Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Get the Popcorn Ready for Lonzo Ball vs. De’Aaron Fox in Battle of One-and-Done Point Guards
UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball will enter Saturday’s game at No. 1 Kentucky having been named the MVP of the Wooden Classic and the Pac-12 Player of the Week.
Kentucky freshman De’Aaron Fox will enter the game against No. 11 UCLA coming off just the second triple-double in Kentucky history (an accomplishment that was later disputed by ESPN, but then determined to be legitimate by the official scorer).
Go ahead and get the popcorn ready for this nationally televised matchup featuring these two Speedy Gonzales-type floor generals of undefeated teams.
The 6-foot-6 Ball is now projected as the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, while the 6-4 Fox is currently projected at No. 10. Expect a slew of NBA personnel and Draft experts to attend this game and also scrutinize it on TV.
“I think the Kentucky game on Saturday is going to be a huge test [for Ball], I think that’s going to teach us a lot [about] where he is at this stage,” Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress said this week on The 4 Quarters Podcast.
Because of his team’s run-and-gun style, Givony initially had some question marks about Ball despite the fact that he took his Chino Hills High team to a perfect 35-0 record and a California state title last season.
But Givony recently moved Ball to No. 4 on his mock from No. 16. ESPN’s Chad Ford has Ball at No. 3. All of this hype has inspired NBA Tank Slogans, such as “Take a fall for Lonzo Ball” or “Lose ‘Em All for Lonzo Ball.”
“Lonzo is a guy that played at a high school that played a very unique style,” Givony said. “There were some question marks about how that would translate and to his credit it’s translated much better than anyone possibly could have predicted on both ends of the floor. He’s got that every unconventional shooting stroke but it’s really falling.
“He’s doing some impressive things defensively, too. There’s not a lot to nitpick at this point. I mean UCLA talent-wise looks like a very, very average team when he’s not on the floor. I’ve been very very impressed. He took a big bump in our mock and I think he could continue to rise if he continues to play like this.”
Ball was the crown jewel of Coach Steve Alford’s 2016 recruiting class ranked No. 4 by Scout.com. (Their 2017 class is rated No. 2 behind Kentucky).
Now Alford is raving about a “special” player who could be one of the first couple picks of the 2017 Draft.
“With Lonzo [in the] top 5, I know if I’m at that level, I’ve got him higher than that,” Alford said on The 4 Quarters Podcast. “I just think he’s special. You don’t get point guards that are that size with that length, with that basketball IQ and somebody that can change the game in so many ways. Lonzo can change it through passing, he can change it through defense and his ability to get deflections and steals. He can do it through rebounding and then when you forget about him he can score 9, 10 points in a minute. He’s such a versatile point guard and he’s fun to play with and I think that’s what you see our team enjoying right now, is people like playing with him.”
Ball is averaging averaging 14.6 points, 9.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds, and leads Division 1 in assists. He established UCLA’s single-game freshman assists record on Wednesday against UC Riverside (13 assists), surpassing a mark set by Pooh Richardson (12 assists) on Jan. 11, 1986 in a double-overtime win at Washington State. Ball already has four double-doubles through eight games, and in two of those games he had 8 rebounds.
“Ball is J-Kidd,” ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla told ZAGSBLOG, referring to Jason Kidd. “He takes a snap shot and throws passes to teammates who don’t even know they’re going to be open.’
“I think he’s a Jason-Kidd type,” one NBA scout added. “He has tremendous court vision, great understanding, is a great passer and has great size.”
“He will definitely be a UCLA Hall of Famer,” former UCLA point guard Baron Davis told TMZSports.com. “He’s following right after Russ [Westbrook] and all the rest of the great point guards.”
Meantime, Kentucky’s Fox comes into the UCLA game coming off a triple-double against a Bobby Hurley-led Arizona State team that inspired awe from the former Duke legend.
“He’s a really, really, really talented guy,” said Hurley, who led Duke to back-to-back NCAA titles in the early 1990s. “I’m a big fan of his.”
While Ball compares to Kidd, Fraschilla sees a more apt comparison for the super-quick Fox, whom Kentucky coach John Calipari has suggested is faster than former Kentucky point guard John Wall of the Wizards.
“Fox moves and has the athleticism of [Knicks point guard] Brandon Jennings when he was in high school but he is a better point guard and decision-maker at the same time,” he said.
Texas A&M coach Rick Stansbury went as far as to compare Fox to Westbrook, who is currently averaging a triple-double in the NBA.
“That is the type player he is,” he said in October. “He has special quickness. He has special athleticism. The thing he needs only time will cure and that is strength,” Stansbury said. “As far as his abilities and competitiveness, his best days will be down the road.
“As good as he will be for Kentucky in this one year they have him or whatever it is, his best days will be down the road when his strength catches up some.”
Fox is averaging 15.3 points, 7.6 assists and 5.7 rebounds. Only two players in Division 1 have more assists than Fox — Ball and Creighton’s Maurice Watson.
Many of Fox’s assists go to freshman backcourt-mate Malik Monk, a freak of an athlete now projected at No. 5 by DraftExpress.com.
With Ball, Fox and Monk in the game, along with a host of other NBA prospects, this game should be a fun one to watch.
“I think both [Fox and Monk] have been tremendous so far,” Givony said. “I think both the guys have helped themselves quite a bit. They’re putting up big numbers and they obviously have tremendous athleticism and talent. I’ve been really impressed with both of them and I think that Kentucky looks like they have a loaded team. They look like they have a Final Four contender for sure.”
Asked if he’s looking forward to the Ball-Fox matchup like the fans with their popcorn will, Alford said: “With me being [Ball’s] coach and the team’s coach, I just look forward to the matchup of UCLA and Kentucky. I think that’s what I look forward to.”
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.