LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, has for months boldly guaranteed that his son would be playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. There were so many variables that had to fall in place for that to happen that Ball’s pronouncement was met with amusement but little more.
Laker fans knew how to keep Ball’s statements in perspective. The year before they saw future No. 1 draft pick, Ben Simmons, proudly wearing his Magic Johnson jersey and later pronouncing on Snapchat, “You can catch me on the Lakers next year.” The year before that, they heard Duke star Jahlil Okafor profess his childhood love for the purple and gold. For different reasons, both players ended up elsewhere.
Then the unlikely happened – the Lakers not only kept their top-three protected pick, they found out they would select second in the 2017 NBA Draft, not third. As if it were fate, everything lined up perfectly for Lonzo Ball to become a Laker, and it is now sure to happen. Or is it? There are three scenarios in which Ball could still end up elsewhere.
First, he may not be available for the Lakers because the Boston Celtics could make him the No. 1 pick. That is highly unlikely, however, as Markelle Fultz is universally regarded as the top prospect.
The second scenario in which Ball does not become a Laker is if the front office trades the pick for Paul George this summer. While at one time it was believed that might happen, such a prospect is now remote as all the signs point to the Lakers keeping the pick and drafting another great young player.
The third scenario is the most intriguing: At the last moment, the team could pass on Ball and draft someone else instead. That would be shocking, but something similar occurred two years ago when at the Lakers surprised everyone by passing on Okafor and selecting D’Angelo Russell instead.
The Lakers have many needs, but a new dynamic point guard is at the top of the list. No matter what the pundits say about players like Josh Jackson of Kansas and Jayson Tatum of Duke, for the Lakers, it will come down to either Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox.
The two players know each other well. In head-to-head competition this past year, Fox outplayed Ball both times their teams squared off. In December, the Bruins came away with the victory, but Fox finished with 20 points, nine assists and had only two turnovers. In contrast, Ball had 14 points and seven assists while turning the ball over six times.
They battled again in March in the biggest game of their young careers, the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. With Hall of Fame point guard turned Lakers head honcho Magic Johnson in attendance, Fox destroyed Ball on both ends of the court, scoring 39 points on 13-for-20 shooting from the field and converting on 13-of-15 free throws, while also contributing four assists and three rebounds. It was a virtuoso performance on the biggest college stage, one in which Fox thoroughly embarrassed Ball whom he was directly matched against for most of the game.
Since then, Fox’ stock has continued to rise. He chose to attend the recent NBA combine while Ball did not. It was a wise move for Fox who was reportedly able to wow the Lakers during his interview. He was very comfortable with the media and showed remarkable poise. When he was interviewed, he was exceptionally articulate and came across as very mature.
Ball and Fox have contrasting styles. Ball is a throw-back to an earlier age when the role of a point guard was to see the court, set up the offense, keep the ball moving, and create easier scores for his teammates. The player he is compared to most often is Jason Kidd, and one could also argue that his style is reminiscent of Magic Johnson himself.
Fox is most often compared to John Wall and Russell Westbrook. He has blinding speed and is always in attack mode. He is a vocal and passionate leader, in contrast to Ball who seemingly has the laid back mindset of D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. In his one year at the University of Kentucky, Fox averaged 16.7 points per game on 48 percent shooting to go along with 4.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds.
Ball also had outstanding statistics. He averaged 14.6 points and a collegiate best 7.6 assists per game. He shot 55 percent overall from the floor which is outstanding, and he also grabbed six rebounds per game which is very strong for a guard.
There are two key factors which separate Fox and Ball from one another.
Ball connected on better than 40 percent of his three-point shots, while Fox shot a poor 24.6 percent from three-point range. Three-point shooting is very important in the NBA, but it bears remembering that Brandon Ingram also connected on better than 40 percent of his three-point shots in college, but once he got to the NBA he couldn’t score at all from long distance. Fox made 74 percent of his free throws compared with 67 percent for Ball, and many experts feel that free throw percentage is a better indicator of how the player will shoot when he gets to the pros.
Perhaps the biggest factor separating Fox from Ball, however, is defense. Fox was considered by many to be the best collegiate defender at the point guard position, while Ball is not known for his defensive prowess. Assuming Russell is the starting shooting guard, pairing him with Ball might work on offense, but it could be scary bad on defense. It is unlikely that either player will ever be able to match up defensively with the lightning fast point guards in the league like Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
Fox, on the other hand, has the speed, quickness, and athleticism to do just that. In the end, the Lakers may have to bet on whether it is more likely that Fox develops into a good long range shooter or Ball develops into a good defender. There is reason to believe Fox is the better bet.
Finally, Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and Luke Walton have all said publically that LaVar Ball will not be a factor, but privately, one has to wonder if that is true. Ball supporters point out that LaVar was never a factor during UCLA’s recent season, but that was before he became the public figure he is today who craves attention and is seemingly willing to say anything, however outrageous, to get it.
If Lonzo becomes a rare instant NBA star, it may not be a factor, but if he struggles like nearly all rookies, one could easily see LaVar deflecting criticism from his son by mouthing off in the media about the coaches, the players, and the organization itself. It would become the ultimate distraction, and the one thing no professional sports franchise wants is a distraction.
His father aside, Ball is still the favorite, and the Lakers will be fortunate to get him. That fact is, however, all signs point to Fox doing well in his private workouts and interviews this next month. He has momentum on his side, which history has shown is important as the draft gets closer. He is very talented and has incredible speed and athletic ability comparable to the top NBA point guards of the modern era.
In the end, while Ball might still be the choice, this much is true: The more the Lakers get to know Fox, the more deciding between them is going to become an agonizing decision for Johnson and Pelinka.