Lonzo Ball pitted against top point guard in long-awaited showdown
Freshman Lonzo Ball will have a faceoff with another elite point guard in Washington’s Markelle Fultz. The freshmen have consistently been the top-two point guards in NBA mock drafts. (Michael Zshornack/Assistant Photo editor)
Feb. 2, 2017 10:08 p.m.
The nation’s top two prospects, both playing the same position, going head-to-head – it’s the type of matchup scouts dream about and drool over.
Well, cut the dreaming and cue the drooling.
Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz will finally face off Saturday when No. 11 UCLA (20-3, 7-3 Pac-12) heads to Washington (9-13, 2-8).
For months, the two freshmen point guards have sat together at the top of one NBA mock draft after another.
Fultz’s name is usually above Ball’s because whereas Ball faces questions about his shooting mechanics or his ability to score off the dribble, Fultz doesn’t really have a weakness.
At 6-foot-4, he’s a couple inches shorter than Ball but still plenty big for a point guard – especially when you consider his 6-foot-10 wingspan – and he’s shown off a complete skillset.
“The game just comes so easy to him,” an NBA executive told ESPN Insider’s Jeff Goodman. “He can get in the paint. He can shoot it. He is capable of defending, and he’s got the size and athleticism. Sure, he hasn’t won a ton of games – but there’s not a lot of talent around him, either.”
Ball is known more for his elite passing ability, which has produced an NCAA-leading eight assists per game this year. Add in the fact that he’s drilling 42.2 percent of his 3-pointers, and you’ll see why many scouts have compared him to “Jason Kidd with a jump shot.”
Interestingly enough, Kidd is the only other major-conference player ever to match Ball’s averages of 14.8 points, 8.0 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game, according to Basketball Reference’s Play Index, which includes data going back to the 1992-1993 season.
Fultz’s stat line is just as impressive, if in a different way.
He’s averaging a conference-leading 23.1 points to go with six assists and six rebounds per game. No college player – in any conference, major or minor – has ever produced those numbers over a full season, according to the Play Index.
From a pure scoring standpoint, the only two major-conference freshmen to average as many points as Fultz were Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley. And no Pac-12 player, of any experience level, has averaged 23 points per game since 1997.
Though he plays mostly on the ball, Fultz is a dangerous shooting threat as well. He’s made 41.3 percent of his 3s, and he has an effective field goal percentage of 59.6 on catch-and-shoot opportunities, per Synergy Sports. Ball’s mark on catch-and-shoot jumpers, for comparison, is an even more impressive 66.9 percent.
Both players get over 20 percent of their offense in transition, but in the half-court, their approaches are different.
The focal point of Washington’s offense is the pick-and-roll with Fultz handling the ball. It’s a dangerous action because Fultz is so versatile: He’s capable of pulling up and draining a jumper, exploding to the rim or finding a teammate for an open look.
Ball, on the other hand, mostly operates within the flow of the Bruins’ motion offense, launching deep 3-pointers if left open or using his excellent vision to feed teammates. He’s also been extremely efficient in limited isolation opportunities.
Defensively, neither player is fully polished, but both possess the size and length to be effective on that end of the floor. Fultz is considered to perhaps be slightly quicker and more athletic.
The disparity in their supporting casts does complicate the comparison somewhat, according to an NBA scout, because Fultz is forced to carry a subpar team while Ball is surrounded by a wealth of scoring options.
“You have to be smart when you watch these guys because you can look at Washington real quickly and say Markelle Fultz stinks,” an NBA scout said. “If (UCLA) was a team that couldn’t make shots, Lonzo wouldn’t look as great. Fultz can make all the right passes and have great vision but if his guys aren’t finishing, he only gets five assists in a game.”
Ultimately, though, the scout said it’s clear that, as good as his teammates are, Ball is the engine that keeps the Bruins humming.
“These are all really good players, but Lonzo is the straw that stirs the drink,” the scout said. “The drink is full of very talented guys, but it takes someone like that who demands a lot of attention from defenses that will give them other opportunities.”
Ball will have an opportunity of his own Saturday, this time to show that his name belongs above Fultz’s on the many mock drafts to come.
UCLA put up 95 points Wednesday night, but only connected on a season-low three 3-pointers. Coach Steve Alford said it was a result of Washington State’s defensive game plan.
“They were very concerned about the 3 ball, rightly so,” Alford said. “But I think that opened up a lot of driving lanes and things at the basket, and our guys did a good job with that.”
The Bruins took 27 shots at the rim, well above their average of 20.5 per game, according to Hoop-Math, and converted on over 80 percent of them.
Wednesday’s success inside brought the Bruins’ field goal percentage on the season to 73.1 percent, per Hoop-Math. That’s the fifth-best mark in all of Division I.