NCAA Tournament

Lonzo Ball’s game at UCLA has the bite to back up his father’s bark

Freshman point guard Lonzo Ball and his UCLA teammates step onto the main court for the Bruins’ practice on Thursday at Golden 1 Center. Ball is expected to leave UCLA after one season and be a top pick in the NBA draft.
Freshman point guard Lonzo Ball and his UCLA teammates step onto the main court for the Bruins’ practice on Thursday at Golden 1 Center. Ball is expected to leave UCLA after one season and be a top pick in the NBA draft. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Nearly a year ago, Lonzo Ball was in Sacramento, in uniform on the Kings’ home court, playing for a championship – in high school.

Ball is back this weekend, though the building, stage and stakes have changed. As the NCAA Tournament commences, the lanky, laid-back freshman is the point guard and undisputed star of third-seeded UCLA, and the main reason some are pegging the Bruins for a deep run in what is likely to be Ball’s first and only taste of March Madness.

“He does a great job of not letting pressure get to him,” teammate Bryce Alford said. “Obviously, with who he is, there’s a lot of pressure that comes behind just the name he has in college basketball.”

Ball, the dynamic 6-foot-6, 190-pound guard from Chino Hills, is the most recognizable player that will play at Golden 1 Center, if not the entire tournament. After leading UCLA’s revival in his first season in Westwood, he is expected to be a top-five pick in this year’s NBA draft.

Analysts laud his decision-making and poise. With Ball running the point, the Bruins, who face Kent State in the opening round of the South Regional on Friday, went from 15-17 a year ago to 29-4 this season with the highest-scoring offense in the nation.

“Lonzo can beat you by getting 15 rebounds, 15 assists, 25 points, guarding your best player on the other team,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said. “He’s so disruptive to the other team because of his skill set.”

Even if you haven’t seen Ball play, you may know his family. His father, LaVar, has seized headlines and sound bites with a series of brash claims, such as Lonzo being a better player than Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, the reigning two-time NBA MVP. Ball’s two younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, are UCLA commits, the latter becoming a viral internet sensation earlier this year after he scored 92 points in a high school game.

The family has been the subject of an ESPN feature and numerous profiles, while LaVar has already created a brand for his sons – “Big Baller Brand” – with a website selling logoed apparel. Lonzo’s image was recently removed from the website amid questions about whether it violated NCAA rules about using student-athletes’ likenesses for profit (the NCAA said it looked into the matter and did not levy any sanctions against Ball).

All of which has partly eclipsed what Ball has done on the court. Along with leading the nation with 7.7 assists per game, Ball has averaged 14.6 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 54.4 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three. His efficiency is eye-popping – a 66.7 true shooting percentage, despite an unorthodox shooting motion.

Yet even those stats don’t fully capture the impact Ball has had on the Bruins. Another freshman, TJ Leaf, is UCLA’s leading scorer, but Ball has been their catalyst, running an offense that averages 90.4 points per game.

“He’s able to get a ton of stats while still making his team and teammates better,” said CBS college basketball analyst and writer Seth Davis. “That’s pretty unusual in, like, NBA players. The fact he’s able to do that as a freshman in college is really impressive.”

A prime example is the play of Bryce Alford, who was UCLA’s point guard before Ball arrived. Now able to play off the ball and catch-and-shoot more, Alford is shooting 45.2 percent from the floor, nearly 7 percent higher than last season. Ball, meanwhile, has looked just as comfortable making plays for teammates as hoisting 3-pointers.

“I’ve often thought it’s one of the toughest things in sports for a great scoring point guard to decide: Do I get my own or do I set up my guys?” Davis said. “That takes a lot of time to develop. But he seems to have that sense innately in terms of when he’s supposed to make those decisions.”

Ben Braun, a Pac-12 Network analyst who formerly coached at Cal and Rice, pointed to how Steve Alford often puts the offense in Ball’s hands with the shot clock winding down, spacing the other Bruins in the halfcourt and letting Ball go to work.

“If you’re playing man-to-man, you’re asking somebody to keep Lonzo Ball in front of you,” Braun said. “That’s not doable.

“You’re asking him to step out and guard (Ball) well beyond 3-point range – well, that’s not doable because if you pressure him out there, he’s by you. If you sag on him he’ll pull up on you. And if you funnel him to the basket, he’s going to finish or find somebody.”

Such a scenario bred one of Ball’s biggest moments this season. On Feb. 9, in the final minute of a game UCLA led by two over then-No. 5 Oregon, Ball isolated against a defender near the top of the key, stepped back and buried a 3-pointer from 30 feet.

It helped the Bruins secure a win in a game they’d trailed by 19 points. It also illustrated another coveted trait of Ball, who had played a poor first half and finished the game with just one assist against three turnovers.

“He just doesn’t seem to get shook,” Braun said. “He seems to be able to let go of some of his mistakes, and that’s a sign of a mature-type player.

“Coaches are always saying, ‘Next play, next play.’ Well, he’s already on the next play. He’s not dwelling on the past. That makes him special to me.”

Asked for a player Ball reminds them of, Davis and Braun made the same comparison: Jason Kidd, another big, play-making point guard. Ball may already be a better shooter. Kidd, though, also made several All-Defensive teams during his long NBA career. And that is one area where Ball likely faces a learning curve at the next level.

Davis said Ball has the “competitive will” to defend but also has “some bad habits. He’s more of a risk-taker, going for steals and taking some bad risks. He certainly has all the tools and great size to play good defense but he’s never really had to. At the next level, he’s going to have to.”

There is also the question of how Ball’s jump shot will translate to the NBA. Ball starts his motion from a low position, near his waist, bringing the ball across his body and releasing from the left side of his head. While he is accurate with it, defenders in the NBA will be better about staying close to him and pressuring his shot.

These things seem of little concern to one outspoken supporter of Ball – his father. In a recent interview with the Boston Globe , LaVar Ball said: “Whatever team (Lonzo) goes to, he’s going to do wonders for that team. Whether it be the Lakers, Celtics, Phoenix, anybody.”

That was fairly tame for the elder Ball, who has also claimed he could have beaten Michael Jordan one-on-one and feuded publicly with former NBA star Charles Barkley. Some have speculated whether that attention might have a negative effect on his son or his draft stock. Lonzo, though, denies that his father has been a distraction.

“He’s been like that my whole life,” Ball said Thursday. “It’s nothing new to me.”

Steve Alford also said the noise has not affected his team, which is trying to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2008.

“It’s been no distraction to us, and a lot of that has to do with Lonzo, who he is, a strong-willed kid, way beyond his 18 years of age,” Alford said. “He’s a special talent, both mentally and physically, and it’s how he’s wired.

“So I’m excited. I can’t wait until 7 o’clock (Friday) night to where we can tip this thing and get this tournament under way. Because this is what he’s been built for.”

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