UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball has officially hijacked the 2017 NBA draft discussion.
His captivating style and compelling potential have emerged as one of its primary talking points early on. Though we're just two weeks into the season, he's on pace to join Jason Kidd as the only college players to average at least 15 points, nine assists and five rebounds, per Sports-Reference.com.
Ironically, Kidd is the name most frequently tossed around when formulating comparisons for Ball, whose signature passing and basketball IQ have looked as rare and strong as advertised. He has racked up four games of double-digit assists in seven tries and has the Bruins playing an unselfish, free-flowing (and winning) brand of ball.
Some have even suggested Ball is tracking toward the No. 1 overall conversation, though he still has a ways to go.
Fran Fraschilla @franfraschilla
So Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, & Lonzo Ball all pretty much locked into Top 6 in Draft & any one of them capable of going No. 1. Who else?2016-11-23 16:18:18
"I think Washington's Markelle Fultz is No. 1, and at this time I don't include Ball in that conversation, though I know some scouts that would," one scout told Bleacher Report. "I think Ball is a potential difference-maker on your team above and beyond North Carolina State's Dennis Smith Jr. for his ability to make others better."
"Fultz, with his shot-making has the advantage," an executive said. "But Ball has better leadership qualities...the kid is special. He'll be a success in our league, a la Jason Kidd. Smith has the tools—my concern is, can he lead, as the other two can lead better today? Smith is more quiet and moody."
With scoring point guards on the rise in the NBA, Ball resembles more of the forgotten true point guard—only he's 6'6", throws down one-handed alley-oops and blocks shots.
The obvious appeal will always come back to Ball's vision and ability to facilitate quality looks for teammates. As a team, UCLA is shooting 54.7 percent from the floor this year; it shot 45.4 percent without Ball a season ago.
It's been the right reads and extra passes—not the no-look or behind-the-back ones—that have led to such high assist totals and open shots for guards and bigs.
Ball makes quick decisions, which can be attributed to him knowing and seeing where all nine other players are before he gets the rock. He doesn't need to dance around with the dribble to create opportunities. Many of his assists come from behind the arc (or off an outlet in the backcourt), as opposed to off breakdown penetration inside it.
Compared to the nation's other premier point guard prospects, Ball's usage is significantly lower, though it hasn't affected his production.
|Point Guard Usage (Wasserman's Top 5 NCAA PG prospects)|
|Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State||34.9 percent|
|Markelle Fultz, Washington||29.1 percent|
|Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State||28.6 percent|
|De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky||23.7 percent|
|Lonzo Ball, UCLA||18.7 percent|
He has still shown the handle and enough burst to beat his man and get to the rack, where he's converted 20-of-25 field goals, per Hoop-Math.com.
The big, early surprise has been the jumper, which, no matter how ugly it looks coming out of his hands, continues to fall (18-of-37 from three). He doesn't lack confidence—a pair of early air balls against Texas A&M on Sunday night didn't stop him from firing away and eventually finding his stroke.
The question is whether November's success is sustainable, given his unorthodox mechanics. One scout described them as "fixable" and not a major concern.
What's more worrisome is how his scoring will translate.
Ball hasn't shown much of a pull-up game or floater yet, with 38 of his 39 made field goals either coming at the rim or from downtown. He's made just one shot in between, per Hoop-Math.com. And given his skinny frame (for finishing inside), lack of explosiveness in traffic and the NBA's far superior rim protection to the NCAA's, starting point guards are practically required to shoot off the dribble.
Of the top 15 NBA point guards in pull-up-shooting points per game (minimum five games), 14 of them also rank top-15 (among point guards) in player efficiency rating, per ESPN and NBA.com. Even if Ball winds up becoming one of the league's top distributors, how much will scoring limitations damage his value?
Teams must ultimately decide whether to covet the firepower Fultz and Smith bring to the table or Ball's knack for making those around him better.
I'm not ready to crown Ball as the draft's top prospect or playmaker, and chances are, he'll never leapfrog Fultz on my board.
But come June, we'll have a better idea of where he stands as a scorer and shooter; it will be up to scouts to determine how much it matters. As of now, they certainly appear accepting of him as an early draft pick in 2017.