the paths of LaMelo and Lonzo Ball cross for the first time on an NBA court.

“I’m sure [Lonzo] has that one circled on his calendar, and it’s gonna be a little playground battle like they always had,” Pelicans guard Hart said. “That’s gonna be a fun one.”

— Lopez

ESPN’s Baxter Holmes contributed to this story.

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