Lonzo Ball vs. Markelle Fultz: NBA Scouts Split on No. 1 Pick Debate

Jonathan WassermanNBA Lead WriterFebruary 14, 2017

UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2) defends Washington's Markelle Fultz in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Seattle. UCLA won 107-66. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Whichever team wins the NBA draft lottery will entertain pitches from two completely different point guards.

Washington's Markelle Fultz has been and continues to be the more popular choice for top prospect in the country. "It's not even a debate," a West Coast scout told Bleacher Report in January.

"I'm sticking with Fultz," another said this past Thursday. "Realistically, I don't think there is anything left to see."

However, UCLA's Lonzo Ball has gradually strengthened his case with wins, clutch play and intangibles, all of which are absent from Fultz's resume. 

"I think Lonzo has made up ground to the point where he would be a better fit for some teams drafting No. 1 overall, but probably not most," a third scout said.

At the least, his rise has raised some doubt over Fultz being the clear-cut top prospect, even if it's just from a fraction of the NBA. One executive pointed out that teams who are split on multiple prospects will typically use fit or need as a tiebreaker. 

For Ball, all it's going to take is one of those hesitant general managers to win the lottery. 

Scout No. 3 suggested a franchise already equipped with scorers would be the most likely to consider Ball at No. 1. That could mean the Phoenix Suns (projected to pick No. 2), who have two players averaging 20-plus points. Or even the Los Angeles Lakers, who don't have a single player on the roster dishing out five assists per game. (Especially since current Lakers point guard D'Angelo Russell mostly played the 2 in college.)

Ball's obvious appeal stems from his ability to run a set, move the rock and create high-percentage shots for teammates, whether it's by pushing the break or setting the table in the half court. 

A lineup in need of leadership could value his knack for taking control and guiding his crew like a pilot flying through turbulence. We saw it Thursday night when he carried UCLA back from a double-digit deficit against Oregon.

But the concerns over Ball's potential center around his scoring upsidearguably Fultz's most compelling selling point. 

Fultz is 18 years old and averages 23.2 points per game, which is tied for fourth in the country (leads freshmen). He's already hit the 30-point mark five times, and despite the empty production—Washington is 9-15—he's been efficient, shooting 47.9 from the floor and 42.1 percent from three.  

Fultz has demonstrated highly advanced shot-creating and shot-making skills from all over the floor, thanks to a nifty handle, tricky hesitation moves and the ability to convert tightly contested jumpers.

You get the impression he can get off a clean look for himself whenever he chooses.

His 82 made two-point jumpers compared to Ball's five, per Hoop-Math.com, highlight a far more well-rounded and dangerous scoring attack.

However, Ball's surprisingly consistent three-point shooting has played a large role in him gaining credibility as a viable No. 1 overall option. Despite questions coming into the season about his perimeter game and unorthodox mechanics, Ball is still hitting 2.4 threes per game at a 43 percent clip three months into the season

Even though he's failed to showcase a mid-range pull-up or floater game, those who put stock in analytics may actually reward Ball for his shot selection. 93.1 percent of his attempts are taken at the rim or behind the arc—the sweet spots of modern basketball efficiency

On the other hand, while Ball is widely known for his vision and passingwhat his identity is built around and perceived strengths Washington's floor general can't matchFultz offers high-level playmaking of his own, along with the superior scoring arsenal. 

Fultz's 35.1 assist percentage is actually higher than Ball's 30.8 percent, per Sports-Reference.com.

Unselfish, crafty off-ball screens and a willing drive-and-kick distributor, Fultz's facilitating is a major plus, even if Ball is considered the elite distributor. 

Ball (22 points, six rebounds, five assists) and Fultz (25 points, six rebounds, five assists) each looked sharp during their first meeting of the season on February 4, though there is only so much scouts can take away from UCLA's 41-point blowout. 

At this stage, over 20 games in, scouts already have a good grasp on each player and what they do and don't bring to the table. 

Fultz will have a significant edge heading into the draft, based on higher upside fueled by exciting athleticism and versatility, which his enormous numbers help validate. He's on pace to become the only player in 25 years to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists and shoot 40 percent from three. 

The fact that scoring point guards are in these days doesn't hurt, either. 

But because Ball is so unique, not every team will evaluate him the traditional way. And by eliminating shooting as a red flag or weakness, he's inched closer to Fultz in terms of matching offensive skills and firepower. 

It now seems possible that Ball's previously mentioned wins, clutch play and intangibles can help close the gap for the right team—one that could use a passing quarterback to maximize the roster's potential.

Most scouts still favor Fultz as of February, and rightly so—we've had him ranked No. 1 since the summer. A funny bounce of the ping pong balls could change the current draft projections, though.

                        

Jonathan Wasserman covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him @NBADraftWass.

Stats courtesy of Hoop-Math.com, Sports-Reference.com and ESPN. All quotes obtained firsthand.