2017 NBA Draft: Lonzo Ball or De'Aaron Fox, Who Ya Got?
Washington's Markelle Fultz remains the favorite to go first in the 2017 NBA draft. The No. 2 overall discussion features Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox, exciting point guards with contrasting styles and strengths.
The high-profile recruits from the same class had been tracked by scouts before ever hitting the college scene. NBA evaluators were then lucky enough to see Ball face Fox twice during the NCAA season.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who'll pick second, will have to make the big decision, but for possible trade-up purposes, teams around the league will still fill out their big boards. There should be a Fox vs. Ball debate going on within a number of NBA front offices.
It was mostly one-sided during the year until Fox closed the gap with a persuasive postseason run that culminated in a 39-point outburst against Ball's UCLA Bruins in the NCAA tournament.
So who looks like the better long-term prospect moving forward?
Fox's Pressure on the Defense
When putting them both under the NBA's scouting lens, Fox's speed and athleticism are unquestionably superior. He ranked No. 1 among power-conference guards with 5.9 points per game in transition, per Synergy Sports (via DraftExpress' Mike Schmitz and Matt Kamalsky).
Compared to Ball, he puts far more pressure on the defense with his first step, shiftiness off the dribble and explosiveness in the lane. Fox played 199 fewer minutes than Ball and finished with 113 more free-throw attempts.
Without traditional blow-by burst for the position, Ball will face questions about his ability to create. Can he get to the basket against a set defense once the game slows down? Three-quarters of his pick-and-rolls resulted in passes, per DraftExpress' Derek Bodner. Through 36 games at UCLA, he only recorded 23 unassisted field goals at the rim in the half court.
Fox had 59. His game is predicated on attacking, and he clearly has the NBA tools, quickness and bounce for the points in the paint to translate.
Fox's Scoring Versatility Versus Ball's Shooting
Fox also has the edge on Ball in the mid-range, which, when combined with the more dangerous drive-and-slash game, hints at Fox having higher upside as a scorer.
Though he only converted at a 36.2 percent rate, Fox still made 59 two-point jumpers, which include floaters and runners. He's not consistent, but he converted enough of them to confirm they're in the arsenal and capable of improving.
Ball only made 12 shots all season that weren't layups/dunks or threes. NBA teams that value analytics may see that as a plus, but not having a mid-range game or the jets to explode past defenders suggests his ceiling as a scorer is lower. It's worth thinking about, considering every All-Star guard in 2017 averaged at least 20 points per game.
"Ball would fit best with a team that can surround him with scorers," said one NBA scout.
However, Fox is far from a lock to join the 12 NBA point guards who averaged that many. Taking him over Ball would mean betting on Fox's shooting to make extraordinary progress.
He hit just 17 threes in 36 games at a 24.6 percent clip, while Ball drilled 80 on 41.2 percent. Ball consistently knocked down deep shots with confidence, and despite the unorthodox mechanics, it's become difficult to argue against the numbers and success.
Ball's Superior Floor Game and Efficiency
Though Fox is a threat from more spots from the floor, he wasn't overly sharp with his conversion rate or shot selection. Meanwhile, Ball rarely wasted possessions with bad two-point attempts or misses. He only took high-percentage looks and shot an astounding 73.2 percent inside the arc.
The argument for Ball centers around his efficiency and how it impacts the team's offense. The Bruins' No. 2-ranked offense in the country, per KenPom.com, had Ball's fingerprints all over it. The season before (without him), UCLA ranked outside the top 50 and shot 45.4 percent.
With Ball pressing the buttons at the point, the Bruins shot 52.2 percent this year as a group. He makes his mark by locating and feeding teammates in positions to take quality shots. The basketball doesn't stick—his vision and quick decision-making lead to open jumpers for shooters, while his unselfishness sets a tone and inspires ball movement.
NBA Fits and the Fear with Fox
Ball's fantastic passing has been well-documented for years, but his magic isn't defined by any one skill. The effect he had at UCLA was undeniable, and he did it with just an 18.1 percent usage rate.
Between his 6'6" size and shooting—along with the fact he doesn't need to dominate the rock—Ball won't have trouble fitting in anywhere. He should be fine playing alongside ball-handlers like D'Angelo Russell or Isaiah Thomas.
At 170 pounds, having shot 20 percent on half-court spot-ups, per Kamalsky and Schmitz, Fox doesn't offer great versatility or flexibility. He won't serve a purpose off the ball—only with it in playmaking positions off screens, isolation and transition.
But at this stage, Fox hasn't proved to be an advanced facilitator yet. His 28.6 assist percentage was lower than any other NCAA point guard expected to draw first-round interest, including Ball, Fultz, North Carolina State's Dennis Smith Jr. and Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans. Fox lacks Ball's pick-and-roll feel and natural instincts as a setup man.
Drafting him will mean handing the keys to a ball-dominator who's looked fair as a distributor and poor as a shooter. But at 19 years old, there is also a ton of time and room for Fox to improve, particularly with his mechanically sound outside shot (73.9 percent free throws).
NBA evaluators must decide on the likelihood of Fox going from weak to strong as a shooter and rudimentary to masterful as an orchestrator.
Fox has the edge on Ball defensively.
Fox is quicker laterally and plays lower to the ground. Ball compensates with defensive playmaking (1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks) fueled by timing and anticipation, but he's looked easy to get past and screen, and he didn't always close out fully on shooters.
Coaches will be able to use Fox to pick up full court and pressure at half court. His defense isn't a game-changer when comparing scouting reports, but it's a bigger selling point for Fox.
On paper, Fox may make more sense for the Lakers, considering they finished last in the league in defensive efficiency and D'Angelo Russell would then be able to shoot and play off the ball. Prospects' fit with the team should always factor into a general manager's evaluation and decision. But this high in the draft (top five), taking the best player available is still priority No. 1.
Who Ya Got?
For Fox, the realistic hope is that he becomes an average shooter at least—and still, most average-shooting guards aren't All-Stars.
He also isn't John Wall, who weighed 26 pounds (196) more at his combine and left Kentucky more polished as a passer. Coming out of college, Fox looks closer to Mike Conley, now a quality NBA starter valued for steady all-around play and defensive toughness.
"He's [Fox] quicker and more athletic than Mike, but same power and ball handling, likely similar strength and shot in prime," said one NBA scout.
Assuming Fox can take a few positive steps with his jumper, teams can't go wrong with him. His penetration and defense will carry over. "Fox had been undervalued. That kid is special," said one NBA executive. "Bottom line, there are really good point guards in this 2017 class."
But outside of Fultz, the draft's most complete player, nobody has the chance to lift a team like Ball or change its identity for the better.
"I have Fox over Ball. Better two-way player and I think his jumper will be fine," said the scout. "But I feel like most people I talk to have Ball, 70-30 or 60-40."
His strengths are inimitable. The comparisons to Jason Kidd stem from his ability to make a greater impact with his brain than others can with their talent.
"Ball has better leadership qualities...the kid is special," said an NBA executive. "He'll be a success in our league, a la Jason Kidd."
Ball isn't the next Kidd, but his potential to blaze a similarly unique path with wining plays over stats is too enticing.
Once Fultz is off the board, Ball gets the slight nod over Fox for best point guard available.