It took three months, but both LaMelo and especially LiAngelo Ball are now getting to grips and embracing professional basketball to a high standard.
When the fresh-faced boys touched down on a bitterly cold January night at Vilnius Airport, led by their outspoken father, LaVar, they were expected to mainly compete in ‘Big Baller Brand Challenge’ scrimmages where the focus would be on the boys and less on Lithuanian side Vytautas, whom the Ball brothers had signed temporary deals with.
With the Prienai-based side pulling out of the Baltic Basketball League just before the youngsters touched down, many thought that was the only chance had faded for LaMelo and LiAngelo to experience competitive basketball, especially as the top flight LKL was considered above their skill level.
With two versions of the Big Baller Brand Challenge providing the boys with – at best training sessions – Vytautas coach Virginijus Šeškus took the calculated risk of using the untested and extremely inexperienced Ball brothers in LKL contests.
At first, the risk took a turn for the worst, as Vytautas lost to established side Lietkabelis 95-86 with both Ball players failing to register a point and on the whole, they both looked severely out of their depth against seasoned professionals and not the up-and-coming prodigies that they went up against in the Challenge sessions.
From this humbling showing, the Ball brothers did not let this get them down and instead of using their celebrity status get them by, both worked hard at their craft and slowly but surely it is paying off.
From that first showing: Where they went a combined 0-for-7 from the field (LaMelo 0-for-4, LiAngelo 0-for-3), they improved marginally, performance by performance and it wasn’t until the visit of perennial Lithuanian champions and EuroLeague side Zalgiris that the brothers brought their talents to a more global audience.
∞∞∞ BALL BROTHERS BALL OUT AGAINST ZALGIRIS ∞∞∞
Taking away an inevitable 118-96 victory over Vytautas, Zalgiris did enough to secure a comfortable win which is a norm in domestic action for the Kaunas outfit but at times they found LaMelo and LiAngelo hard to contend with.
Having knocked down six three-pointers, LiAngelo Ball was the game’s leading scorer with 25 points on 8-of-15 shooting from the field, with LaMelo Ball adding 19 points and six assists. Many stated that the latter possessed the stronger skillset, overall with LiAngelo somewhat lacking. But against undoubtedly the nation’s biggest and strongest club, LiAngelo proved that he can play against the best teams in Europe.
Along with his solid shooting percentage, both the brothers seemed flawless in their understanding of the team’s plays and moved without the ball effortlessly to create their own shot. But the most important aspect was that both of them were energetic and defensively active, something that was heavily criticised from LaMelo’s high school era, where he barely defended, instead choosing to stay on the half-way line on numerous occasions.
But with LaMelo thriving in the professional arena, it’s LiAngelo that is improving his status. Highlighted as the weaker of the three Ball brothers, the middle child has been putting solid numbers up in the LKL, and Saturday’s game against Lietuvos Rytas saw the 19-year-old LiAngelo play without LaMelo, who was absent due to an injury.
LiAngelo was the top scorer with 18 points, going 6-of-11 from the field. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help Vytautas, as they slumped to a narrow 83-76 loss to the Vilnius side, who won their 12th consecutive game, whereas Vytautas remain bottom of the LKL table.
“They look really more matured now,” said Lithuanian journalist Donatas Urbonas, who has covered the Ball brothers from the moment they stepped foot in the Baltic country.
“(Coach) Seskus managed to limit Melo’s long half court threes as much as it was possible. Because it’s impossible to stop him from doing that. Also, he puts at least more effort in D, which is still his biggest problem.
“And it’s still so harmful for the team. As for Gelo, he is contributing more and more on LKL level. He doesn’t have such obvious defensive loopholes.”
“He is a very good player,” Lietuvos Rytas coach Rimas Kurtinitis said of LiAngelo after Saturday’s game.
“If he would take his development more seriously, would work like Lithuanians do, Gelo has a bright future. He had good shot, good size and I wouldn’t say he was that bad in D.”
For the Ball brothers though, the more professional games they play, the more knowledge they gain and the better they become. Perhaps when the experience in Lithuania concludes, teams from other European strongholds will approach one or both of the Balls to continue their professional journey.
One thing is for sure: They both arrived in Vilnius as boys but will leave as professionals with the respect of loyal basketball fans and maybe even those critics.