Lonzo Ball started the 2016-17 season with high expectations. He signed with UCLA as the number four high school player on the ESPN 100, the school’s highest rated pickup since number two Shabazz Muhammad in 2012. While Muhammad’s draft stock fell as he adjusted to college-level basketball, don’t expect the same from Ball.
Ball has already shown the ability to play point guard at an NBA level. He is currently leading the nation with 9.6 assists per game. He has dished out double-digit assists in five of his eight games, creating opportunities for a team that is third in the country in points per game with 97.0. To go along with his passing, Ball is adding 14.6 points per game at an efficient 57.7 percent from the field. He has so far been one of, if not the best, all around freshman in the country.
Ball has also been effective on the defensive side of the court, ranking fifth in the Pac-12 in steals per game and is tenth in defensive win shares. His defensive rating is only a 95.2, far outside the top ratings in the country, but that is to be expected with UCLA’s fast and high scoring style of play. This especially is not a worry for any Lonzo Ball fans when they realize that his offensive rating is 142.6, second in the Pac-12. Of course, critics can say that Ball’s success is due to the fact that UCLA has had a pretty easy schedule so far (the toughest game being a 74-67 victory over Texas A&M), and that the team hasn’t played a single true road game, but that will all change if Ball performs well on Saturday against the number one ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
While UCLA isn’t expected to come away from Rupp Arena with a victory (the team has been given a 17% chance of winning on KenPom.com), a good performance by Ball would surely put him on the map of anyone who somehow hasn’t noticed him yet. If Ball truly wants to be noticed on a national stage, he will need to score more than his 5-point performance against UC-Riverside on Wednesday. Ball didn’t have a bad game by any means — he had 13 assists and put on a great defensive showcase — but he is the star player, and he only took three shots in 36 minutes. However, this game was a 42-point blowout so there was no need for Ball to take over the game. Expect Ball to look for the open man, but not to be as passive against Kentucky.
Saturday is probably the most important non-tournament game for Ball and the Bruins. It’s not necessarily important that they win, in fact it’s very unlikely that they will win their first true road game of the season at Kentucky. It will just be an important learning experience for the Bruins. Expect the Bruins to play well, especially Ball, but it will not be enough to come out on top. Saturday will be an important learning experience for Ball, and he will be ready to show the world what he’s capable of.