Let’s officially be done with the veneer that LaMelo Ball or Julian Newman are bona fide amateurs. A Saturday matchup between the teams on which the two stars play provided ample evidence that they’re all about their own brands as much as competitive goals in high school.
For Ball, this is nothing new. The would-be senior at SPIRE Institute in Ohio spent the 2018 season playing professionally in Lithuania. He was paid for his appearances, thus forfeiting his amateur status per NCAA regulations. Game, set, match.
Still, he can suit up for a high school if that school plays against teams from state associations that allow competition against players who wouldn’t otherwise be eligible. That’s why SPIRE made the move to add LaMelo, who in turn has dramatically raised their profile as they play play around the country.
On Saturday, that meant a visit to Kentucky to take on Julian Newman’s Downey Christian School (Orlando, Fla.) in the Big Baller Beatdown, an invitational tournament that courted controversy thanks to its questionable media rights policy.
Like Ball, Newman plays for a school that has bent traditional eligibility regulations to ensure he can play; Newman began playing high school basketball as a sixth grader at Downey Christian, which houses a combined middle school and high school on the same campus. A former Steve Harvey and Conan O’Brien sensation, Newman has developed into a still undersized but impressive young point guard, with versatile ball handling skills and long range shooting.
As we covered here, SPIRE cruised to a victory in the game, but that overlooks another key competition: The merchandise sales outside the arena. Both the Big Baller Brand, which markets LaMelo’s shoes, and Newman and his sister Jaden’s own “Prodigy” label, were selling merchandise at the game. While it has not been proven that the Newman siblings are directly profiting from Prodigy sales, they both market the brand aggressively, wearing Prodigy shooting shirts in layup lines, advertising brand sales on social media and generally pumping up everything Prodigy does.
That might explain why Newman, despite all his hype, does not have any firm college scholarship offers listed. Or maybe it’s his 5-foot-7 height. Either way, Newman is being overlooked, and it’s hard not to wonder if the brand he pseudo-represents has something to do with it.
The broader question is whether the youngest Ball brother and Newman represent a more holistic changing of the guard. Are top prep players now going to risk their college eligibility to market a brand with their high school likeness?
We’ll have to wait and see. If it does, we know which players helped pave the way, for better and worse.