On Monday, LaMelo Ball and LiAngelo Ball, the younger brothers of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball, turned professional and agreed to contracts with Lithuanian first division basketball club Prienu Vytautas, first reported by ESPN.
Nineteen-year-old LiAngelo Ball recently gave up his UCLA scholarship after a shoplifting incident in China left him, along with two teammates, suspended from the team indefinitely. The incident occurred during the team's preseason tour in China and caused an international media frenzy, including multiple tweets from the President of the United States directed at the father of the family, LaVar Ball.
In addition, President Donald Trump claimed to have spoken to his Chinese counterpart and publicly asked for gratitude for helping in the release of the three basketball players involved, which included LiAngelo Ball. While the players thanked the president for his efforts, LaVar Ball refused to offer any gratitude, and that led to angry tweets from the president and a prime time CNN appearance for LaVar Ball.
LaVar subsequently went on to announce that LiAngelo Ball would not be returning to UCLA, and UCLA coach Steve Alford released a statement acknowledging the decision by LiAngelo and his family. Even before the indefinite suspension, LiAngelo Ball did not figure to play heavy minutes for the Bruins.
Prior to the media attention over the shop lifting incident, LaVar Ball had already pulled his youngest son, LaMelo Ball, out of Chino Hills High School. On Monday, the 16-year-old LaMelo Ball turned professional as a basketball player and gave up his future commitment to UCLA and his amateur status in the process. Considering he already had a signature shoe, LaMelo Ball's eligibility would have forced the NCAA to ask tough questions in a couple years, but the decision to go to Europe solved the potential headache for college basketball administrators.
While the practice of athletes turning professional as minors is common in Europe, the practice is literally and figuratively foreign to American sports culture. With the exception of a standout soccer player like US Mens National Team star Christian Pulisic, underage American athletes almost never turn professional and move to Europe.
In terms of basketball players, the practice of sending an underage player to develop in Europe is unheard of and would normally make little sense when considering the end goal is to play in the NBA, which is based primarily in the United States, with one team in Canada.
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It's not about the money for the Ball Brothers. They have a passion to play Basketball and to experience playing as pros was the Goal. They have accomplished this mission and are excited to be playing on the same team to top it off. The Big Baller way! pic.twitter.com/QOu6QCtMdf— Big Baller Brand (@bigballerbrand) December 12, 2017
"They are excited to be playing on the same team," a tweet from the Official Big Baller Brand account confirmed the early report from ESPN. The tweet also showed both brothers signing their professional contracts.
LiAngelo Ball can enter into the 2018 NBA Draft, but the general consensus is that the middle brother in the family has almost no shot of hearing his name called among the 60 players selected to join the NBA annually. As such, the move to Europe did not come as a shock for the ephemeral UCLA Bruin.
LaMelo Ball would not be draft eligible until 2020, so his decision to give up his amateur status and play in Europe for the next three seasons is unexpected. If all goes according to plan for the youngest of the brothers, he would hear his name called at age 18 and play his first NBA game at age 19. While the decision to send LaMelo Ball abroad may not work out, it is also undoubtedly revolutionary.
More than likely, the desire to keep the two siblings together and guarantee playing time for the two teenagers played into why the family chose Prienu Vytautasi, which is based in a Lithuanian city with a population of fewer than 10,000 people.
The City of Los Angeles counts nearly four million residents based on the 2016 Census, and to underscore the dramatic shift in backdrops, Pauley Pavilion, where UCLA plays its home games, holds over 12,000 people.
The Balls' new home arena holds a total of 1,700 seats, with 500 of those reserved for sponsors according to ESPN. Tickets cost 5 Euros, though that price could jump if the Balls attract the same level of fans in Lituania as they do in New York or Los Angeles.
"It's not about money for the Ball Brothers," that same Big Baller Brand tweet read.
Johnatan Givony of Draft Express offered further perspective on the financial implications when he shared that salaries for players at the level the Balls would be playing would not exceed $500 per month.
Possibly, LaVar, LiAngelo and LaMelo chose to play in Lithuania because the country's name starts with the letter "L". More likely, the decision to join the fledgling club in Eastern Europe has to do with guaranteeing playing time and keeping the siblings together.
ESPN also reported that the two Ball brothers are meant to move to Europe in January.