After De’Aaron Fox killed Lonzo Ball’s college career, the national media is in a frenzy after the pregame expectations were flipped upside-down. While the body is still warm, read all of Fox’s rave reviews.
De’Aaron Fox stood in a hallway, smiled, and said he wished he could play for Kentucky again in an hour. Lonzo Ball sat on a chair and said, in a monotone, that he will never play for UCLA again. The difference between them was just as stark as it had been during the game, when Fox and Kentucky dismantled UCLA’s Showtime Jr. attack.
De’Aaron Fox – the most entertaining, blazing, promising Kentucky point guard since John Wall – had a legendary performance in Memphis in the South Regional semifinal. Fox proved, once again, that he – not Malik Monk – is Kentucky’s best, most valuable player. Lift the lid, inspect and you’ll discover this has been the case all season. Now, with America having watched one of the more dominant individual tournament performances in recent memory, most will come to realize it.
Ball deserves a ton of credit for UCLA’s resurgence in 2016—17, and the Bruins offense this season was nothing short of extraordinary. But holy hell, did he ever disappoint against Kentucky on Friday. It wasn’t even that Ball played poorly in UCLA’s 86—75 loss, because he didn’t. He put up 10 points, eight assists, and three boards, which is in the range of what he averaged all year. Yet that’s precisely the problem. This game was always going to come down to Fox versus Ball, since they’re the two lottery pick point guards who can rip off a highlight at any given moment. Fox knew this, viewed this matchup as a personal challenge, and was out there to ATTACK from the second the ball was tipped. He could get anywhere he wanted on the court, while Ball, who clearly struggles to stop explosive guards, went with the it-can’t-be-considered-failure-if-I-don’t-actually-try approach.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to declare that De’Aaron Fox blew Lonzo Ball off the floor with 39 points and four assists. Those were the most points ever scored by a freshman in an NCAA Tournament game. Think about that. Michael Jordan played in the tournament as a freshman. So did Magic Johnson and Steph Curry. But let’s not allow all that to get out of hand.
Ball’s very bad final night as a collegian did include occasionally grabbing at his hamstring during the first half and something close to a full-blown limp late in the second. He said he tweaked his hamstring early, but declined to play the excuse card.
“I got outplayed tonight,” he said.
There’s no doubt about that. Fox was phenomenal, scoring Kentucky’s first eight points and racking up 15 by halftime. Late in the second half he went into closer mode, taking the ball to the basket repeatedly, drawing fouls and making his free throws (13 of 15 on the night).
UCLA has been a soft defensive team all season, and Fox exploited that. The fact that the freshman from Houston is left-handed may have been left off the Bruins’ scouting report, because they gave him the drive to the left repeatedly. Fox tortured UCLA in pick-and-roll situations from the top of the key — blowing past Ball and other guards, then pulling up in the lane when the Bruins’ big men gave him room to shoot.
(Magic) Johnson attended — and skipped the unveiling ceremony for Shaquille O’Neal’s statue in Los Angeles — to dissect the game of Ball, the West Coast product and projected top-three pick who could save the franchise from its ongoing misery in this summer’s NBA draft.
But Fox starred instead and complicated conversations about the best point guard in college basketball.
If a point guard must be the most important leader on the floor, then those attributes were more pronounced in Fox’s efforts than Ball’s.
The contrasting performances of Ball and Fox gave NBA evaluators something to mull over. Pelinka, newly installed as the Lakers GM, may be choosing one of the first players in the loaded, upcoming draft. He cannot comment on underclassmen, and he wouldn’t tip his hand, anyway. But the reason he traveled to Memphis was to see how top players perform against one another, and Fox thoroughly dominated Ball.