LaVar Ball’s master NBA plan takes hit with LiAngelo Ball suspension

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Three UCLA basketball players have been suspended indefinitely following their shoplifting incident in China. The players apologized and thanked President Trump for his role in helping them return to the U.S.
USA TODAY Sports

LaVar Ball, outspoken father of Lakers rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, has made his fair share of outlandish public remarks since he burst into the national spotlight a year ago. Among them are specific comments in which Ball has said his three sons were “born to go pro” and “all three of my boys are going to be one-and-done.”

Part of Ball’s prophecy has come true with Lonzo joining his hometown Lakers as the No. 2 pick — with no lack of hype, of course. During Lonzo’s NBA draft media coverage in June, LaVar was quoted as saying: “I gotta do this three times in a row” and “I’ll be here next year” in reference to his middle son, LiAngelo, being an NBA lottery pick in the 2018 draft. 

But NBA experts are quick to notice the difference between Lonzo and his two younger brothers. LiAngelo was a three-star recruit before he signed with UCLA, and the youngest brother, LaMelo, is a four-star recruit but LaVar pulled him out of high school to be home-schooled because he didn’t agree with the coaching.

While LiAngelo, 18, was always less hyped than Lonzo, he did put up significant numbers at Chino Hills High, averaging more than 30 points and erupting for 72 points in a game during his senior season. But LiAngelo wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American in the spring, which led LaVar to claim his son’s omission caused the All-American game to “lose credibility.”

“I didn’t see (NBA) potential in high school with LiAngelo. It’s not the same feeling as watching Lonzo — when you absolutely could tell,” ESPN NBA draft and college basketball analyst Jay Bilas told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “That’s such a down-the-road discussion because he hasn’t even played a college game yet.”

And now it’s become uncertain when LiAngelo’s first college game will take place, following an infamous shoplifting incident in China. LiAngelo is suspended indefinitely from the same program that Lonzo carried to the Sweet 16 before becoming the first Ball brother to turn pro.

Bruins coach Steve Alford has said LiAngelo and his two teammates involved in the incident — Jalen Hill and Cody Riley — will have to “earn their way back” on the team while the school is reviewing the embarrassing incident that led President Donald Trump to intervene

“While LaVar Ball’s son is the focus of this, the other two players have parents involved too. So this isn’t just about the Ball family,” Bilas said. “This is where the additional pressure hurts. LiAngelo’s teammates are bearing the brunt of that. It’s now added pressure to the (UCLA) program and his teammates.”

When LiAngelo was first arrested on suspicion of shoplifting in China on Nov. 8, LaVar at the time said it wasn’t “that big of a deal.” But it might be a big deal in terms of LaVar’s master plan in landing all of his sons in the NBA — all on the Lakers, and in one-and-done fashion.

With his name already missing on 2018 NBA mock draft boards, the one-and-done route for LiAngelo appears even more unlikely now given the fact that, at the very least, he will miss the first important chunk of the 2017-18 season. That leaves little time for LiAngelo, a 6-5 shooting guard who already had a tall ladder to climb to get to the NBA, to impress scouts and enter the draft discussion.

“I don’t think he has that type of talent,” said Bilas of the one-and-done route, while noting that the shoplifting incident in China shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. 

“As embarrassing and debilitating as (the incident) seems, I don’t think it necessarily will be a long-term issue,” Bilas said. “Because it happened in China, it ratcheted up the temperature to a boiling point, but the fact of the matter is all universities have faced similar issues with football or basketball players.

“You don’t want to diminish what happened in China, but you also don’t want to make too much of it, either. These kids don’t need to have their lives thrown away. They’ve already taken a pretty good (public) beating. What UCLA needs to do is what is in the best interest of the players first and then the best interest of the team and university, not let the media attention (dictate) the decision.” 

Depending on the ultimate length of the suspension — considering it’s indefinite and Ball will have to earn his way back — there is a chance that LiAngelo could transfer to another program. He would have to sit out an entire season, however, per NCAA transfer rules. 

“There would be a number of places that would want him,” Bilas said. 

LaVar markets Big Baller Brand with three B’s for his three sons, but LiAngelo cannot be a brand spokesman or have his own shoes like Lonzo and LaMelo in order to adhere to NCAA rules. With the family company’s marketing and branding a key element, there is also the option of LiAngelo opting to play overseas in response to a longer-than-anticipated suspension.

That’s a decision several projected lottery picks have made since the NBA required playing one season removed from high school starting in 2006. They chose to play in Europe or China to earn a sponsorship deal and be financially compensated, something that’s not an option in the NCAA. 

Bilas believes how UCLA handles the indefinite suspension will be crucial for Ball’s future as well as the other two players — Hill and Riley.

“The public component is important here because it’s in the players’ best interest for it to be handled publicly to satisfy people who are (embarrassed and upset) by their actions,” Bilas said. “But these players need to be suspended fairly so that they can have the opportunity to move on if they need to.”

Follow Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson

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