Playing Ball: LaMelo's NBL legacy, on and off the court

LaMelo Ball has played his final game in the NBL and with that comes a sense of mixed emotions and the rumination of his legacy in the league.

In a league statement, NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger said: "despite his latest injury setback, LaMelo has enjoyed an excellent season and there is no doubt his [NBA] draft prospects have been firmly enhanced by his time playing in the NBL."

There have been many highs, including the initial news of the signing, and the immediate bump in global interest that descended upon the league and the Illawarra Hawks. The league and the Hawks had essentially signed a cultural phenomenon. He brought real anticipation to the region.

The uncertainty of how he would fit, both on the court and off the court, was exciting - it enabled greater discourse and interest as we churned through the possibilities.

Courtesy of numbers supplied by the league office, over the first nine rounds of the season (when Ball was active) the NBL's average Instagram post engagement was up 238 percent, average Twitter post engagement was up 137 percent and average Facebook post engagement was up 108 percent. These numbers are in comparison to the equivalent period last season.

The Hawks went from 9k followers on Instagram to 31k followers in the span 48 hours after Ball signed. They now have 75.3k followers. The NBL jumped from 73k to 159k followers.

The prospect of triple-double watch, and the genuine curiosity of casual basketball fans, also helped to drive up domestic engagement.

Via the league office again, the Hawks' average road game attendance was 10,511, the all-time highest average attendance for a road team in history. Games involving Ball had the highest crowd average of any player in NBL history.

Ball's NBL season debut was watched by one million in the U.S. via Facebook Watch.

What Ball has undoubtedly proven is that he is a legitimately talented prospect on the court as well.

Of course, like all young developing players, there were warts that were thoroughly dissected, particularly for one as scrutinised as Ball. His defence was often a concern. His motor and willingness to adhere to winning principles were a question mark. His shot selection was a red flag.

The Hawks have compiled two wins and eight losses since Ball's absence; they were at three wins and nine losses pre-injury. On the surface, those numbers don't suggest much of a difference.

During those initial 12 Ball-dominant games of the season, the Hawks boasted the worst offensive efficiency in the league, via Spatialja.com.

Over their past 10 games, they are still last in offence but they do sport a better true shooting percentage. Their offensive efficiency is better, but their defence has regressed just as much, meaning the net difference is negligible. They are still bad.

Yet there was a growing sense that this had turned into Ball's personal canvas to showcase his talents to the world. Now? From the outside looking in, there seems to be more engagement on the court.

In their first 12 games of the season, Todd Blanchfield -- ostensibly one of the Hawks' premier offensive talents -- averaged 10.3 points, took 8.7 shot attempts per game (basically half of Ball's mark), and was at 25 percent from deep.

Since Ball's injury and subsequent redistribution of shots, Blanchfield has averaged 18 points and is shooting the three-ball at 41.7 percent.

Sunday Dech has been given more game time, prompting a growing narrative heading into awards season. Josh Boone looks liberated.

Not all of this is on Ball, but it does raise the spectre of the delicate balancing act that is needed within the Next Stars program - the Hawks were the right team for someone like him. What type of player that becomes available to the league must match the ambitions and circumstances of that club.

Said Loeliger in that same statement: "the aim of the NBL's Next Stars program is to help prepare players for the NBA by playing in a professional and highly competitive league. LaMelo and the other Next Stars players have benefited from this and he is now ready to embark on a successful career in the NBA."

Ball infused a level of worldwide scrutiny and interest in the NBL - this is inarguable - and the league has been able to leverage that attention. It has been a symbiotic relationship from the start with eyes wide open. Of course, if we indulge in a moment of pragmatism, none of this matters if the effects are short-lived and the Ball experience fades in memories, consigned to a blip in the league's history.

No matter the initiatives, no matter the narratives, talent drives all.

The ultimate harbinger of Ball's lasting impact upon the Next Stars initiative will be the generation of a sustainable pipeline of talent that sees the league as a genuine launching pad to the NBA. The NBL is already identified as a threat in luring young prospects away - there can be no sitting back.

And potentially, we may not know the impact of the league upon Ball himself for years to come. Don't forget, it takes a generational talent to drive immediate success at the NBA level. Already, it can be difficult to parse through all the mitigating ingredients that form part of the alchemy in shaping his professional NBA destiny.

Situation, culture, and how a prospect spent their formative years in developing good, winning habits matter.

Will we grade Ball's development as a direct result of his exposure to a world class league, playing against tough opposition on a weekly basis?

If Ball does indeed excel at the next level, and relatively quickly, there is real opportunity for the league to capitalise.

Of course, the reality is, we may be years away from knowing the answer.

What we do know now, however, is that Ball's commercial impact for the league has been immediate. What we need to know is that this is not merely a blip in history.