The pressure on LaMelo Ball

Toyloy Brown III

“We got the guy who can make the blind see and the cripples walk in LaMelo Ball,” Spire Institute (in Geneva, Ohio) head coach Jermaine Jackson said. “Like Magic Johnson said in the 80s, don’t look down because you might miss something. It’s showtime baby.”

LaMelo Ball, 17, announced his return to high school and his decision to enroll at Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio on Tuesday, Nov. 6. This move back to the amauteur ranks comes as a surprise since the reason he left school was for an opportunity to play as a professional and go into a situation that can can best prepare him for a hopeful career in the NBA.

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LaMelo and his older brother LiAngelo Ball arrived in Lithuania to play for the BC Vytautas on Jan. 3. After a brief stint playing overseas, LaMelo returned to the U.S. to play in the Junior Basketball Association (JBA) over the summer. The only thing you need to know about this basketball venture is that the league was created by his father and LaMelo famously slapped an opponent in a game and was only punished with an ejection that same day.

Characterizing LaMelo’s basketball journey as unique would be a mild way of describing it. Basketball fans, young and old, have never seen so much turnover and uncertainty in a highly ranked amatuer athlete in such a short period of time.

His athletic background becomes even more convoluted when you take in account that he was committed to playing at UCLA at the age of 13, he has a signature shoe, his oldest brother is in the NBA, his middle brother left UCLA as a freshman after refusing to be suspended for stealing sunglasses in China, his father has a history of controversial remarks regarding his sons and the family business (Big Baller Brand) and he and his family starred in a reality show aired weekly on Facebook.

Even with a bizarre laundry list of events and storylines, LaMelo’s focus remains on making it to the NBA. The only new aspect about his goal is that he is returning to high school and believes that Ohio’s Spire Institute is the appropriate place to do it. Besides LaMelo and his family thinking that this move is better than playing at the JBA (obviously), the reasoning is unclear to why have a drastic change. Justin Brantley the associate academy director of Spire explained to ESPN that he thinks LaMelo’s decision is more about the high school experience he can receive at Spire.

“My understanding is [LaMelo] was looking to relive that high school experience, looking to really focus on his game, as well as his education, and graduate,” Brantley said. “It’s more so of a feeling-out process to make sure it was the right fit all the way around, make sure we can help him, make sure we can provide him what he needs socially.”

Brantley also explained that former NBA player and head coach Jermaine Jackson has trained Brandon Ingram, Laker teammate of LaMelo’s oldest brother, the past few summers. He said that relationship helped Spire connect with LaMelo. There are also reports that LaMelo’s return to high school will be a chance to showcase his skills against top talent his age. The most notable point to this argument is the highly anticipated Dec. 3 matchup of LaMelo against the No. 3 player in the class of 2019, Cole Anthony.

LaMelo was introduced to Spire not only with a press conference filled with reporters, but also with a LeBron-esque billboard in downtown Cleveland on Friday, Nov. 9. In this press conference, LaMelo revealed that he hopes to play college basketball at a top school like North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas or Michigan State.

Those schools are not assumably out of the picture since prior to his dropout of high school at Chino Hills he was a five-star recruit ranked No. 16 in the ESPN 100 as of January 2017. He also received such hype as a player thanks to an extraordinary 92-point outing in February 2018. LaMelo’s exploits as a junior in high school rightfully linger with him and preserve his reputation as an elite player.

As promising as such a claim to play for a top tier basketball school, there are questions and complications that can cease that from happening. There is skepticism over whether he’ll be able to play basketball in the NCAA.

“The Ball brothers’ stint in Lithuania paired with LaMelo’s signature shoe “jeopardized” his NCAA eligibility, per Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg.

College athletes are not allowed to receive compensation in order to maintain their amateurism.That includes money made playing professionally in Lithuania, the JBA and from the selling of his signature sneakers.

According to Spire’s Justin Brantley, LaMelo “never received payment” for playing in Lithuania or the Junior Basketball Association over the summer. LaMelo will also have to prove the proceeds from the signature shoes were part of the family business and that he did not directly profit from.

Currently, it is unclear if LaMelo is eligible to play college basketball. The NCAA will have to investigate and decide if their is proof of maintained amateurism. Regardless of the mystery of LaMelo’s eligibility, coach Jackson has no question of his newest player’s talent.

“LaMelo Ball can be the No. 1 pick in a year or two going to the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Jackson told TMZ Sports. “Ain’t no question about it. He has the talent that, some of it just can’t be taught.”

LaMelo is going to be a story basketball fans will be reminded of occasionally throughout the year whether he excels or struggles on the basketball court. The reality of his eligibility to play college basketball I expect will be a moot topic rehashed as the 2019-20 college basketball season comes closer.

I wish all the best to LaMelo and his basketball endeavors because he is a very talented player who has a chance to join his oldest brother in the NBA. However, I think there are some things that can interfere with his dream of going to the NBA coming to fruition. There are incredibly high expectations and a lot of attention on him at a young age.

I am concerned that the expectations to be a player who deserves a LeBron-esque billboard is impossible for any high schooler to do. I expect LaMelo to be enabled to do whatever he wants on the court.

If LaMelo does struggle in high school and has issues making it to the NBA years from now, I will cite the biggest reason for this as the ancillary people and events that do not involve his skill on the basketball court. There is only so much pressure a player can handle before it affects his ability to perform at a high level. Especially if his new head coach believes he can be a No. 1 NBA draft pick in a year or two and can “make the blind see and the cripples walk.”