Monday, July 22

Li for 3: Lonzo Ball is the force turning UCLA men’s basketball around

Freshman guard Lonzo Ball is third in points scored on No. 4 UCLA men's basketball with 250 points, but leads the team with 136 assists – 59 more than any other member. (Miriam Bribiesca/Photo Editor)

Freshman guard Lonzo Ball is third in points scored on No. 4 UCLA men's basketball with 250 points, but leads the team with 136 assists – 59 more than any other member. (Miriam Bribiesca/Photo Editor)

It’s becoming more obvious by the day that Lonzo Ball is one of the most tantalizing players to come to UCLA basketball in almost a decade.

Yes, he’s one of the best in the country this season, but perhaps more importantly, he’s almost single-handedly turning around the program. That’s not something you can say about potential top-three pick freshman guard Markelle Fultz and the 8-7 Washington Huskies.

Last year, the Bruins floundered their way to a 15-17 season and in the process completely missed out on the NCAA Tournament. In just 17 games this year, No. 4 UCLA has already surpassed that win total with a 16-1 record, with its eyes fixed on a Final Four run.

Coach Steve Alford handed the keys of the team to Ball from the moment he stepped foot in Westwood. With the full support and confidence of his coach and senior guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, the freshman guard has quickly transformed the stuttering hand-me-down sedan into a roaring Ferrari.

UCLA’s 77.5 points per game on 45.4 percent shooting leapt to 92.8 points on a 53.4 percent clip. Somehow, these numbers don’t even seem to highlight the drastic difference after a year that was equal part boring and equal part frustrating.

Now, UCLA is elite in virtually every offensive statistical category with Ball helming the free-moving, pass-happy offense. The Bruins rank third in the nation in points per game, first in assists per game, third in 3-point shooting and second in field goal percentage.

The explosive yet unselfish guard molded the team right in his image. UCLA’s nation-leading 22.8 assists per game laps the next closest team by 3.3 assists while six different Bruins average more than 10 points per game.

Steve Alford said Ball is the best player in the country at pushing the pace. Off a miss, make or steal, he’s always looking to run – Ball might also be one of the fastest players with the ball in his hands.

On the surface, UCLA’s offense resembles the systems of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. But honestly, neither of those elite teams showcase a star as dynamic as Ball.

He blends creative, pinpoint passing and beyond-NBA range 3-pointers with elite speed and athleticism that makes rim-rattling alley-oop dunks an almost nightly event.

[In-depth: Family, dedication at the heart of Lonzo Ball’s game]

All this means is that even with an average defense, the wins are piling up and the crowds are desperate to catch a glimpse of the show. After years of low attendance, there’s already been three sellouts in the first 10 games at Pauley Pavilion. Two happened last week in the first two home conference games of the season, so expect that number to climb over the remaining nine.

Credit it all to Lonzo Ball and his stat-sheet-stuffing 14.7 points, 8.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 1.1 blocks, 52.8 field goal percentage and 43.2 percent shooting from 3s.

Of course, the other Bruin freshman phenom TJ Leaf is also instrumental to all the newfound success this season. The forward leads the team in both scoring and rebounding with 17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds, but he’s merely a cog – albeit an important one – in the system.

Ball is the system. Without him orchestrating the flow of offense, there’s no way Leaf would be shooting 65.4 percent from the field. For that matter, Bryce Alford wouldn’t be hitting 48.9 percent of his shots after shooting 38.5 percent last year.

Take Ball off the team and we’re probably looking at another middle-of-the-road team on the bubble of making the NCAA Tournament come March. UCLA would definitely not be drawing the national attention and hype it has all season.

You wouldn’t know it by watching or talking to the always cool, calm and collected Ball, but he’s becoming one of the most important Bruins in recent history, joining the ranks of NBA All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. Those two led UCLA to its last Final Four in 2008.

Before the season even started, Ball stated plainly that his goal for the year was to take the team as far as he can – hopefully a Final Four run – and then enter the NBA draft to live out his dream.

About halfway through, Ball and the Bruins look on-track to hit those goals. Even if UCLA falls short, his legacy has already been set. He’s brought excitement back to UCLA basketball on a national level.

Perhaps the only thing that could further cement his status among Bruin lore is a national championship.

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