Can the ‘Ball Brothers’ make it in Europe? Better try China

2017-12-08T13:03:18+00:00 2017-12-08T17:56:59+00:00.

Aris Barkas

08/Dec/17 13:03

There has been a lot of talk over the past months about the ‘Ball family’ and the latest chapter involves Europe.

By Dionysis Aravantinos/

Lonzo Ball, 20, made his Los Angeles Lakers debut on October ’17 against the Los Angeles Clippers and has already played 1/3 of the NBA season, while LaMelo Ball, 16, was pulled off the Chino Hills High School in California to be homeschooled.

Then, there is LiAngelo, who was caught shoplifting in China along with two other Bruins teammates. The result? UCLA indefinitely suspended them from the basketball team. LaVar Ball, however, did not approve of the suspension and removed his son from college. According to LaVar, both young men will work-out every day with him, on their game, their body and prepare for the NBA.

The last couple of weeks indicated that the two younger brothers might have other intentions, wanting to play overseas, in Europe or Asia, just to gain experience and, therefore, be better prepared for the 2018 and the 2020 NBA Draft.

The question is, whether will they be able to find a European club ready to sign a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old American. The obvious answer is, “probably not”. However, there is more to that than a blunt “No”. Eurohoops analyzes the reasons why it will be hard for the two brothers to find a decent team to play in Europe, the way things turned out for players who played overseas before getting drafted, and finally LaVar Ball’s strategic marketing of the ‘Big Baller Brand’.

Europe’s differences

European basketball is divided into many domestic leagues but also in four continental championships.

Each league has a different level of talents and different level of teams. Europe’s top level of competition is the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, where players like Luka Doncic (Real Madrid); the possible number 1 of the upcoming NBA draft, Alexey Shved (Khimki Region), Nando De Colo (CSKA Moscow) compete. There is absolutely no chance the ‘Ball Brothers’ could sign a deal with one of the 16 best teams in Europe.

It is also important to note that there are restrictions in Europe on the number of American players a particular team could include on their roster. In most cases, two to four US players can be included in domestic league rosters. So it’s obvious that LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball who have not any professional experience in their careers and have not played basketball on a high level of competition are not the kind of players that teams with decent competitive goals would sign.

LiAngelo & LaMelo offered to several European clubs

A few days ago, it was reported by that LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball were offered to Lietkabelis Panevezys. The team competes in the EuroCup, the second-tier continental competition and also in the Lithuanian LKL League, representing the city of Panevezys with a population of almost 100.000 residents. Despite the fact that the Ball Brothers are not concerned about money and don’t consider their salary as a crucial factor, it is also highly unlikely that a team with a full roster which competes in the EuroCup will sign two young American players and give them minutes in official games.

A second division team could possibly work out for the two brothers. According to BasketEurope, they were offered to several teams in Europe, including teams from France, and the country’s second division. Vichy-Clermont, which competes in France’s second division, seems like a more realistic fit for them. Harrison Gaines; the brothers’ agent, specified how it would ‘undoubtedly bring much attention to the organization’, but also that ideally, both brothers would want to play for the same team. Can a presence in the second Frech division help those kids get some real exposure for the upcoming draft? It never happened in the recent past.

Brandon Jennings’ and Jeremy Tyler’s examples can be used in order to project how the Ball story in Europe may end and they are miles apart.

Brandon Jennings from Europe to the NBA

Brandon Jennings’ story is kind of similar to LiAngelo’s Ball, as he was the first ever American basketball player to skip college and play professional basketball in Italy. He was obliged to do so, because of the one-and-done rule which prevented him from playing in the NBA directly after high school.

Jennings decided to join Lottomatica Roma and play in the EuroLeague and the Italian Serie A (Italian League -1st division). He became the first player to play for a European team rather than play for a college basketball team since the NBA’s age restriction rule was implemented.

In Italy, Jennings who was already considered a lottery pick candidate signed a one year, $1.65M deal, competed in 16 EuroLeague games and 27 in total during the 2008-09 season. The 18-year old at the time, averaged 7.6 points, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals in 19.6 minutes per contest (in the EuroLeague), while shooting 38.7% from the field. In 2009, he went back to the United States and was eventually picked 10th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks. Even though he had a great rookie year, he was part of the All-Rookie 1st team and had a solid NBA career, he never became a household name.

His decision to end up in Europe, however, was very similar to LiAngelo Ball’s situation right now after leaving UCLA. However, in Jennings’ case his team in Rome cashed an NBA buy-out since he was a lottery pick and it made sense at least financially for the club to sign him. Since then, no other high school player with the same status used the same path, ending up as a lottery pick in the NBA.

LiAngelo is not projected to be picked as high as Jennings – if he ends up being drafted at all – but he still could end up playing in Europe before declaring for the NBA Draft.

Players who followed Jennings

After Jennings’ move to Rome, Italy, other players followed in his footsteps to go and play overseas before getting drafted. The most recent example is NBA player Emanuel Mudiay and G-League player Terrance Ferguson. After attending High School in Texas, Mudiay decided to skip college and play overseas in the Chinese Basketball Association. He played for the Guangdong Southern Tigers and returned to the States for the 2015 NBA Draft, where he was finally drafted 7th overall by the Denver Nuggets. In this case, however, the issue seemed to be more than anything else academic.

On the other hand, Terrance Ferguson, after graduating from High School (2016), decided to go to Australia and play for the Adelaide 36ers. A year later, he was the 21st pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder. As he said, this is something more players should consider doing: “Most one-and-done players only spend a few months in college. You have to do schoolwork and all this other stuff. You go overseas, you spend the same number of months, but you’re focusing straight on basketball. I feel like more players should do it”.

However, in both cases, the two players were a lock for the lottery and the first round and turning pro just helped them avoid college. Playing in the G League and Australia didn’t help them improve or alter their draft stock.

Jeremy Tyler’s cautionary tale

LaMelo Ball is just 16 years old. His story is pretty much the same with Jeremy Tyler back in the summer of 2009 who was one of the top US prospects at the time. Just like LaMelo, Jeremy Tyler had committed to a University in the United States, the University of Louisville, but he chose to skip his education, as well as his senior High School year, and play in Europe.

With longtime marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro being his “counselor” Tyler was offered to many first division clubs in France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Everyone passed.

Being just 18 years of age, a junior in High School – two years older than Melo – Tyler signed a contract with a mid-level team from Israel, Maccabi Haifa, and played in the Israeli Super League by far the most “American-friendly” league in Europe by any term. He only lasted there a few months and played just ten games as he headed back to the United States, San Diego due to personal reasons. In the ten games he played, he averaged only 7.6 minutes a night and put up 2.1 points and 1.9 rebounds.

Before declaring for the NBA Draft in 2011, he played overseas in Asia another year with the Tokyo Apache of Japan in a league of a mediocre level at best.  Finally, in June 2011 he got drafted by the Charlotte Hornets as the 39th overall pick. His journey overseas in Europe (Israel) and Asia (Japan) exposed him and didn’t help him at all,  proving to be a mistake that also affected his long-term career negatively. In total, he played 104 games in the NBA, four seasons with three different teams: The Golden State Warriors (2011-2013), the Atlanta Hawks (2012-2013) and the New York Knicks (2013-2014). He bounced off the NBA and the Development League but did not hold on and decided to continue his journey in China.

While LiAngelo can at least hope that he can turn into a case similar to Jennings, LaMelo moving to Europe at this age can end up being the biggest mistake of his basketball life.

Marketing of the ‘Big Baller Brand’ in Europe

Another important aspect of the ‘Ball Brothers’ playing professionally in Europe is the ‘Big Baller Brand’ and the strategic marketing behind LaVar Ball’s words and actions. If the brothers sign in Europe, it’s not realistic to hope that the sales of the brand will increase. So far, Lietkabelis seems to be the “biggest” team which is connected with the Balls. Their fan base is limited and non-existent outside their city. And with real European powerhouses being out of the picture, European basketball fans will not be interested more than they already are.

On top of that, teams in Europe will not keep up with LaVar’s actions, his controversial comments, and criticism, which could eventually become a defamation for his brand. For the top teams in Europe, every game counts and every defeat can spark a crisis, so giving minutes to teens not named Luka Doncic is simply out of the question.

Should the ‘Ball Brothers’ sign a deal in Europe?

The answer is easy. Since they have hired an agent, they can’t play in the NCAA and that will force them to play overseas.

Is Europe the right place for them? From all of the examples stated above, the answer is no. A move to China – provided that all legal issues are solved – may make much more sense, especially on the marketing level, even if the Ball brothers are not ready yet to contribute meaningful minutes on the court. In Europe, top level clubs are simply not in the business of improving young talent – certainly if that means not winning – and in most cases, the US players are expected to be the leaders of their teams. If they can’t deliver, they are replaced without hesitation.

Only a small club, probably not from a top division, which would love to get part of the Ball exposure would be really interested in the two younger Ball brothers. However, if that’s the case, then LaMelo and LiAngelo would gain very little from moving to the old continent.