The Hawks are having a Ball

LaVar guarantees LaMelo will be No. 1 pick in 2020 NBA draft (0:41)

LaVar Ball is certain that LaMelo Ball will be the top pick in the 2020 NBA draft. (0:41)

Within hours of LaMelo Ball - he of the Ball celebrity quinella hailing from Chino Hills, and budding professional basketball player to boot - announcing on ESPN's The Jump that he would take his talents to the NBL's Illawarra Hawks, excitable chatter spread like wildfire. Ball-mania, of course, needs no detailed preamble; 4.8 million followers on Instagram, and counting, and the youngest member of the "Ball in the Family" reality TV series serve as markers of the significance of his signature.

And truth be told, for the NBL and the Illawarra Hawks - the club he ultimately signed with via the league's Next Stars Program - the acquisition of LaMelo Ball to the domestic landscape was as much a cultural phenomenon, as a basketball one.

In the immediate hours after the announcement, Hawks jerseys with hastily adorned "BALL" print-ons sold out like hot cakes. Never mind that they were left-over stock from the season just passed.

"What we can say is interest, both domestically and internationally, has certainly skyrocketed," says NBL CEO, Jeremy Loeliger.

LaMelo's own reach is obviously substantial, but multiply that figure by the myriad of platforms on LaMelo Watch and the impact is exponential. "We're starting to get some international interest in our team," agrees Hawks general manager, Mat Campbell.

"Many of them [U.S. platforms] have heard of the NBL before, but not tuned in. I'm sure a number of them have never heard of the NBL before," adds Loeliger, "and I can tell you they're all going to be tuning in come his first game."

Stateside, the prevailing question was: Who are the Illawarra Hawks? It's an apt question considering the destination of a bonafide celebrity baller - with real NBA lottery pretentions - was to jet to a sleepy, beachside regional club on the opposite side of the world.

About 90 minutes south of Sydney, nestled within a precinct that includes the University of Wollongong, is the Hawks' practice facility - the original Snakepit. About 2 kilometres east of the facility sits Wollongong City Beach, where the strand stretches from the industrial hub along the south, to the rocky headlands up north where the iconic lighthouse squats, overlooking the churning waves buffeting headwinds of the Pacific Ocean. It's a vista of natural beauty and intrigue.

Much like the intrigue of the youngest Ball - his 2020 draft ranking is all over the place - has often been his...intrigue? The lack of sustained vision of LaMelo Ball in a truly competitive environment has helped to codify a certain level of mystery, despite the accessibility of footage within a digital era, and in spite of his dad's hyperbolic proclamations.

The notion of LaMelo joining the NBL was first conceived during the NBA playoffs, according to Loeliger. At the time, he received a call from CAA agent, Aaron Mintz - who counts Paul George, D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Lonzo Ball amongst his clients - that there was an opportunity to meet and watch LaMelo workout with other prospects.

Loeliger, in San Francisco, jetted over to Los Angeles to watch Ball put through his paces. He left impressed, and with the very real impression that the Ball camp was open to the NBL as the next step in his development.

"A number of the scouts that we use over in the U.S. were also very impressed with his work ethic," says Loeliger, "and just his obvious natural talent, his significant growth over the past 12 months."

As per the process under the Next Stars umbrella, the league sends a memo to all clubs who do not currently have a player signed under this initiative, calling for an expression of interest. Clubs are typically sent a bio of the prospect in question, and given a 48-72 hour window in which to lodge their interest and compile a bio of their own.

For the Hawks, their pitch was simple.

"The pitching for me was that we have a coach who's played in the league before," says Campbell. "We've got myself, who's a GM and who's played many years in the league before. So, I understand, and the coach understands what it takes to get to the professional level."

In determining Ball's location, the league appraised submissions and worked with Ball's representatives to find the best fit. Remember, LaMelo Ball has real aspirations to be the number one pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, or failing that, a sure-fire lottery selection. With that in mind, his destination would need to be able to provide a large canvas which would allow him to fill out the blurry outlines of his potential. Translation: ample playing time.

"They need to be given the opportunity to prove themselves," says Loeliger, of finding suitable homes for Next Stars. "For him, it was certainly court time was a significant part of the selling point. The reality was that at that point in time, when we were starting to have these conversations at the pointy end, a lot of other clubs had signed their starting point guard, and probably their backup point guard. Or had someone firmly in mind."

Ultimately, the Hawks were chosen for their mix of available court time at that position, a proven history in developing youth, and a location out of the bright lights of a big city, which privileges community.

"We had some opportunity for court time available for a young and up-and-coming player," says Campbell, especially with the club only committing to two imports. "We believe we've got the right culture to breed excellence."

"He's a 17-year old kid who tends to be followed by the travelling circus wherever he goes," says Loeliger. "We really wanted to give him every opportunity to concentrate as much as he can just on his basketball."

The league confirms that LaVar Ball was not directly involved in conversations with the NBL - primary discussions were between CAA and Ball's former coach at Spire Institute, Jermaine Jackson.

The irony can't be lost - Ball finds himself at a destination far removed from the big smoke and the bright lights (Jackson, by the way, will accompany him in Australia).

As a foundational club of the NBL, the Hawks can rightly sell a rich tapestry that shows a history of nurturing young talent ("largely driven by market forces", as Loeliger puts it), and a commitment towards battling above its weight. Not a team with the fiscal might to contend with those big city cats, the Hawks have for years relied upon the promise of culture, lifestyle and industrial grit accentuated by toughness and playing together on the court.

Both the Hawks, and the league, point to the developmental stories of Dan Grida and Emmett Naar last season. This year, their youth movement will include Grida, Naar, Sam Froling, Sunday Dech, the return of Angus Glover, and now, Ball. Don't forget that Nick Kay and Mitch Norton also played at the Hawks in seasons past.

Campbell contends that apart from market forces, the club has dived into a youth policy to "future proof" the club, and that the view is to develop youngsters into long-term local heroes. "Who of the next generation of younger kids coming through can possibly be someone whose jersey we can retire and hang from the rafters?" he asks.

Still, with few financial levers to pull when it comes to attracting the premium talent on the market, this Next Stars initiative has breathed life into basketball within the 'Gong. "I haven't heard this much buzz in the town since we won the championship in 2001," says Campbell.

On top of this, this Hawks team has assembled been-there, done-that veterans who can mentor the kids - guys like Dave Andersen, Josh Boone and Aaron Brooks (a fellow CAA talent) - and specifically, impart lessons to LaMelo regarding life as a professional in the NBA.

"It just seemed to be a nice balance," says Loeliger, of the Hawks' pitch. "The other aspect that we liked about it was that it's not necessarily in the spotlight."

Hollywood, this is not.

Down the road, LaMelo will grace home games at the 6000-seater WIN Entertainment Centre by the windswept shoreline.

"I think the qualities of the clubs are a reflection of the qualities of the town," says club legend, Glen Saville.

Saville, of course, was the do-it-all swingman who was a five-time Club MVP and former co-captain, and played 18 seasons for the Hawks. He was inducted into the Basketball Australia Hall of Fame last year, and was pivotal role securing the club's lone title in 2001. That title-winning team was led by the pint-sized Damon Lowery and Saville, who was Grand Final MVP.

"For the most part, it's a blue collar working town. There's a lot of coal mining. There's steel works," says Saville. "I think the expectation is that the players and the team always give it a go - don't give up until the final bell, the effort's always there. The players have to be very personable."

Saville still remembers the community-feel of the club. In 2001, hundreds lined the Bulli Pass to welcome the team bus back from their title run.

Campbell, himself a club legend, was a nard-nosed defender and superb shooter who zigzagged around the floor in the mould of Rip Hamilton. He co-captain that 2001 title team and remembers that scene fondly, including the three thousand fans who waited for the team at the Entertainment Centre.

"From a player of point of view, was the camaraderie and the people we had in it," says Campbell. "That's some of the stuff we're trying to emulate with our group."

"Coming through our small community," says Saville, "if there was message for him, it would be just be prepared. You're in a very tight-knit community. Everyone can follow what you're doing - your progress, and you're going to be very accessible."

"It's close quarters, good family environment," says Campbell. "From a community point of view, when you play for the Hawks, you're welcomed into the community like family."

With a tight-knit community, there comes expectations of immutable standards for a professional representing the region.

"They [the community] probably expect a certain level of effort every time you go out there," says Saville.

As with all regional communities, recognition will be commonplace; what is expected is a reciprocity of spirit. Saville recalls countless innocuous times when he would be engaged in cooler talk with locals, whether after a win or loss.

"You're sort of just kicking around at Woolworths," he says, "and some random person will just go, 'oh, what happened to you blokes last night?!'"

Ball should be fine grappling with localised scrutiny. A stint in the South Coast also means he has winched himself free of the hotbed of the NCAA bubble. The relatively friendly embrace of local media coverage naturally precludes him from the volume of rabid, critical scrutiny he would surely experience back home. He also won't need to weather direct comparisons with peers in the yearlong jostling within mock drafts.

Still, the biggest benefit for Ball remains the exposure he will have to real, organised, professional basketball, played at a world class level.

"We've seen him have amazing performances with Spire and recently in the Drew League - he's been killing it," says Loeliger. "But there's just a better comparison between the NBL and the NBA for GMs and scouts to be able to form an opinion for the purposes of the 2020 Draft."

Off the court, to prepare him for the draft, the Hawks will put Ball through their strength and conditioning program. The hope is to build up his body to take the rigours of the professional game.

"One of the big question marks is how is their body going to develop over that really dramatic period of change," says Loeliger, which played into the calculus of choosing the Hawks as Ball's location.

The Hawks work with a third party who has had high level experience with the National Rugby League (NRL), worked with the Orlando Magic, and also with current UFC fighter, Alex Volkanovski.

"We believe we've got the best strength and conditioning program in the whole league," says Campbell.

In the acquisition of LaMelo via the NBL's Next Stars program, they find themselves armed with a tawdry talent with the requisite extravagance. During his time with the club, the Hawks hope to balance Ball's prodigious shot-making talent with equally adept shot selection. They hope to curb some of the excesses, but according to Campbell, Ball is already doing that himself. ("You play to the level that you're playing against," he says.)

"The challenge will come when he gets into the real professional environment, is that each possession has so much weight on the outcome of the game," says Campbell.

For Ball, the development will come in understanding the importance of every possession, on both sides of the floor, managing possessions and game situations, buying into team rules, and consistently exerting the effort in two-way play he's capable of.

"That's probably going to be a challenge for him, from a physical and conditioning point of view," says Campbell. "It's not easy to play hard, both ends of the floor, for extended minutes."

From a fit standpoint, the Hawks project to play up-tempo this season. The club finished second from bottom last season, playing anachronistic basketball which relied upon old-fashioned biff.

"We've got two of the best rebounders in the league put into the group in Josh Boone and A.J. Ogilvy. The fact that we've got an ability to rebound - and they're both mobile bigs - will allow the team to push the ball."

Ball figures to slide seamlessly into that transition mix - his vision is already elite. It's in a half-court grind where the frailties of his game can be accentuated.

Aesthetics aside, all eyes - both domestically and internationally - will be trained on the Ball show. And attention there will be - its painful inevitability hanging like a loose thread - whenever there is the prospect of any...adversity.

CAA is of course a powerful agency, but according to Loeliger, in line with all Next Stars signees, no promises were ever made to Lamelo or his representatives.

"No," says Loeliger, "we don't make promises to any of the players in terms of role or court time."

"There's no guarantees," confirms Campbell. "What we do offer is opportunity."

According to Campbell, the starting unit has not been set. Each member of the roster will have the same opportunity to compete for minutes in preseason.

"It's not a question of promises being made," adds Loeliger. "It's a question of spending the time with the family and the agent to find somewhere that is a good fit such that you don't need to give promises."

Despite the distance from L.A., the figurative headwinds will buffet the Hawks' organisation. The vast shadow of LaVar Ball looms, hovering over the club and league. Make no mistake - this is a package deal.

Armed with the world's loudest dad-megaphone, LaMelo's every movement is poised to be scrutinised at levels the NBL - and indeed the Hawks - have yet to be battle-hardened against.

How will the Hawks, and league, contend with LaVar if he decides to wade in?

"When he wades in," says Campbell. "For us, the important factor will be the parents have done a fantastic job of getting the players to where they are now. It's now on the coaching staff of our club to get them to that next level."

That's all well and good for now, but what if LaMelo fails to adjust? What if his minutes waver, not an uncommon occurrence for a young player in a professional setting? What if disaster strikes and his stock drops?

The reality is that LaVar has shown that he's not afraid to step in.

For their part, the Hawks and the league welcome LaVar, fully aware of the global media footprint which engulfts the Ball family. They're also confident that his only interest is for what's best for his son.

"I don't think there's going to be any real dramas," asserts Loeliger. "We're conscious of the fact that there's a huge publicity circus around the family. I don't expect that to dissipate whilst he's here. I'm sure they'll want to come over here and film content. That's great, that's fine. The important thing is that it doesn't distract from LaMelo's first year in professional basketball."

For now, the Hawks and the NBL can rightfully bask in the afterglow of a cultural moment within the league. "The editorial articles written about his move had a reach of over 1.7 billion people," says Loeliger. "You can't get that out of the Australian media alone."

If LaMelo does in fact proceed to be drafted number one overall, the generated exposure to the league, along with more big name lottery prospects following suit, will have made this quite the return on investment, making it a win-win situation for LaMelo, the Hawks, and the league.