The Minnesota Timberwolves winning the 2020 NBA Draft Lottery is fine. Hell, when you’ve spent the better part of three decades flailing at the bottom of the Western Conference, only to be rewarded with one first overall pick and the curse of never moving up in the draft lottery, it actually feels pretty damn good.
It might not be the kind of win the organization envisioned heading into Head Coach Ryan Saunders’ first season as a full-time leader or Gersson Rosas’ first year as the President of Basketball Operations, but it’s something to be pleased about. Armed with a shiny new asset, the team faces a plethora of potential gateways in terms of selecting a prospect, trading out or even trading back and picking up another asset in the process.
In a draft class that is perceived to be the weakest in years and a world climate that will see teams approach predraft scouting in an unprecedented way, there is a very real scenario where Minnesota fails to make the needle-moving trade they will undoubtedly scour the league in search for. Possessing the best chance to find a rookie star of any team, swinging for a draft night home run might be the best option, and LaMelo Ball has as good a shot as any in this class to be the ceiling-raising piece the Timberwolves desperately crave.
After spending the season down under in Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL), Ball has cemented himself in the conversation for the first overall pick. Ball played twelve games before a bruised foot shut his season down for good, averaging 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 37.5-percent from the field and 25-percent from 3-point distance.
At first glance, the months-long pursuit and acquisition of D’Angelo Russell makes the fit seem clunky, and the air Saunders and Rosas have blown into the former All-Star’s tires — gifting him the keys to the offense and the mantle as the Robin to Karl-Anthony Towns’ Batman — only further muddies the waters on Ball’s potential fit in the Twin Cities.
When you peruse the former Chino Hills internet star’s latest playing stint that came for the Illawarra Hawks in the NBL, the positional concerns certainly don’t jump off the screen as much as the flaws in his game and how they would make Minnesota’s already glaring deficiencies stand out even more. Unfortunately, Ball’s inconsistent attention span and defensive craftsmanship will stick out more on a team that ranked 20th in defensive rating for the season and 27th after the team was remolded at the trade deadline.
As the compilation above so explicitly depicted, consistent and reliable defending isn’t something the 19-year-old is known for throughout his young career. Standing at a gigantic 6-foot-7 for a legitimate point guard and possessing a rangy 6-foot-10 wingspan that is accompanied by an insanely high basketball IQ, it’s clear the basis for defensive excellence is there. But, spotty effort and years of being asked to do only the bare minimum at Chino Hills and SPIRE Institute have left his technique a step (or two) behind where it needs to be.
The late rotations, slow reactions and flat-footedness that plague KAT, Ball’s potential big man ally, were exacerbated whenever players like Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose and Andrew Wiggins were laying out the red carpet for driving guards. Treveon Graham, who theoretically is a better on-ball stopper, is guarding Bradley Beal in the clips below, and he couldn’t make Towns look any better. Now, of course, a lot of the weight to improve rests on Towns’ shoulders, but top-to-bottom defensive breakdowns only become more regular with early-career LaMelo trying to contain the elite ball-handlers of the Association.
Ball is instinctual and witty in the passing lanes, but he still gambles or reaches in and puts himself out of position far too often, leaving his teammates to try and put out the fires he has sparked. On a team with strong help defenders, it would be easier to whittle down those gambles and try to harness the quick hands and decisions in a more controlled way, but, again, the Timberwolves don’t have that defensive foundation behind the on-ball stopper to allow Ball to play through mistakes and still try to win games.
Plays like this still occur far too often for Ball, and it’s something the Timberwolves’ back-line simply hasn’t shown the ability to stifle whatsoever.
And while the Timberwolves have wings like Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver, both of whom are capable and improving defenders, they don’t have anyone with enough wingspan, smarts or straight-up superhuman ability to cover mind-boggling defensive brain fades like this one from Ball. With the intensity of an aging dog laying in the sun, Ball casually attempts to double-team former Timberwolf Nathan Jawai without the faintest scent of a raised hand. The result is a missed shot from Ball’s man in the corner, but this is a death-wish in the NBA, and the type of endeavor that will quickly alienate him throughout a fan base.
The height, length and natural basketball sixth sense land Ball’s defensive potential square in the ‘could end up good’ realm, which is more than you can say for a lot of point guard prospects, but that’s going to be a tough sell if he is lining up in Wolves colors next season. The ball-watching episodes (no pun intended) and horrendous technique while trying to stay connected through screens will put even more pressure on Towns and his own suspect defense. With the pair flanked by fellow turnstiles in Russell and Malik Beasley (assuming he returns in free agency), there is hardly a link in the chain that isn’t easily cracked open like a rotting coconut.
Due to the negligent defensive attitude at SPIRE and Chino Hills, Ball is undoubtedly behind the curve, even for a kid who doesn’t turn 20 until next August. It’s evident he is going to struggle in the larvae stages of his career, but there are flashes of competency there, and sometimes you don’t even have to squint too hard to glimpse them.
It didn’t help that his scraggy 190-pound frame got regularly dismantled against the NBL’s grown men — especially when trying to fight through picks or getting bumped off his spot by drivers — and still, there is some glimmer of optimism to be found. Ball has improved tenfold since his pre-Australian days, and now shows some hope that he could eventually be a neutral, or even positive asset as his body fills out and he learns from NBA-level coaches.
Whether it’s openly communicating with teammates throughout a defensive possession, playing the passing lanes at a high level or keeping the defensive shell intact with his off-ball defensive rotations and awareness, Ball has shown enough flashes to inspire confidence that his bad reputation won’t be the one that sticks with him forever. The examples below are a mixture of all kinds of situations where he exhibits defensive aptitude, and they seem to come quicker and faster as the NBL season wore on.
There is clear potential to be something more than a matador as Ball develops, especially if his eventual coaching staff can get through to him and foster the exponential growth that is hidden under a layer of rust and grime. However, the motor concerns and the spotty technique is going to stick out like a sore thumb on a team with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns as the other centerpieces. It’s one thing to hide Russell off the ball and let Okogie or Culver handle the point of attack defense, but Ball will likely need to be hidden at times as well, and that could quickly become untenable.
If the Timberwolves take the long view on the potential first overall draft pick’s defense, there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel, but stockpiling talent that doesn’t make an immediate impact on the defensive side of the hardwood is a fine line to tiptoe. While this all seems glum, there is a reason why Ball is still one of the favorites to grace the virtual stage first on draft night.
As you probably know by now, when the rock is in his hands, the teenager is bursting from the seams with talent and ability. At times, the things he does are absolutely silly. Brimming with basketball nous and feel for the game that many could only dream of, the 19-year-old can turn an average possession into a human highlight reel in the blink of an eye.
Ball’s playmaking chops have received praise from the bottom end of Australia to the top end of the United States, and for good reason. He has the tendency to force a pass or bite off a bit more than he can stomach, but, for the most part, Ball’s passing sizzle matches the steak. Holding a very respectable 2.73 assist/turnover ratio with a sky-high degree of difficulty on his passes and situated on an Illawarra Hawks team that failed to convert their chances way too often, there really isn’t any read he can’t make. But how would Saunders and Rosas weave that into the web they have begun spinning in the Twin Cities?
Having a playmaker like D’Angelo Russell on the court is an advantage for the Timberwolves, and a huge upgrade over initiators of the past in Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose. Adding a potentially generational facilitator in Ball would attach a dimension to Minnesota’s offense that few teams can replicate. Ball plays in a very different way to Russell, there are no two ways about that. While the latter prefers to meander up the court and through half court sets, patiently picking and choosing his spots to make the right pass or pull-up for a jumper, the former’s game style is more chaotic, with infectious push-the-pace energy and a knack for the flair finish, be it pass or shot.
Whether or not the duo could coexist in a backcourt is a loaded question — one there is no definitive answer to, just wrinkles of promise and fear. As aforementioned, the answer is likely a definitive no on the defensive end (especially early in Ball’s career), but there is a lot of fun avenues to success that would arise when the Timberwolves have the ball in their hands. Two-guard lineups have been hot on the lips of fans, coaches and executives within the Wolves organization from the latter stages of the shortened season and onward, and there seems to be no indication that Minnesota won’t deploy it even more in the 2020-21 campaign.
The evidence of how the two fare in two-point guard lineups so far in their careers is sketchy, but it’s worth noting. According to Spencer Pearlman of The Stepien, Ball’s net rating was a -13.6 in the eight games he shared with fellow point guard and former NBA hooper Aaron Brooks, and the tape feels the same way. Brooks, a talented scorer and former NBA Most Improved Player, clearly wanted to be the ball-dominant guard who could operate as the fulcrum of Illawarra’s offense, which boxed ‘Melo in and hindered the high-level strengths he possesses. With a bunch of mediocre players around them, they couldn’t get anything going. In the five outings after Brooks’ injury, Ball had a +2.5 net rating and looked much more comfortable being able to play creator and uplift those same teammates.
That might sound alarm bells when you consider he will have no choice but to share the floor extensively with D-Lo, but the tables should (and likely will) be turned in the Timberwolves environment. Russell can pilot the offense with aplomb, but he has already provided plenty of value as an off-ball threat in his short NBA career. Effectively, Ball would be the point guard like he is best suited to be, and Russell would play as the off-guard.
Russell isn’t the kind of explosive athlete who can burst around screens and run opponents off their feet with his off-ball movement, but he is in the elite category of players who can get a shot off with or without a hand in his face, whether his feet are set or not, with boundless range to boot. Surprisingly, Synergy Sports had him in just the 7th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations with Minnesota, but his larger sample size stints in Golden State (72nd percentile) and Brooklyn (67th percentile) show that he is more than capable of tickling the twine off the catch.
According to Basketball Index’s grading system, Russell ranked in the 98th percentile as an overall perimeter shooter, the 96th percentile as a shot-maker, 99th percentile as a shot-creator and the 93rd percentile in average 3-point distance, but he only ranked in the 20th percentile in the amount of ‘open’ shots taken. Substituting a potentially game-changing facilitator like Ball into that recipe should, theoretically, fabricate more open looks like the ones the 24-year-old received with other lead guards on the floor with him.
In his All-Star and playoff campaign with the Brooklyn Nets in 2018-19, Russell shared the floor for 315 minutes with Shabazz Napier, clocking a handy +5.9 net rating. Throw in Spencer Dinwiddie to create a super-small three-guard lineup, and the trio posted +28.2 net rating, albeit in just 42 minutes of shared game time.
In the similarly microscopic 44-minute sample size Russell amassed alongside Jordan McLaughlin over his 12-game Wolves stint, they racked up a +29.1 net rating. All of those lineups consisted of Russell effectively playing the shooting guard and working around the perimeter as a catch-and-shoot and secondary pick-and-roll option, and none of them included a playmaker in the same realm as LaMelo Ball.
Ball is a true three-level passer, able to launch jaw-dropping full court outlet passes after grabbing one of the 7.6 rebounds he averaged per night, adept at threading needles in a pick-and-roll setting and spoon-feeding shooters and cutters to put a bow on half court sets. There isn’t a pass in his arsenal that fails to make the mouth water when imagining the prospect of the point guard surrounded by the likes of Russell, Towns and Malik Beasley.
Maximizing Karl-Anthony Towns
While a lot of the focus on Ball’s fit is surrounding his capability to share the back court with Russell, a sizable chunk should be redirected to what he can do to maximize Towns and his generational big man skill set even further. In the scenario where Minnesota can’t or don’t want to find a trade partner and they select the California native, it’s hard to picture an outcome where he doesn’t thrive next to Towns as a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop running mate.
The youngest Ball brother can be guilty of over-dribbling or dancing on his opponent a bit too much, and we haven’t even got to his shooting yet, but his ability to manipulate and devastate a pick-and-roll defense with his ball-handling and playmaking is undeniably elite. And, while Towns is one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the league, excelling as the rumbling big in pick-and-rolls has been one of the things he can still take serious forward leaps in. The big man scored 1.07 points per possession as a roll man in 2019-20, ranking him in the 49th percentile league-wide, per Synergy Sports.
There is certainly a conversation to be had about the way Towns sets screens and turns out of them to head towards the basket, but there is just as much validity in questioning the players who have been tasked with finding him the ball. Outside of Ricky Rubio and a single game with Russell, Towns has never had anyone who excels as a pick-and-roll playmaker. With Ball, he could potentially have two, giving him more chances to exhibit his excellent touch and athleticism around the basket.
Of course, Towns is a flamethrower when he is popping out to the 3-point line after a screen. In his injury-interrupted season, he still managed to convert 41.2 percent of his triples while ranking in the 94th percentile in spot-ups and the 86th percentile in jump shots off the dribble. Dream, if you will, of Ball weaving the passing magic you see in the clips below with Karl-Anthony Towns — one of the most talented scorers the league has to offer.
After make or miss, Ball is elite at getting the ball down the court quickly and creating easy transition points for his teammates. He throws pinpoint outlet passes with spontaneity and a casual ease that defies logic at times, and would only help a Saunders offense that wants to play at breakneck speeds as much as possible. It’s easy to imagine Towns, Beasley, Culver and Okogie feeding on easy fast break baskets with a player who can throw passes like this.
Of course, there is more to an offensive game than being able to effectively set up one’s teammates, and that’s where things start to get a bit rocky for Ball. The shooting percentages (37.5% FG, 25% 3PT) tell a fairly damning story, and it’s obvious in the film that Ball has serious trouble putting the ball in the hoop in multiple ways. With teams likely to force him to score and scheming to his passing ability, Ball is going to have to find a new level of scoring efficiency in order to fully maximize his potential.
The road to passable efficiency starts with shot selection. Ball’s confidence far exceeds his accuracy at the moment, and while he is still a pass-first player who styles his game in the Rosas way (layups and 3-pointers), he isn’t shy to fire when he probably should have kept the gun in the holster. Then comes the issue of his famous shot form, with the low release and inconsistent mechanics resembling a frog in a blender.
In the clips below, you can see the differing mechanics, namely in his legs. When Ball keeps his legs together and rises up and down, he has a much cleaner-looking and more accurate stroke. When he starts fading away or kicking his legs in awkward directions, his effectiveness falls off a cliff. This seems like a fixable problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
Minnesota ranked third in 3-point attempts and ninth in 3-point percentage in the 14 games after the trade deadline, securing their place as one of the most deadly teams in the league from long-range. It’s impossible to know how much Ball’s inconsistent shooting results factor into the front office’s evaluation of him, but we do know that Rosas has placed an extremely high priority on making his team one that can do serious damage from outside the arc, and it’s unclear whether Ball will ever be able to fit into that regime.
If you do want to find positives in Ball’s shooting potential, it’s easy to point to the feathery runners and layups he made on a nightly basis, and how that level of touch usually translates to shooting progression as young players develop in the big leagues. Ball is very contact-averse right now, which is another serious problem he needs to address, but he makes floaters out past the 15-foot range look normal and has a silky touch on layups of varying difficulty when he does manage to get to the rim.
Simply put, Ball definitely needs to bulk up, there is no doubt about that. If and when he does, he will be able to display that touch more often and use his length and shiftiness to put more pressure on the rim as a scorer. This will open up his passing game even more, allowing him to capitalize on the god-given talent he has as a playmaker.
With the onus falling on Towns, Russell and Beasley to do the lion’s share of Minnesota’s scoring, Ball would likely play the role of a playmaker who doesn’t have the pressure on him to carry the scoring weight for the team. This is a big tick in the “how does he fit?” box, but there are just as many question marks, too. Minnesota can probably punt being defensively sound in the short-term if they commit to giving Ball big minutes from year one, and they will almost certainly have to live through the 19-year-old’s growing pains as a scorer.
Overall, Ball might have the best chance of reaching stardom of any player in the upcoming draft class, and after finishing 15th in the Western Conference this season, Minnesota still yearns for more game-changers on their roster. He has the ability to reshape a good offense into a great one already, despite having just twelve games of experience in a legitimate basketball system that required him to do more than he is used to. If the Timberwolves organization truly trusts its coaching staff and development system, drafting and nurturing LaMelo Ball is a blind gamble that could pay huge dividends.