'This Isn't Entertainment Basketball': Do Ball Brothers Have a Future Overseas?

David Pick@@IAmDPickInternational Hoops InsiderDecember 7, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 01:  (L-R) LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball attend the game between the UCLA Bruins and the Washington Huskies at Pauley Pavilion on March 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — Lonzo Ball's agent and Ball family representative, Harrison Gaines, has put out word to international basketball organizations around Europe that Lonzo's highly publicized brothers, LiAngelo Ball, 19, and LaMelo Ball, 16, are looking for destinations to play professionally, but the effort has most credible European general managers rolling their eyes.

Earlier this week, LiAngelo, on an indefinite suspension at UCLA after his recent arrest in China for shoplifting while the Bruins were there to play an exhibition, was taken out of school by his father, LaVar. The goal was to shop his sons to international clubs to prep them for the NBA draft.

No NBA scouts B/R reached, however, felt LiAngelo would garner interest in the league, but the bar is lower abroad. A team may decide to take a chance for the global exposure that comes with being in the LaVar Ball sphere.

But it may not be easy to find a fit. Most European club executives with whom B/R spoke want nothing to do with the Balls, simply because neither son comes with a proven track record. Francesc Solana, general manager of Spanish club MoraBanc Andorra and a regular at the annual NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, was approached by the Ball family this week but remains skeptical of their intentions and credentials.

"LiAngelo and LaMelo were offered to our team, both kids, looking for a deal in Europe. Money isn't an issue to them, but they have zero experience, so it's difficult to take them seriously," Solana said. "I don't know what to do with the dad, LaVar Ball (laughs). This isn't a good or normal situation; I don't like it, we are not going to sign them."

Indeed, the promotional skills LaVar has used in making the family a near-household name in media circles may be a detriment to securing the two youngest Ball brothers a spot with a team overseas.

"I think all the loud noise LaVar Ball makes is fake. It's to promote his Big Baller Brand and sell merchandise," said Nicola Alberani, GM for Scandone Avellino, currently the No. 2 seed in Italy's top division. "That works in the U.S. It doesn't work overseas."

Some basketball executives in Europe are wary of the attention LaVar Ball brings with his sons and their careers.
Some basketball executives in Europe are wary of the attention LaVar Ball brings with his sons and their careers.Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

Most well-respected European coaches, general managers and NBA scouts have never seen LiAngelo or LaMelo play. The majority of GMs B/R spoke with believe if the brothers do sign professionally abroad, it won't be for basketball reasons. A lower-division club, perhaps, but nobody thinks a high-profile team is realistic.

"I don't see LiAngelo or LaMelo playing on a real competitive team that wants to win," Alberani said. "In Europe, we have to win; this isn't entertainment basketball."

Some sources told B/R they didn't believe Europe would be an ideal destination for LiAngelo Ball, anyway, if the NBA truly is the eventual goal. Errick McCollum, the older brother of Portland Trail Blazers star CJ McCollum and a former EuroCup MVP, views the politics of European coaching as a major hurdle for what the Balls are selling.

"Best player development teams would be in the U.S., because in Europe there is so much pressure on coaches to win," McCollum said. "They don't have time to risk trying to develop a young player like LiAngelo. They must win now or their job is in jeopardy."

Multiple people familiar with the international basketball marketplace believe China won't be an option for the Ball brothers either due to LiAngelo's recent legal trouble, not to mention the talent gap between him and your average Chinese Basketball Association player. Currently, former NBA players Willie Warren, Jeremy Pargo and Lavoy Allen serve in reserve roles in the CBA.

Finding a basketball home in Europe may be easier politically, but not practically.

Alberani believes the Balls may be underestimating the complexities of putting a team together in European professional basketball. Most clubs overseas have a limit on issuing visas and signing imports and thus reserve those spots for players who can help them compete now.

"Before I even sell a ticket to see LiAngelo and LaMelo, I need to pay the federation 27,000 to register them for the league," Alberani said. "It costs 13,500 per American in the Serie A League; 11,000 in the Serie A2 minors; and 9,000 in the Serie B. Teams pay the full amount even if he plays just one game and leaves. We only have eight visas for the season, so it's impossible for any team to waste that on the Ball kids." 

LiAngelo Ball's lack of experience beyond high school concerns European teams whose primary focus is on winning, not player development.
LiAngelo Ball's lack of experience beyond high school concerns European teams whose primary focus is on winning, not player development.Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

One NBA scout interviewed believes all the shade being thrown LiAngelo Ball's way is premature. "He's not awful," said the scout. "Everyone will pile on him right now. But his body has gotten better, though still not where it needs to be. He can make jump shots coming from that offense in high school. There's a league for almost everyone internationally. It just may not be very desirable."

It's not unprecedented for American teenagers to play professionally in Europe. Brandon Jennings played in Rome in 2008. His team cashed out with an NBA buyout because he was a lottery pick. Of course, LiAngelo Ball likely isn't commanding any NBA attention yet, so there isn't much of a financial incentive for a team to sign him.

Beyond the brothers' skills, many European GMs wonder how LaVar Ball's antics will play in Europe vs. the U.S. "The question is why would anyone want to put themselves in a situation with LaVar Ball? The Balls have no idea what Lithuania, Croatia or Italy really is," said one top GM from Germany. "The best response is to avoid the situation. The European culture here is completely different from what they know in the U.S."

Romeo Travis, a European journeyman and former high school teammate of LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary's in Akron, Ohio, thinks they should try to keep LiAngelo in college. But if they insist on him playing abroad, the Balls should go to a country "where they expect the Americans to shoot early and often, so he can get a better feel for the game."

"Europe is a cutthroat business. Managers and GMs don't like messy people.

"I think the smaller domestic leagues are best for player development that rely heavily on production for the foreigners," Travis said. "It's in his best interest to play so he can find out where there is leaks in his game."

Deon Thompsona former collegiate star with the 2009 NCAA champion North Carolina Tar Heels who has won championships in Germany, Israel, Serbia and the Adriatic Leaguealso doesn't believe Europe is the best place for the Ball family.

"I think it'll be hard. There aren't a lot of high school kids that can come over and adapt to the European game," Thompson said. "LiAngelo will need the right situation in Europe where he has the ball in his hands a lot, and there aren't many situations like that."

Alternatively, LiAngelo could test his skills in the NBA's G League, but hurdles remain. Competition for those roster spots has become stiffer in recent years. More first-round picks are spending time there, and dozens of G League starters have NBA experience.

Ball, who likely wasn't going to have a significant role in college, and who scouts never considered a prospect for the draft, would be a long shot. He's a power forward known for shooting, but he's also 6'5" and a below-the-rim athlete who shot 32 percent from three in high school, per Krossover (h/t ESPN's Jonathan Givony).

So where does this leave the Ball brothers? With few realistic options at hand, LaVar may have to speak them into existence.

           

Jonathan Wasserman contributed to this story.

David Pick is a veteran pro basketball reporter covering overseas hoops and American players abroad since 2010. His work can also be found at Basketball Insiders. Follow him on Twitter at @IAmDPick.

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