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Lonzo is just the beginning of the Ball-UCLA pipeline

Lavar Ball was asked just about every question imaginable.

Was his oldest son,Lonzo, quick enough? Should he change his shooting motion? Should Lavar send his sons to a different high school? Was the competition stiff enough? Were his younger sons,LiAngeloandLaMelo,good enough or just a product of their high school's system?

Through it all, Lavar would tell anyone who would listen that his sons were going to change the game. They were going to do it their way.

And he might be right.

Ball's oldest son, Lonzo, ranks second nationally in assists per game and starts at point guard for the No. 2-ranked UCLA Bruins. Ball's middle son, LiAngelo, is committed to UCLA for next season and scored 72 points in one game last month. Ball's youngest son, LaMelo, is committed to UCLA in the class of 2019.

Lavar could be bragging right now.

But he isn't surprised at all. He saw this coming.

"We've got a plan, and everything's going accordingly," he said. "They were born to go pro. I told them, 'Somebody has to be better than Michael Jordan. Why not you?'"

Four. That's the number of possessions David Grace watched before offering then-freshman Lonzo Ball a scholarship.

Grace, then an assistant coach at Oregon State, went to see a Chino Hills High School (California) practice while on a recruiting trip to Southern California.

"They went up the court about four times, then stopped," Grace recalled. "I walked over to his head coach and said [Lonzo] has a scholarship offer from Oregon State. I knew he was that good."

As Grace was leaving, he turned to Etop Udo-Ema, who founded the Compton Magic AAU program and gave Grace the tip about Ball and said, "There's no way that kid is ever going to play at Oregon State. I'm going to have to move if I want to coach him."

A few months later, UCLA fired Ben Howland and hired Steve Alford, who made Grace one of his assistant coaches.

There were other schools involved, including USC, but UCLA was seemingly the team to beat for Ball. He had been attending camps at UCLA for several years and always had an affinity for the Bruins.UCLA's staff made him one of their top underclassman targets, and it took less than a year for Alford and Grace to close the deal.

Ball committed to UCLA midway through his sophomore year of high school, the same season UCLA went to the Sweet 16 in Alford's first season.

"UCLA was running, playing fast. Fit me perfectly," Ball told ESPN earlier this week.

There were two more Ball brothers, though, and neither had the hype Lonzo did.

LiAngelo -- often referred to as "Gelo" -- was a good scorer, but what position would he play at the next level? LaMelo -- "Melo" for short -- was essentially a 5-foot-8 shooting guard (he has since sprouted to 6-foot-3). Both played in a Chino Hills system that allowed them to take 20 shots per game and leak out for easy baskets, abandoning some responsibilities on the defensive end.

Given that Lavar kept the three brothers at the same high school and on the same AAU team -- and UCLA's coaching staff believed they were worthy of scholarship offers -- it became apparent fairly quickly that LiAngelo and LaMelo would follow Lonzo if they could.

"Our family is very close," Lonzo said. "It's a good thing we have over here, so we all made the same decision."

LiAngelo pledged to UCLA in April 2015, and LaMelo completed the hat trick in August 2015.

Did Lavar Ball have any clue what he was doing?

That was the prevalent question on the AAU and high school circuits the past couple seasons, given the unique way he handled his three sons.

Lavar didn't look to move Lonzo or any of the three brothers to one of the usual high school basketball powerhouses. They simply went to the local public school. He didn't try to hold LaMelo back and let him play with kids his own age; he threw him into the fire with Lonzo and LiAngelo so the three brothers would play together.

They played a few events on the Adidas Gauntlet circuit in the summer, and Lonzo went to the Adidas Nations event, but Lavar essentially created the Big Ballers AAU program for his three sons and some other local kids. He chose to not align himself with any of the major sneaker companies.

Chino Hills went 35-0 last season using a system that de-emphasized defense and aimed for as many 3-pointers and layups as possible as quickly as possible. The team averaged 97.9 points per game, taking 24.3 3-pointers per game and shooting an absurd 66 percent on 2-pointers. Lonzo averaged 27.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 11.5 assists and 5.1 steals, LiAngelo put up 27.4 points per game, and LaMelo posted 16.4 points and 3.8 assists as a freshman. It was the most entertaining show in the country.

In the handful of games they played on the Adidas circuit, they didn't dominate like at Chino Hills -- but they did beat the NY Rens, which had five-star guardsMustapha Heron (Auburn) and Rawle Alkins (Arizona), and the Atlanta Celtics, which had five-stars Kobi Simmons (Arizona) andJoshua Langford(Michigan State) and ESPN 100 prospects James Banks (Texas) and Braxton Key(Alabama).

"It's not one guy that's going to change the program. I've got three of them," Lavar said. "Nobody heard of the Big Ballers. Nike, Under Armour, Adidas, hand-picked teams, and ya'll can't beat the local team?"

The questions persisted: Could Lonzo play in a more structured system? Would he immediately step into the point guard spot, given the veterans UCLA had on the roster? Would his style translate?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Ball is averaging 15 points, 5.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists while shooting 56 percent from the field. UCLA is 10-0 -- which includes a win at Kentucky -- and No. 2 in the latest polls. Lonzo has drawn comparisons to Jason Kidd because of his passing ability.

"He's one of those guys who sees things one play ahead," Alford told ESPN recently.

But it isn't about the numbers, according to his father.

"The key to Lonzo has nothing to do with [his shooting or passing]," Lavar said. "It's his winning. ...Winning is part of his game. That's his biggest attribute. The bigger the stakes get, the better my boy plays. Basketball is what it is; it's entertainment. So there's no pressure."

Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday are all more efficient and shooting much better than they did last season. Thomas Welsh continues to blossom into an NBA draft prospect. FreshmanTJ Leafhas been one of the best frontcourt players in the country.

"It's paying off," Grace said. "Who wouldn't want to play with Lonzo Ball?"

"Lonzo can adapt and play with anybody," Lavar said. "Put all the stars together, Zo comes out as the guy that knows how everybody's game is. Somebody has to be the alpha of the alphas.

"Point guard has nothing to do with stats," he continued. "Magic [Johnson] could've led the league in scoring. He wins, and that's what my boys have been predicated on. Lonzo is gobbling up as many Ws as possible. You put a better team around him, each level is going to get easier."

The pressure will change a little now. Lonzo has now laid the groundwork for his two brothers and their time at UCLA -- and the expectations are higher.

LiAngelo's and LaMelo's success will be the true sign of whether Lavar's plan worked. Lonzo's brilliance at the college level could be a harbinger of things to come, or it could simply show that Lonzo is a once-in-a-generation type of player who would find a way to excel regardless of situation.

As usual, Lavar isn't concerned.

"Lonzo sets the bar for my other two," he said. "You are going to create a monster. Melo is 6-[foot]-3 now. He's not 5-[foot]-8 anymore. Gelo is 6-[foot]-6, 240. Lonzo won one state championship. Gelo has to win two. Melo can win four."

LiAngelo made headlines when he scored 72 points in a game against Rancho Christian last month, but that was on the heels of a 56-point outing -- and he has had three other games of 25-plus. He has moved into the go-to-guy role on the offensive end without Lonzo. With his recent scoring exploits, he knows more attention is coming his way.

"I just gotta know how to deal with it," LiAngelo told ESPN. "I know what people expect from me. People can't guard me because of how solid I am. My attitude came from maturity. I don't get too high on it."

UCLA has the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the country heading into the winter -- with four ESPN 100 top-50 prospects and LiAngelo, a three-star prospect. Unlike Lonzo, who was the jewel of UCLA's 2016 class, his brother is the lowest-ranked of the Bruins' 2017 signees.

With his size, LiAngelo is going to be difficult for opposing wings and guards to defend, but there are concerns about his quickness on the defensive end. While Lonzo can dictate tempo and has the passing ability to adapt to systems, will LiAngelo be able to play "bully ball" at the college level? Moreover, he has a consistent green light to shoot at the high school and AAU levels; he isn't likely to have that type of freedom once he gets to Westwood.

"He's a pure scorer," Lonzo said. "Gelo can score a lot of different ways. People say sometimes [that] he can't play without me. He'll be just fine. He knows what he can do on the court. I know what he can do."

LaMelo's ceiling isn't as easy to project. He's only a sophomore in high school, and he's growing rapidly. A year ago at this time, he was 5-foot-8 and was mostly tasked with going for a steal immediately and then staying at half court so he could sneak out in transition for an open 3-pointer or layup. Now he has stepped in for Lonzo as the point guard for Chino Hills, and though it wasn't the easiest adjustment during the summer, LaMelo is beginning to get used to the position.

"I've got the ball more," LaMelo told ESPN. "Now that I'm 6-[foot]-3, teams are defending me differently. I'm trying to be the best scorer in the nation."

LaMelo also mentioned that he beat Lonzo in one-on-one earlier this month -- but Lonzo has a different version of the story.

"That's not necessarily true," Lonzo said. "We have special rules when I play him because he's still small. I have to shoot all 3s. So I might have missed one."

Most of the questions about Lavar Ball's family came because of the uniqueness about everything surrounding his sons.

"My dad has a plan for us, obviously," Lonzo said. "As of now, it's working. We just love playing basketball. Since day one.

"We did it our own way, stayed together."

From the local high school to the unaffiliated AAU team to the skill sets of each of the three brothers. College basketball hasn't seen a situation such as this before.

Lonzo isn't the prototypical point guard. LiAngelo isn't the prototypical college wing. LaMelo isn't the prototypical high school guard.

Lavar doesn't do prototypical.

"[I gave] UCLA the best passer, then the best scorer, and in Melo, something they've never seen," he said. "My boys are trying to be the best players in the world ever."

Related Video
All three Ball kids could be one-and-done players
All three Ball kids could be one-and-done players
Myron Medcalf looks ahead to what Lonzo Ball's brothers, LaMelo and LiAngelo, can bring to UCLA in the future.

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