LaMelo Ball, the youngest member of the Ball brothers triumvirate, turns 16 years old today, Aug. 22. The fact that his birthday comes up as a legitimate point of discussion across national high school sports is a sign of his exposure and notoriety, but it also might be indicative of other critical factors about his development as a basketball player and personality writ large.
Put more simply, LaMelo Ball might just be the most famous 16-year-old basketball player of all time.
It’s a claim that is impossible to prove but also almost unavoidable to consider. The youngest Ball has 202,000 followers on Twitter. His Instagram account is followed by a jaw-dropping 2.4 million. To put those numbers in comparison, Zion Williamson, a prep hoops hype phenomenon himself (more on Zion later) and by far the second-most followed high school basketball player on social media, has 75,000 followers on Twitter 956,000 followers on Instagram.
Much of the attention on Ball comes from his family name. The rise of the Ball family through the Big Baller Brand, in conjunction with Lonzo Ball’s stardom at UCLA and, most importantly, father LaVar’s epic yearlong turn as a WWE-style heel, has created a level of awareness never before recognized for a prep basketball star who was still an underclassman. Not that scoring 92 points in a game hurt. That just meant so much more when the last name attached to it is Ball.
So, how would LaMelo Ball’s public recognition and fame compare to prior phenoms like LeBron James, Marvin Bagley III or, perhaps, O.J. Mayo?
According to Jerry Meyer, the director of basketball scouting for 247Sports, accurate comparisons aren’t possible because of the dynamics of modern social media.
“O.J. Mayo was quite popular given the times,” Meyer told USA TODAY Sports. “The explosion of social media makes it a faux comparison, though. Everyone is practically more famous or infamous now. So, LaMelo would have to be the most ‘famous’ — I would say well-known — because of the times, his family, social media and the business and branding of Big Baller Brand.”
Meyer’s counterpart at Rivals.com, Eric Bossi, was inclined to agree, though he did provide an important caveat about why LaMelo is so popular before his junior season: Few have had opportunities to shine on a varsity squad so young.
“Marvin Bagley for as good as he is hasn’t been a crazy social media mover. Guys like LeBron or Derrick Rose, you didn’t have social media back then like it is now,” Bossi said. “And the LeBron phenomenon started to take off between his sophomore and junior year and then went ballistic when he was a senior. It’s different.
“O.J. Mayo was one of the first ones who we found out about at such a young age because he was playing varsity basketball in seventh and eighth grade, but again social media was a bit different. Whether they love LaMelo or hate him, they’re talking about him. I don’t know if there’s anyone who has had fame and notoriety like LaMelo. The followers, the hits he gets on YouTube are huge.”
All that fame has shone a very bright light on Ball at a tender age. As he enters his junior year of high school at Chino Hills, he also finds himself in the middle of a budding shoe empire and in the vortex of a constant media din that surrounds his father.
The cycle and churn is unlike anything that has emerged in prep basketball before. While the aforementioned Williamson has become a basketball celebrity in his own right — remember, Drake sported his high school jersey unannounced and without warning — his rise has been more organic, built off both his impressive performances and style of play.
LaMelo Ball also competes with a flair that draws plenty of eyes, but as Bossi noted, there’s more of a concerted effort to shine attention on his, a bit like a media darling in another sector of the entertainment industry.
“I’m a cautious person and I think it’s hard to make a definitive statement that he’s the most famous. But during the summer I said the LaMelo Ball phenomenon is the closest thing to Justin Bieber on a basketball court,” Bossi said. “Half the people who talk about him want to talk about him to hate him, and the other half love him. You’re either rooted in as Team Ball or you’re anti-Ball, and that kind of correlates to the way people think about Bieber.
“Does that make (LaMelo) the most famous one? There certainly can’t be three or four more-talked about 16-year-old basketball players that I’ve ever seen.”
Whether that attention ever transforms into legitimate stardom on the court, at UCLA and the NBA, remains to be seen. For now, it marks Ball as the one to watch, whether you can’t wait to see him again or you can’t pull yourself away.