LaMelo Ball has joined the Illawarra Hawks of the Australian National Basketball League, he announced on ESPN's The Jump on Monday.
Ball, a 17-year-old point guard, played for a year in Lithuania in 2018, so it's unlikely that he could play in college under NCAA eligibility rules.
The NBL has become a destination for players looking for a year of competitive play before they are eligible for the NBA draft. It's a nine-team league that begins play in early October and ends in late March. Ball agreed to a two-year deal with NBA out clauses.
"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 told 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."
Ball, the No. 21 prospect in the ESPN 100 class of 2019, will join ESPN No. 5 prospect RJ Hampton as American teenagers who elected to spend their one-and-done season between high school and the NBA in the NBL. Hampton signed with another NBL team, the New Zealand Breakers, in late May. Both players were brought in under the NBL's Next Stars program, which has emerged as a competitor with college basketball and the G League as pathways to the NBA.
"I had already decided to play in the NBL prior to RJ's decision, I just hadn't yet narrowed down the team," Ball said. "But having RJ there only adds to the excitement. I think it will be a good experience for both of us to be there at the same time and to be able to play against one another."
LaMelo Ball spent four months in Lithuania at the beginning of 2018 with BC Vytautas. He averaged 6.5 points and 2.4 assists in 13 minutes over eight games in the Lithuanian first division, despite being only 16 years old at the time. His best game of the season came against Lithuanian league champion Zalgiris -- a team that qualified for the EuroLeague Final Four later that year -- with 19 points and six assists in 27 minutes.
"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."
While no ruling was made, Ball was considered unlikely to be eligible to play college basketball because he was tied to Vytautas, was represented by an agent and has his own sneaker line, which he promoted using his likeness. All those things could violate NCAA eligibility rules.
Ball returned to the United States this season to play high school basketball at Spire Academy in Ohio, where he was coached by former NBA player Jermaine Jackson. Jackson -- who played 130 games over five seasons in the NBA and also played internationally -- will accompany Ball to Australia to assist him with the transition.
"Having JJ with me has been incredible," Ball said. "His experience, guidance and mentorship has been a huge benefit to me, and having him there in Australia will only continue to help my development on and off the court."
Ball was ranked as the No. 7 prospect in his high school class, according to ESPN recruiting rankings, when his father, LaVar, abruptly withdrew him from Chino Hills High School shortly after his 16th birthday. Ball was committed to UCLA at the time. LaVar's off-the-court actions -- which included starting his own sneaker company, basketball league and a reality TV show on Facebook -- have drawn a significant amount of worldwide attention, helping LaMelo build a global following that includes 4.5 million followers on Instagram. From a marketing standpoint alone, Ball's signing is a boon to the NBL, which currently sports 78,000 followers on Instagram.
Ball will join one of the smaller-market teams in Australia. The Hawks play in Wollongong, a blue-collar, working-class city of 300,000 people located 55 miles south of Sydney. The team finished last season tied with the Breakers for sixth place in the NBL. Ball is expected to compete for significant playing time at both guard spots.
"The conversations with the team really made me feel like this is going to be a great fit," Ball said. "I felt they understood my goals and have a plan for me in terms of growth and development, and I was really excited about their goals for winning."
"We couldn't be more excited to have LaMelo coming to join the NBL this season," NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger told ESPN. "I think it's a real win-win situation for everyone involved. It gives him a fantastic opportunity to play against some hardened professionals, which I think will do wonders in terms of getting him ready for his rookie year in the NBA. He'll get the chance to answer a lot of questions being asked by a lot of people -- and everything I've seen makes me think he's going to take a lot of them by surprise."
Illawarra's new head coach, Matt Flinn, echoed those thoughts: "The Illawarra Hawks have a long history of developing great young players, many of whom have gone into great things in Australia, Europe and the NBA, and the signing of LaMelo is testimony to that," Flinn said. "Together we will work hard so he can achieve his ultimate goal."
At 6-foot-7, Ball has unique talent for the modern NBA game with his size, creativity, ballhandling, passing ability and deep shooting range. Scouts will want to evaluate his thin frame, unorthodox shooting mechanics, casual style of play and inconsistent effort defensively. The NBL is known for its physical play and will pose a significant challenge for the 17-year-old, who doesn't possess much experience against higher levels of competition.
Ball has impressed this summer with his performances at the Drew League, a pro-am summer tournament that draws some of the best talent from Los Angeles but is played at all-star-style pace. Before this news, Ball was ranked No. 33 in ESPN's most recent 2020 mock draft, partly because of the uncertainty surrounding his playing situation for 2019-20. He will be projected as a first-round pick in the next ESPN forecast released after the NBA draft on Thursday.