Hawks coach Matt Flinn has backed NBA No.1 draft hopeful LaMelo Ball to lead Illawarra out of their early-season struggles and see out the Australian season.
Ball finished with 24 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, including sparking a stunning 37-point Illawarra Hawks second-quarter blitz to beat Cairns 101-91 in north Queensland on Saturday night.
Now at 2-7, the speculation of Ball leaving before the start of 2020 has continued to simmer, even after Hawks general manager Mat Campbell moved to allay fears a month ago.
Ball now averages 14.56 points per game, as well as 6.11 assists and 6.78 assists.
When asked pre-game on ESPN whether he would be the first draft pick for the 2020 NBA season, Ball said "I believe so".
But Flinn remains adamant that would only come after playing a crucial role in reviving the Hawks playoff hopes.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's contracted for the season," Flinn said after the win in Cairns.
"He's buying in, like every other player we've got.
"I hear speculation, but we just treat it day-by-day. You saw a guy (on Saturday night) who's really invested in his team. If you go down in the locker room, you'll see a kid who's really invested in his teammates."
Ball was signed to the Hawks through the Next Stars program to develop future NBA talent, similar to RJ Hampton at New Zealand and Brazilian-born Marcos Louzada Silva, known as Didi, at the Sydney Kings.
While it is believed Ball has an exit clause to return to the US to prepare for the draft, in the short term, the younger brother of New Orleans guard Lonzo Ball faces his biggest test yet, against NBL pacesetters the Sydney Kings next weekend.
Crucially for Flinn, Sunday Dech emerged off the bench to play almost 27 minutes and finish with 21 points, five offensive rebounds and five assists. Flinn confirmed a replacement for Aaron Brooks, whose season ended early with an Achilles tendon injury, is yet to be confirmed, after negotiations "fell through".
While Ball continued to expand on his highlight reel, with an alley-oop for Josh Boone and behind the back pass for David Andersen, Flinn was most impressed by his contribution in trying to fix their leaky defence.
"He's very talented and gets talked about in the draft circles for a reason, because he can do things and get to spaces on the floor to that some others can't," Flinn said. "He's been challenged in this league with his handles and a lot people try to get after him and he keeps ticking those boxes.
"We know what he can do offensively, but I was more pleased with the way he locked into the defensive scout and showed that he can play legitimate minutes and guard some quality players.
"We know what Cairns can do, they go into Perth and beat them (by 23 points), so the beat them here on this floor is an extremely difficult thing to do."
Flinn admitted it had been a difficult period with five consecutive losses and Brooks's injury.
"We've had a lot of soul-searching within our group," he said.
"There's been some rough video sessions and a lot of rough practices and a lot of reflection. I'm not someone who points the finger solely at the players, it's on me and it's on the other coaches and it's all of us."
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