The 2016-2017 college basketball season will be the “Year of the Freshmen,” featuring what could be the best class we’ve ever seen. Over the next two weeks, we will get familiar with the best of the best, examining who they are and where each of the top 10 prospects in the 2016 ESPN 100 came from.
Read more: No. 10 Duke’s Frank Jackson | No. 9 Kentucky’s Malik Monk
No. 8 Michigan State’s Miles Bridges | No. 7 Washington’s Markelle Fultz
No. 6 Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox | No. 5 Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo
No. 4 UCLA’s Lonzo Ball | No. 3 Duke’s Jayson Tatum
No. 2 Kansas’ Josh Jackson | No. 1 Duke’s Harry Giles
LOS ANGELES — It’s imprudent to measure any player by his or her highlights.
In 2016, a few spliced clips can go viral and make someone who was thought to be an average talent draw bizarre comparisons.
But near the 2:25 mark of Lonzo Ball’s “official” ballislife.com reel, UCLA’s five-star freshman shakes a defender with a crossover at last year’s City of Palms tournament in Fort Myers, Florida. The opponent’s defense, which looks more like an accidental “Running Man” dance, throws him backward to the floor, where he seems confused by a blocking foul call.
Ball stares at the defender for a few seconds, and then he extends his hand to help him up. He does not yell or scream — even as fans yell and scream around him. He only offers his hand before he turns toward midcourt, undeterred by the teenage heap he left behind.
“He was stone-cold, stone-faced the whole time,” said Darren Moore, Ball’s personal trainer, who attended the game. “I’m laughing. Everybody else is going crazy, and he’s like, ‘There’s still work to be done.'”
Those on the West Coast never announce their swag. They don’t have to. You can feel their carefree vibe when they enter a room. From the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Snoop Dogg to Zack Morris, California’s coolest all seem weightless. That’s the first thing you notice about Ball when you meet him.
“I’m doing yoga for the first time,” he said. “I basically just do a bunch of stretching and downward dog and stuff like that, stuff I’ve never heard of. But it’s cool.”
The baby afro, soft tone and blunt answers to tough questions all punctuate the persona of a 6-foot-6 former high school point guard and projected lottery pick who led Chino Hills High School in the Los Angeles suburbs to a perfect 35-0 record his senior year. If his near triple-double (14 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) in last week’s exhibition victory over The Master’s University means anything, it’s clear that Ball could help UCLA forget its subpar season from a year ago too.
“I think you saw a little bit of how much Lonzo can impact the game in every single way,” UCLA guard Bryce Alford told reporters after the win.
Ball is now charged with redeeming the West Coast’s most accomplished program after a 15-17 campaign — just the fourth losing season in the post-John Wooden era — prompted angry fans to fly banners over the UCLA campus demanding fourth-year coach Steve Alford’s dismissal.
But Ball said he is not concerned with the pressure — only the mission.
“I think we have all the pieces now,” he said. “We’ve got enough talent. We’ve got enough older guys to help us out along the way. I think we’re going to make a lot of noise this year. As far as pressure goes, I don’t really look at it like it’s a big thing. It’s just the game of basketball. I think I should be fine.”
He changed UCLA’s future long before he arrived. Ball’s brothers, Li Angelo (a three-star prospect in UCLA’s No. 2 2017 recruiting class) and LaMelo Ball (a 5-foot-10 point guard in the 2019 class), have committed to the Bruins too. If they develop into the talents their father, LaVar Ball, projects — “Every one of my boys is going to be one-and-done,” he said — then the Ball family could create a legacy at UCLA.
But Lonzo Ball is here now. This season, his arrival will likely prompt Bryce Alford’s move to the wing. Ball was the point guard in the three-guard lineup (Ball, Alford and Isaac Hamilton) Steve Alford started in last week’s exhibition contest.
“Basically, [Steve Alford]’s gonna let me play,” Lonzo Ball said. “That’s what I like. I’m not trying to have nobody put no restrictions on me. Basically, [coach Alford] said when I come here, I can play my game and help them win basketball games. That’s good for me. We’re gonna play an up-tempo style of play. That’s better for my game too. Just all those things together made my decision easier.”
Last season, Bryce Alford played point guard and led the team with 16.1 points and 5.2 assists per game. He also finished 409th in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency ratings, made 40 percent of his attempts inside the arc and committed turnovers on 13.6 percent of his possessions. Those numbers ignited frustrated fans who hoped for a switch at point guard, especially after Ball signed with the program.
“I think people say that because of Bryce’s last name,” Steve Alford said. “If his name was Jones, people would be saying a lot different, [better] things about him. But it’s good to get him off the ball with what Lonzo brings.”
It’s not a hostile development for a UCLA team with more top-to-bottom talent than perhaps any other team on the West Coast. That was evident last week but also apparent prior to the season. Bryce Alford said he enjoyed his time in the backcourt with Ball during the team’s exhibition tour of Australia in August. In the Bruins’ first exhibition game last week, Alford led the team in scoring (22 points), while Ball led in assists.
“I think that’s where I’m best,” Alford said of the Australia trip. “I think we really played well together. That dude can pass the heck out of the ball, so I don’t mind playing with him.”
Throughout the trip, however, Lonzo Ball struggled. He finished 9-for-36 from the field (3-for-18 from the 3-point line) in three games against one collegiate team and two pro squads. He accrued 14 assists and eight turnovers while the team posted a 2-1 record.
The Naismith national prep player of the year in 2015-16 hadn’t lost a game since his junior year of high school. He also came to campus as a potential savior for a program desperate for a reboot. Cheers of Lonzo! Lonzo! Lonzo! Down Under only confirmed the optimism of a fan base that has demonstrated its fury by avoiding Pauley Pavilion. The building has not seen an average of 10,000 or more fans during Alford’s tenure. It’s a burden, even for the players who believe they’re ready for it.
Once the team returned from the trip, Alford visited Ball at his family’s home in Chino Hills, California. Alford understands Ball’s position. As a New Castle, Indiana, product, he earned his state’s Mr. Basketball award in high school and led Bob Knight’s Hoosiers to the 1987 national title.
Staying home comes with perks — and pitfalls — he told him.
“I think that was the positive of Australia: He felt a lot of that for the first time,” he said. “It’s been a long time, but I used to be a player that was hyped at Indiana. There comes a lot of hype. … I just told him to be who you are.”
Lonzo Ball won’t bend. LaVar Ball won’t let him. The freshman’s father has enough confidence for his eldest son, the entire UCLA squad and half of Los Angeles, if they need it.
“Since Lonzo was a baby, I was always telling him that someone had to be better than Michael Jordan,” LaVar Ball said. “Why not you?”
LaVar Ball speaks in homilies about destiny, missions and the future. Sometimes, his predictions seem improbable or even impossible — but only if you don’t know about the Ball brothers.
Lonzo Ball was 2 years old when his father placed him on a table and dared him to jump to the ground and land on a mushy mat. When LaVar Ball trained young basketball players — he played at Washington State and Cal State-Los Angeles — his son got involved too.
“When LaVar was teaching me how to catch lobs, Lonzo would throw me the lobs,” Moore said. “He was never nervous. He’s always had that special thing. He was 7 years old then.”
LaVar Ball created the Big Ballers NXT AAU program, which Lonzo Ball and his younger brothers anchored. LaVar Ball kept his sons off the major AAU circuits, an unorthodox move for a rising star such as Lonzo. He preferred to play them together against players four, five or even six years older. They turned Chino Hills into a national prep powerhouse that captured the CIF Open Division state title in 2016, earned the nation’s top ranking and averaged 97.3 PPG.
“He don’t say nothing,” LaVar Ball said of his son’s demeanor. “I say, ‘Entertain these people.’ … I tell people, UCLA is gonna win the national championship. He wants to change the culture.”
Lonzo Ball just wins. It’s all he knows. His father shipped his youth trophies to relatives so he and his brothers would expect victory instead of celebrating each achievement. Their bond on the court also showed the UCLA star the value of fighting for the team.
His missteps in Australia obscured some of the team’s gains with the freshman running point. Aaron Holiday (10.3 PPG) blossomed and looked the part of a Pac-12 all-conference performer. Thomas Welsh and elite recruits TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, who could miss the first six weeks with a knee injury, comprise one of the nation’s most promising frontcourts. Bryce Alford, now playing off the ball, made 60 percent of his 3-pointers and did not commit a turnover in a two-game stretch on the team’s international tour.
That’s not Division I basketball, though. That’s not the Pac-12, which enters the season with two other top-25 programs. And it’s not the NCAA tournament, which UCLA must reach and advance through if the school intends to avoid the “flop” label.
But the Bruins can conquer those tasks, many agree, if the West Coast prodigy peaks and matches the buzz that has swirled for years.
“We’ve got UCLA across our chest,” Ball said. “We’re playing for more than ourselves. We’ve gotta bring that history back.”