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LaMelo Ball, age 17, opts for Australian league ahead of 2020 NBA draft


LaMelo Ball is shown playing in 2018 for Lithuania’s BC Prienu Vytautas. (Liusjenas Kulbis)

LaMelo Ball is headed to New South Wales. The 17-year-old point guard won’t try to see if he can attain NCAA eligibility but instead will play next season in an Australian professional basketball league as he awaits the 2020 NBA draft.

Ball becomes the second high schooler this year to take that path, following RJ Hampton of Little Elm High in Texas. Both are highly regarded players, with the 18-year-old Hampton ranked fifth nationally among 2019 recruits by 247 Sports. Ball is ranked 22nd.

“My agents did a ton of research on the options I had to play this coming season, and Australia really made sense for me,” Ball said to ESPN. “They have a really strong league, with excellent coaches and great players, including former and future NBA players, and great strength and conditioning programs.

“My goal is to be the top pick in next year’s draft, and I feel they can help me reach that goal. Also, the timing of the season works well with the timing of next year’s draft.”

Australia’s National Basketball League is in action from October through March. The two teens were lured down under by the NBL’s Next Stars program, which targets young players deemed to have realistic chances of eventually being drafted by the NBA and offers them the equivalent of a $68,400 salary, plus an apartment, a car, air travel and individual training (per Fox Sports).

Players sign with the league and are allocated to one of its teams. Ball is going to the Illawarra Hawks while Hampton will play for the New Zealand Breakers.

“We’re very excited to have LaMelo join the team,” Illawarra General Manager Mat Campbell said. “It has been a goal of the club to provide pathway opportunities for our young talent to play in the NBA.”

The Hawks are based in Wollongong, New South Wales, a city of about 300,000 located 50 miles south of Sydney. Playing in an out-of-the-way locale far from his native Los Angeles won’t be anything new for Ball, who spent several months in early 2018 as a member of a team based in a small town in Lithuania.

That professional stint, plus his association with his family’s Big Baller Brand company, appeared to put Ball’s NCAA eligibility in jeopardy. His father, LaVar Ball, said earlier this year that he had no desire to let NCAA officials force LaMelo to sit out a year as they investigated his status.

LaVar Ball also expressed disinterest in having his youngest son spend the upcoming season in the NBA’s developmental G League.

“I’m not going to let no 28-, 29-year-old dudes tee off on [LaMelo] and try to make a name for themselves. So he’s definitely going overseas … Either Australia or China,” he said.

Hampton, the Texas teen, has said though he enjoys watching college basketball, his main goal was the NBA. He also noted that he might well be among the final high school stars to find a temporary alternative to the NBA. By 2022 the league will likely rid of its rule mandating draft-eligible players spend at least one year out high school.

That rule, instituted in 2006, created annual classes of so-called “one-and-done” players at elite programs such as Duke and Kentucky. Those players, in turn, helped shine a light on what many have viewed as hypocrisy from the NCAA, which rakes in billions from college sports while student-athletes remain unpaid.

Only a handful of high school players over the years, such as Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay, have chosen to play professionally overseas rather than spend their one pre-NBA year with college programs.

For those who will do so, at least over the next couple of years, Australia could represent an increasingly attractive option. The country has also sent several homegrown players to the NBA, including former No. 1 overall draft picks Ben Simmons and Andrew Bogut, as well as Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Ingles.

“The NBL provides strong visibility back to the US. Our league is closest to the NBA in terms of style of play and game day presentation,” the league’s owner and executive chairman, Larry Kestelman, said in a statement last year, when announcing the Next Stars program. “While they are in the NBL we will work with the players to help them develop an acute understanding of the life of a professional basketballer on and off the court and ensure they are equipped to make the transition to their professional careers.”

The 6-foot-7 Ball has some understanding of the professional life already, having been taken out of high school in 2017 before heading to Lithuania, along with his brother, LiAngelo. LaVar Ball’s oldest son, Lonzo, was drafted No. 2 overall in 2017 by the Lakers, who are set to trade him to the Pelicans.

LaMelo Ball returned to high school competition late last year to spend his senior season at Spire Institute, a prep school in Ohio. He told ESPN that he would get “a huge benefit” from having Spire’s head coach, former NBA player Jermaine Jackson, accompany him to Australia to continue providing instruction.

“I am really looking forward to playing professionally this season, so that I can focus all of my time and energy on basketball,” Ball said. “My experience in Lithuania will help make the adjustment easier. Playing overseas professionally at just 16 years old put me in a place where I had to figure things out quickly, and I think that experience will make a huge difference for me in Australia.”

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