Ball wasn’t always life for Solomon “Solo” Ball.
His dad, Mike, would lay out a basketball, a football and a baseball bat and ball for 7-year-old Solomon and his older brother, Zion, to choose from for their daily activity. Early on the brothers always picked up the baseball or football.
That all changed a year later when Solomon’s mom, Erica, bought a basketball hoop for the driveway. The brothers played intense pickup games against their dad and suddenly the other sports didn’t matter.
By the age of 10, Solomon told his dad he wanted to be a professional basketball player. Mike remembers that day like it was yesterday.
“I took him very seriously because he had this look in his eyes and he did not blink,” he said. “While he didn’t know what it took, he was serious about what he wanted.”
Since then Solomon’s spent his time improving his game on the court and his body in the weight room. The Class of 2023 recruit got one step closer to his dreams when he committed to the UConn men’s basketball team earlier this month.
The 6-foot-3 guard from Sharpsburg, Maryland, who played for St. James School, a boarding school in Hagerstown, Maryland, is ranked No. 68 in the Class of 2023, according to 247sports.com. Solomon can’t wait to create his own legacy in Storrs.
“You look down the line of all the other great players that have been there and look at the different rafters with different players,” he said. “It’s something to look up to. It’s motivation. It makes me want to work every day.”
Solomon isn’t the only member of his family to be an elite basketball player. His cousin, Jaime Nard, was drafted by the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces in 2018. Another cousin, Jackie Nard, played college basketball in Maryland. So it was no surprise Solomon eventually fell in love with the game.
“It was going to happen,” Solomon said. “It was just a matter of when.”
Mike also coached Solomon’s travel team, teaching his son the game’s fundamentals and making sure he played the right way.
“As I began coaching him I demanded a high level of excellence from him as I did from other players,” Mike said. “There are just some things he had to do. If he didn’t do it he would have to come out of the game. Like taking charges, I don’t care what the score is but if you let somebody waltz down the lane you are going to sit down for two minutes. It’s just how it works.”
Mike didn’t make anything easy for his son. He always made sure Solomon stayed in the gym longer than his teammates. When they watched games together Solomon would do pushups during commercial breaks.
“I would not give anybody the satisfaction of thinking they outworked Solo and Solo adapted to that quickly,” Mike said. “Solo won’t let anybody outwork him.”
Meanwhile, Solomon embraced his dad’s style.
“He was really hard on me,” Solomon said. “I didn’t care, though. If he yells at me, so what. He’s just trying to get me better.”
Sometimes Mike’s coaching got him in trouble with his wife.
“Let me tell you something, man, I missed a lot of meals because of (intense coaching),” Mike said. “I had to sleep on the couch; it was all good. I knew it was a process. She’s a mama bear and doesn’t want me to be hard on Solo.
“There are times when I had to tell Solo, ‘I’m the coach right now, not dad. I still love you but you have got to hear it this way. You have to learn how to take this harsh criticism.’ I had to coach him really hard.”
In many ways UConn coach Dan Hurley reminds Solomon of his dad.
“You see how Hurley coaches, he just wants to win,” he said. “You are going to hear his voice and you are going to hear it over a lot of people, even in a big crowd. That’s the way my dad was. That kind of energy fires me up.”
Both of Solomon’s parents pushed him to succeed off the court. They made sure he excelled in school and even prepared him for dealing with the media. Since he was 13 Solomon would get interviewed at the dinner table by his parents.
However his parents were hands off when it came to what college Solomon would attend. Still Mike feels good about his son’s choice.
“I’m certain that UConn is the home for Solo.”
Evolving his game
Solomon Ball started receiving Division I attention in 2020 after holding his own against current NBA players Scottie Barnes and Cade Cunningham when they played for Monteverde Academy, a prep school in Monteverde, Fla. His first offer came from the University of Virginia, but he wasn’t close then to the player he is now. At that time he was 5-10 and 145 pounds.
“The player I was before, I was a knockdown shooter,” he said. “I would shoot from beyond NBA range and off the dribble.”
Since then he’s grown five inches and added 40 pounds. He has a 45-inch vertical and compares his style of play to NBA star Russell Westbrook. Ball consumes about 4,000 calories each day and lives in the weight room.
“Now I mix it up,” he said. “I score at the rim a lot more and score above the rim.”
He credits much of his improvement to his trainer, Art Claybon, who he’s trained with since 2016.
“We mainly focused on intensified ball-handling drills, finishing drills and shooting drills all with contact from bigger defenders, so he got comfortable with that physicality at his size,” Claybon said
Now they focus more on change of pace, direction and working on getting to his spots on the court.
Last season at St. James Ball averaged 25.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists. He plans to play his senior season at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
Claybon’s biggest challenge is ensuring Ball finds the balance between his athleticism and his previous skills before his growth spurt. So he’s put Ball through all the same drills he does with his NBA clients, and against them, too.
“I put Solo in those groups because I want him to be able to pick guy’s brains who are better than him and where he wants to be,” Claybon said. “He soaks it all up.”
Ball knows his strengths. “Getting to the rim,” he said, “fast breaks, offensive rebounding and being a three-level scorer.” He feels his biggest weakness is consistency with his 3s and not taking more shots despite usually having great efficiency from the field.
After games with Team Melo in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League Ball frequently asks UConn coaches what he can improve on. He wants to make an immediate impact when he arrives in Storrs. He thinks his athleticism will translate right away in his first season but knows his shooting is the key.
“I think shooting is going to be a big piece of me getting to where I want to get,” Ball said. “My goal is 40% from 3 or as close to it as possible.”
Finding the right fit
Ball remembers watching Hurley at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November and being in awe. From that moment he knew who he wanted to play for.
“He really liked how Coach Hurley supported (UConn guard) Jordan Hawkins when he turned the ball over against Auburn,” Mike said. “Then they went into overtime and he put him back in the game. That stuck with him. He noticed how he would chest-bump the guys and he was just fiery.”
He never envisioned he would get an offer from the Huskies in April, but it became real when the UConn coaching staff came to see him play at St. James.
Assistant coach Luke Murray and Hurley frequently kept in touch and Solomon felt Murray did an excellent job of not overdoing it; all the texts felt meaningful.
“It didn’t seem like he (Murray) was trying to text other people,” he said. “It seemed like he was trying to text me.”
For Ball getting the UConn offer was truly special but he also had 14 others to consider. Ultimately it came down to UConn and the University of Southern California.
But his official visit sold Ball on the Huskies. Mike also felt the relationship Solomon had built with Hurley had tipped the balance in UConn’s favor. In many ways, Ball is the epitome of the high-character players Hurley tries to recruit.
“He is, without a doubt, the hardest-working basketball player I’ve ever been around,” Claybon said. “He is a winner. The dude understands what it takes to win. As long as he’s at UConn they are going to be in a great position to win. He’s going to push the needle forward and his work ethic is contagious.”
Ball has big goals for his time at UConn. He wants to be a top Big East freshman and eventually Big East Player of the Year. He also hopes for a deep NCAA tournament run.
“I think it’s possible; I just need to put in a lot of work,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of steps, but I am definitely ready for it. In the matter of a year, I am going to be so much better.”
Shreyas Laddha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at shre98 on Twitter.