UCLA’s freshman point guard Lonzo Ball is getting hyped as the best player in college basketball.
Beyond the hype, he very well could be.
Beyond being “the best player,” he very well could be the best pro prospect, too.
And even though we’ve only seen him for one college season, we think Ball is such an unusually gifted player that he might be one of the GOAT-types of talent – like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Steph Curry.
He truly is that good.
Even for fear of sounding like Ball's blustery, bombastic father LaVar Ball, we suspect dad might be right.
What puts him potentially in that rarefied air of some of the best human beings to play the sport of basketball?
It’s not just the pure talent he has, but of course, that’s a huge part of it. It’s the fact that he, like those GOATs before him, changes the culture and approach to the game when he steps on the court. He’s so mentally gifted at the game of basketball it becomes a different game when he plays it.
Pundits have made comparisons, and most often the go-to comparison is to Jason Kidd, and there are absolutely some similarities. Mostly, between Ball and Kidd, it’s the gift of passing. If you watch old clips of Kidd, his passes have the same kind of feel to them as Ball’s. Unexpected, timed perfectly, pinpoint and effortless. It represents a vision of the game, a way of seeing it, that only Ball – and very few other human beings – can see. It’s like he has on x-ray basketball goggles that allows him to see a play or scoring opportunity happening that other mortals don’t.
But Kidd didn’t necessarily change the game. He had a big impact on it when he played, but the “game” didn’t transform because of his impact or influence. That’s why we think Ball is best compared to Magic Johnson, who did impact and change the way the game was played. Johnson’s approach to the game changed everything. He created the Lakers’ Showtime because of his ability to create points on a fast break. There wasn’t anyone in the history of basketball who was better doing that than Johnson. He changed the halfcourt game, too, making the Lakers play a style of offensive basketball that was predicated on passing, and movement away from the ball to be open for that seeing-eye, brilliant pass. The Lakers’ offense in the 1980s was one-of-a-kind, and that didn’t just hatch from the mind of Lakers General Manager Jerry West or head coach Pat Riley. That was conjured up because of Magic’s magic. And really, we’ve never seen an offense like that again in basketball. You take Johnson off the floor and that magic disappears.
It’s the same with Ball.
The word “culture” is thrown around quite a bit when describing how Ball has changed the UCLA program, but that’s a lame attempt to really capture what Ball’s influence is. It’s more like a virus. Once you’re exposed to it, even without any acknowledgment or self-awareness, you’re infected by it. UCLA’s veteran guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton have clearly changed the way they approach and play the game when alongside Ball on the court. They now look to pass and make that extra pass. But it’s not just looking to pass, but a mindset of how offensive basketball functions at its best, a blend of movement, passing and mindset, with each piece on the same page of the magical basketball handbook.
So much of it, too, comes from what Ball’s teammates sense from him. He isn’t looking to “get his.” He’s not looking to rack up points. And let’s face it, so often very talented players in college basketball, while they say all the nice things in the post-game press conference, are out to pad their stat sheets for NBA scouts. Ball is absolutely different than that. He has plugged himself into the whole alternate universe of basketball in which he merely wants to optimize how well his team can perform. He very rarely does anything you would view as selfish on the court. Most every action he takes is a team-first move. Players sense that and feed off it. And, again, even if it’s involuntary, something clicks in the human DNA that this is the way to basketball Nirvana and you have to jump on the train.
Ball was ranked just 6th nationally in the class of 2016 by Scout.com. You’d say that was pretty high, right? But given what we’ve seen this year, the transformative type of basketball he plays, wouldn’t it have warranted an even higher ranking than No. 6?
“It was tough evaluating him, to be honest,” Josh Gershon, a Scout national basketball recruiting expert, said. “He played a brand of basketball on his high school and AAU teams that kind of masked the true level of player he was. For instance, he’d take ten 28-foot threes a game and make three of them and I’d think, ‘Well, he’s only a 30% three-point shooter,’ but he’s shown at UCLA he’s a 42% three-point shooter. As a prospect, he showed he was an excellent passer, but so much of it was just outlet passes to a teammate cherry-picking. It was difficult in that environment to actually be able to see the full Lonzo Ball.”
Ball, too, is deceptive in different ways. He’s a deceptive athlete. The way he moves, it appears he’s just a decent athlete moving laterally, but then there are times when he can take it to another level, especially on defense. “I never saw that extra gear in AAU ball,” Gershon said. “AAU ball is such a poor environment that most players coast through it. And Lonzo plays at a cruise level quite a bit, and he never felt the need to put it in that extra gear like he has at UCLA. On defense, he has shown he has the capability of being very quick laterally, and he absolutely never showed that before."
Gershon isn’t making excuses, by any means, and, after all, Scout did have him ranked as the No. 6 prospect in the nation, which indicates that he’s an elite prospect. Heck, remember that Michael Jordan was taken No. 3 and Kobe Bryant No. 13 in the NBA Draft. “I’ll completely take the responsibility for it if Lonzo ends up one of the greatest of all time. But sometimes with super elite prospects you just can’t see that extra transcendent level, and many times no one can, until he gets in an environment that enables you to put it in perspective,” said Gershon.
The thing is, too, Ball might not even be at the level yet where we’re seeing his talent realized fully. It could be that we’re still just seeing a glimpse of Ball’s upside. It does feel at times that he’s not playing to his full capability. That sounds like a slight on Ball, but it’s not. It’s more like he’s an immortal and he’s playing with mortals. You get the sense that he knows he could take just about anyone off the dribble but chooses not to. You get a sense he knows he could hit a 28-foot three-pointer at just about any time, but he only takes a few per game. There is absolutely a feeling that the UCLA fast break has reached just third or fourth gear, but he has the transmission to take it to six gears.
Plus, he still hasn't come close to developing his game completely. Right now, when scoring himself, he either shoots it from 28 feet or puts the ball on the floor. That means he still has a mid-range game to develop in his scoring arsenal. He's still pretty thin physically, and it will be interesting to see what type of player he is, on both sides of the court, when he's bigger physically. What kind of range will he develop with his outside shot when he gets stronger? And there's so much for him to learn -- like the ball-screen offense of the NBA, and it's exciting to think what Ball could do with it. This is still like Superman when he first discovered his super powers as a kid in Smallville.
It will be one of the most interesting things to come out of UCLA basketball in a very long time – seeing how Ball and his game translate to the NBA, and how he could use that higher platform to reach his ceiling.
This season, of course, Ball might not win any post-season awards as the best player in the country. When it comes to post-season awards, it all depends on whether you lead your team to a championship or not. So, whether Ball wins any post-season player-of-the-year awards will come down to how far UCLA goes in the Tournament.
But regardless of whether he actually wins the award, Ball is probably the nation's best player.
Beyond “best player,” he probably is the best long-term prospect, too. How high a player goes in the NBA Draft is generally a good indication of what kind of pro prospect he is (even though, as we said, the NBA has been wrong before), and generally the word is that he and Washington freshman guard Markelle Fultz will go 1-2 in the Draft June 22nd.
We can make a pretty easy argument, though, that Ball is the superior pro prospect to Fultz. Fultz might be the superior scorer, averaging 23 points per game (which led the Pac-12), but Fultz doesn’t have Ball’s transformative force. And, actually, you feel if Ball were asked to be primarily a scorer, like Fultz is, he’d perhaps easily score 23 points per game. He has that ability. He’s again, very Magic Johnson-esque in that way, that he could be just about any player you wanted him to be. If you remember, Johnson had one of the best games in NBA history in the 6th game of the 1980 NBA Finals when, with an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the sideline, the rookie point guard Johnson played center (and just about every position on the court by the end of the game), collected 42 points and 15 rebounds (along with 7 assists) to win the NBA Championship. Johnson, at the time, since he left Michigan State after just two seasons, was only 20 years old.
Of course, it’s a stretch to say anyone is the next Magic Johnson. But in leading UCLA to the Sweet 16 with a win over Cincinnati Sunday, he put that extra-terrestrial, Magic-like level of basketball talent on display, for seemingly the world to see for the first time. The CBS commentators, who of course probably never venture across the Mississippi during the college basketball regular season, were raving about Ball after the game, saying he was the best player in college basketball, and even better in person.
UCLA fans speculate whether UCLA will be able to maintain the environment and culture of this team when Ball moves on after this season. Of course it can’t. Ball is the environment and the culture. It’s like speculating whether the Lakers would have been able to maintain their style of play after Magic retired. This isn’t Xs and Os, and it isn’t coaching (but give UCLA coach Steve Alford credit for being able to harness Ball’s transcendental game. He absolutely enabled it to happen, which many coaches wouldn’t have been able to do). This is Lonzo Ball.
It’s a bit of a shame that we weren’t able to enjoy and immerse ourselves in Lonzo Ball Ball for longer than one season at UCLA. Greg Hicks said to me Monday, “It almost feels like a dream that Ball was in a UCLA uniform, that you almost didn’t have a chance to enjoy it before it’s over.” But like with everything that is brilliant and beautiful in life, you have to appreciate it while you have it.
Ball will move on to other-worldly heights, but as UCLA fans, we’ll always seen him in that UCLA uniform for his one season as a Bruin.
Whether he immortalizes himself in UCLA’s history with a National Championship or not, what he’s done at UCLA for just one year is already immortalized in our minds as some of the best basketball to ever be played by someone in that UCLA uniform.