Brand new Ball game: LaMelo Ball training in Detroit hoping to bolster NBA Draft stock

Detroit News

Rod Beard
| The Detroit News

Detroit — A nondescript SUV pulls into the parking lot at Detroit Thrive gym on Detroit’s east side and there’s some chatter as 19-year-old LaMelo Ball and his brothers, Lonzo and LiAngelo, head inside for a daily workout.

There’s no entourage, no fans, no reality-show camera crew, no pomp or circumstance surrounding LaMelo, the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

It’s a work day. Every day is a work day.

Mike Fox, Ball’s trainer and co-owner of the gym, puts LaMelo and his brothers to work right away, with specific instructions reinforcing what the workout regimen will be for the day. The focus has been adding muscle ahead of the draft. In a normal year, LaMelo would have gone through the combine, but the pandemic pushed back everything in the schedule.

There’s no Las Vegas Summer League and no real 5-on-5 play; instead, it’s workouts with Fox and basketball work in a different local gym.

It all comes under the watchful eye of Detroit native Jermaine Jackson, LaMelo’s manager. In previous years, their father, LaVar, had been front-and-center as the flamboyant spokesperson for the family and all things Ball, including their reality show, “Ball in the Family,” and the Big Baller Brand.

LaMelo, who played overseas in Lithuania and Australia in what would have been his junior year in high school, returned to play at SPIRE Institute, a prep school in Geneva, Ohio.

That’s where he met Jackson — and the two just clicked immediately.

“You just understand somebody when you see him and you have that energy connection. It’s like big brother-little brother stuff so it’s just like another (dad) kind of, so it works,” LaMelo told The Detroit News. “It’s a blessing.”

Jackson, 44, is a former standout at Finney High School and Detroit Mercy, where he helped the Titans reach the NCAA Tournament in 1999 and was named Horizon League player of the year.

Although Jackson went undrafted, he played five years in the NBA, with the Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks.

He also played overseas and was an assistant coach at Detroit Mercy under Bacari Alexander before heading to Spire in 2018.

Jackson brings a decided Detroit edge and mentality to managing Ball, getting away from the perceived glitz of Chino Hills, California, where the Ball family is located. One big step was getting him to train in Detroit, where LaMelo has trained since the pandemic surged in March.

“It was a relationship with me and his father. We kind of see eye-to-eye and we communicate very well on everything. He wanted his son being coached by a guy like (me) because we kind of have that same fire,” Jackson said. “LaVar can’t have that fire and (have me be) soft — that wouldn’t work. We’re both right at that level and have that same fire. LaMelo is still hearing that same voice; he’s not hearing, ‘OK, we’re not going to do this.’

“It’s ‘Get on this line and let’s get this work in.’”

LaMelo seems to be blazing his own trail, especially after distancing himself from his father’s comments that LaMelo wouldn’t be a good fit with the Golden State Warriors, who have the No. 2 pick.

“My old man is his own man. He has his opinions and I have mine,” LaMelo said this week.

“I feel like I can play on any team and do good anywhere I go.”

Lean and mean

The work with Fox is paying off for LaMelo, who has grown to 6-foot-7¼ , 182 pounds and has trimmed down to 4.1% body fat.

Fox says that all the workouts aren’t geared specifically for basketball, but he’s looking to strengthen some of LaMelo’s weaker areas from when they started working.

“It’s athletic-focused and a couple are basketball focused. I want to make it for the body and his hips were tight,” Fox said. “I fixed his hip mobility and we did some corrective exercises first. I don’t want to build on a bad foundation; once we fixed those things, everything else is easy.

“He doesn’t question anything. I was leery initially when he was younger in high school. It’s different now; he’s on a mission; (back then) he was going through the motions,” Fox said. “It’s a job — it’s ‘I’m here to work. What do I have to do?’ He’s at it 110%.”

Some of LaMelo’s biggest improvement physically has come in his leg strength. Fox said LaMelo struggled to get up and down on leg squats initially, but now he’s doing the same drills with 60-pound weights. That’s translated to visible improvement on the court.

“His ability to explode is better,” Fox said. “He’s driving to the right and left with more explosion.”

Jackson credits Fox’s creativity and the unique workouts with his own health when he played, noting that he didn’t have any serious injuries after he started working with Fox. LaMelo also sees the benefit, with Fox keeping an extensive dossier of charts and graphs to track the progress, with weekly goals and updates.

“It’s been good; Mike has been getting my body right on my physical stuff,” LaMelo said. “Yeah, that’s all Mike. I just show up and give it my best.”

Hands-on approach

From a basketball standpoint, the workouts are just as intense. Though there haven’t been as many opportunities to play 5-on-5 games because of the pandemic, Jackson tries to put rigor into their individual work. Much of the criticism of LaMelo’s game is his shooting mechanics and motion and that he struggles with shooting from distance.

In their basketball work, Jackson says there’s not just one singular focus, but he looks at LaMelo as a complete player.

“You’ll get a situation where a lot of athletes will hear something from the media saying this person needs to work on this, and they’ll go in the gym and just work on that — but you forgot the other nine things that you need to continue to work on,” Jackson said. “We don’t just work on one thing; we work on basketball. We’re not going in the gym to be a drill sergeant (to work on a particular skill).

“Everything we go in the gym and do, they’re basketball situations; they’re in-game situations. On our days off, we do form-shooting to make 400-500 shots in the morning and another 400-500 at night.”

Jackson is hands-on with the training, finishing each night session with seven games of full-court one-on-one with LaMelo. With the change in the predraft process, allowing players to make “pro day” videos for teams in lieu of in-person workouts, LaMelo and his camp have decided to do only team interviews via teleconference but no individual workouts.

“The most important thing is not how hard of a worker he is — he’s a consistent worker. People can work hard two or three days out the week and then the next three or four days, chill out,” Jackson said. “That’s the thing — he’s working on something every single day; if he’s not going to the gym to shoot, he’s working on his body.

“He’s getting his massages and stretching and yoga in. He’s getting all the things in that continue to keep his body healthy and strong.”

Lonzo, who has been in the NBA for three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, provides plenty of insight on what NBA life will be like for LaMelo, but Jackson augments it with his own flavor that resonates well, and that they all appreciate.

Detroit Thrive isn’t a plush, swanky facility, but it fits the signature Detroit style that Jackson brings to them, along with introducing them to things like Detroit coney dogs, Vernor’s and the signature, “What up, doe?” greeting.

“It’s not really too much about an L.A. situation. We have a relationship, we have privacy with the gym and we have privacy with the weight room and things like that,” Jackson said. “We have great relationships, and this is where I’m from. It’s all-access. We are locked in on work; we’re not locked in on the sunlight or going to hang out somewhere.

“It’s that destination — let’s get to it and let’s work.”

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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