Could LaMelo Ball help show there’s a new route to the NBA?

LaMelo Ball’s route to next year’s NBA Draft — be it as the No. 1 pick (his expectation), as a solid late first-rounder (most projections), or as one of the greatest players of all time (his father’s bold prediction) — is a journey that will soon take him far afield.

Ball, along with elite prospects R.J. Hampton and Terry Armstrong, will become the latest American teenagers to pursue a year of professional basketball in Australia’s NBL instead of the traditional college blueprint.

And while Ball, who turns 18 on Aug. 22, has been on a wild enough ride these past three years that he should be well prepared for any kind of upheaval, he is about to step into what many believe will be the best possible preparation to steel him for the NBA.

“You’re playing a 32-game season, and you’re living by the best beaches on earth — it’s perfect,” joked Will Weaver, who signed on as Sydney Kings head coach after leading the Brooklyn Nets’ Long Island affiliate to the G-League finals, in a recent telephone conversation.

On a more serious note, Weaver believes that the young Americans heading to Australia this year, and the others that are likely to follow in the future, will find a rewarding outcome.

“They will be playing for coaches who are dying to help you get better, in a league full of tough, smart, mature professionals to compete against and learn from,” Weaver told me. “It is a great opportunity.”

Former No. 6 pick (2006) Josh Childress had two stints in the NBL after a 391-game NBA career and a spell in Greece. He believes the young American imports can thrive, but only if they apply themselves properly.

“That league, guys play hard and compete,” Childress told me. “They are always in peak physical fitness. Culturally, they take that seriously. The Americans need to lock in on getting better.

“It is a different grind to what they are used to on the AAU or high school circuit. Get used to the physicality and the competitiveness. It won’t be wide open dunks all night. The Australian guys know there are NBA scouts watching, so they will really get after them.”

The NBL was established in 1979, and American players have been going to Australia for decades. Plenty of them stayed. Dave Simmons, Cecil Exum and Bruce Bolden all had sons – Ben, Dante and Jonah – who grew up there before blossoming into NBA players. This season’s NBA will have 10 Aussies, an all-time high.

Now, though, it’s young prospects seeking an alternative to the typical college route to the NBA who are on their way to Australia — and the NBL and its executives have learned from recent history to ensure the best path forward for all parties involved.

The players will tread a similar path to current Oklahoma City Thunder starter Terrance Ferguson, who rejected Rick Pitino’s Louisville and other college bluebloods to join the Adelaide 36ers, before returning to become the 21st pick of the 2017 draft.

Following some logistical difficulties after Ferguson’s contractual release, NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger implemented the Next Stars program, targeting elite young Americans seeking an alternative to college. The Next Stars contract is standardized, providing assistance with moving from the States, a simplified release process at the end of the campaign, and a reported $100,000 salary. The league plays an active role in recruiting athletes and fielding enquiries from interested players, parents and agents, then conducts a matchmaking process to find them the right club.

Texan point guard Hampton, rated No. 5 in the ESPN 100, will play for the New Zealand Breakers. Ball (No.21 in the ESPN list) will join the Illawarra Hawks. Armstrong (No. 40) has signed with the South East Melbourne Phoenix. The regular season begins in October and runs until mid-February, with playoffs to follow.

Hampton, 18, is a 6’5 point guard who was initially mulling between Kansas, Memphis and Texas Tech. Armstrong, a 19-year-old 6’6 shooting guard, decommitted from Arizona to sign with the NBL. Hampton’s inner circle had early contact with New Zealand and were enthused by the quality of the team’s strength and conditioning infrastructure. His family will join him in Auckland.

Ball’s options were complicated by his pro stint, alongside middle brother LiAngelo, in Lithuania, plus his involvement in the ill-fated Big Baller Brand. He has grown from 6’0 to 6’7 since, and has a much-improved outside shot. Ball also cited the physical training aspect when he made his decision, but the NBL was also careful to ensure his fame – he has 4.8 million Instagram followers – was handled appropriately.

Illawarra’s emphasis on youth development was a major plus, as well as the city being an hour removed from Sydney’s potential distractions. Ball will live with his manager and trainer Jermaine Jackson, while the Hawks have a front court filled with experienced potential mentors, such as former UConn star and NBA first-round selection Josh Boone.

“The spotlight will follow LaMelo wherever he goes, but we can provide an environment where he can focus on his development as a basketball player,” Loeliger said. “He is going to be living a couple of hundred meters from their training facility and their game-day venue.

“We think that will help mitigate some of the chaos that no doubt follows him. We will do our best to ensure any disruptions are kept to a minimum. We had that discussion very early on with his agent – he is coming not to be the subject of a reality TV show; his focus is on becoming a professional and demonstrating the mindset and the discipline to be a lottery pick.”

And, if he is able to make the most of his opportunity in Australia, a much-improved shot at succeeding in the NBA.