feb 3, 2017 | BEN BOLCH | THE L.A. TIMES | ARTICLE LINK
NBA executives pondering whether to take Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz with one of the top picks in the June draft might feel like art dealers choosing between Da Vinci and Van Gogh.
It’s all a matter of taste.
Fultz is a high-volume scorer who is so versatile he may not have a weakness besides his team’s record.
Ball is one of the most dynamic passers to play in college in years, a savvy ballhandler who is stirring reminders of another golden age of basketball in Los Angeles.
“The last time I saw something like this,” Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said Friday, “was Magic Johnson with the Lakers.”
Showtime for the freshman point guards, who could go one after the other atop the 2017 draft, will be Saturday night at Alaska Airlines Arena, where 21 NBA scouts are expected to watch Ball’s No. 11 UCLA Bruins face Fultz’s Huskies.
Ball has already one-upped his counterpart by beating him in the McDonald’s All-American game. He’s also undeniably leading in the fun quotient since the start of their college careers.
After UCLA defeated Washington State on Wednesday night to improve to 20-3 overall and 7-3 in Pac-12 Conference play, Ball lingered in a hallway inside Beasley Coliseum to smile for photos and sign autographs.
“We’re in a pretty good spot, you know?” Ball said. “Really can’t have no complaints.”
Fultz could easily grumble about his fortunes. The highest-ranked prospect in the history of the Washington basketball program crossed the country from his home in Upper Marlboro, Md., to play for a team that has gone 9-13 overall, 2-8 in the Pac-12, putting it in 11th place.
“Of course, I wish we would have had some more wins,” Fultz said, “but everything happens for a reason, as my mom always tells me, and I’m just blessed to have this opportunity to go through this with this team and become a better leader, which is helping me. I just like challenges and this is just another challenge in my life and I still have belief.”
Fultz knows how quickly things can change. He went from the junior varsity as a sophomore at famed DeMatha Catholic High to an All-American as a junior.
He’ll probably never become a college sophomore, considering several mock drafts have him projected as the top pick, one or two spots ahead of Ball.
“I think that whole question of who’s going to go one, who’s going to go two, a lot of that will be determined by who gets that pick and their roster composition,” an NBA scout who planned to attend the game between the Bruins and Huskies said. “If you already have someone at the point and can slide Markelle in next to them it might make some sense, whereas Lonzo’s skill set lends itself more to having the ball in his hands and being that traditional point guard.”
The 6-foot-4 Fultz is 2 inches shorter than Ball but ranks above him in a few statistical categories. He’s the Pac-12’s leading scorer, averaging 23.1 points per game after becoming the first Husky during Romar’s 15-season tenure to score at least 30 points in three consecutive games. Fultz also averages 6.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists, making him one of the most well-rounded players in the country.
“It’s kind of hard to find a weaknesses with Markelle,” said the scout, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized by his team to share opinions publicly. “He does a lot of things really well.”
The nitpickers will point to his 3.0 turnovers per game and 65.3% accuracy from the free-throw line, which are well below average for a point guard.
Ball leads the nation with 8.0 assists per game while orchestrating an offense that ranks second in the nation by averaging 92.3 points. He’s also making 42.2% of his three-pointers despite a funky shooting motion that has drawn criticism from outsiders.
“I’ve told him, the prettiest shots are the ones that go in,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said recently, “and his shot is pretty pretty right now.”
The same could be said for the Bruins’ record, which is putting it in contention for a No. 2 or a No. 3 seeding in the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, the Huskies appear bound to miss the NCAA tournament for a sixth consecutive season, barring a miracle turnaround such as winning the Pac-12 tournament.
Washington’s primary problems have been on defense, extended lulls and finishing games. The Huskies held a 10-point halftime lead over USC on Wednesday before badly faltering in an 82-74 loss.
Don’t blame Fultz. He had 20 points, six assists, five rebounds and two blocks.
The NBA scout said teams aren’t reading too much into the success of the Bruins versus the failures of the Huskies as they evaluate which point guard they would prefer.
“I don’t think it’s all Lonzo,” the scout said of UCLA’s success. “He’s making those guys better, there’s no question, but if the situation was flipped, I think Markelle would be winning a lot of games with those [UCLA] guys around him as well.”
Predictably, Ball and Fultz formed a mutual admiration society when asked about one another.
Said Fultz: “He’s a great player. I mean, he’s a good point guard, he can pass the ball really well, he can score the ball, he sees the game good, so I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
Said Ball: “He’s a scorer and I try to get my teammates involved, but … he’s a great player, so whatever he does usually works.”
Both approaches figure to be fairly lucrative come June.
UCLA UP NEXT
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday.
Where: Alaska Airlines Arena, Seattle.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570.
Update: Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said UCLA’s tempo and versatility remind him of the 1995 Bruins, who won the national championship while he was an assistant under Jim Harrick. UCLA hopes to get freshman forward Ike Anigbogu back for the game against the Huskies after he sat out the Bruins’ 95-79 victory over Washington State on Wednesday as a precaution because of recent discomfort in his surgically repaired right knee. Gyorgy Goloman was the only big man who played off the bench in Anigbogu’s absence, leading to a seven-man rotation. That’s been a lucky number so far this season for the Bruins. “When we’ve played seven guys we’ve been really good,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said, “so that rotation’s been very, very good to us.”