After Kentucky’s 97-92 loss to UCLA last weekend at Rupp Arena, a stunned John Calipari was asked which possessions hurt the most. Calipari sputtered, “I can remember the two that bothered me … the throw ahead for the layup and then the 3 back to back.” He was describing buckets early in the second half by Bryce Alford and T.J. Leaf, the Bruins’ 6-foot-10-inch freshman. The key to each field goal? Lonzo Ball, UCLA’s freshman ball handler whose vision and passing virtuosity have vaulted the Bruins up the top 25 rankings.
Standing 6 feet 6 inches tall, Ball is a constant offensive mismatch: Put a smaller guard on him, and he’ll use his height advantage to find an open teammate; guard him with a forward, and he can blow by the defender or unleash a variety of step-backs and feints to clear enough space for his broken-looking jump shot, which is actually a thing of beauty.
Few players have ever shot the ball exactly the way Ball does, at least ones playing at a level higher than the church-basement rec league circuit. His motion starts near his left hip; rather than straighten his form as the shot progresses, Ball slingshots the ball, his long arms cradling it until the last second when he flicks the wrist and imparts a backspin-like effect. This shouldn’t work, no matter how many hours Ball spent practicing against bigger and older defenders in the playground.
And yet, this funky motion is also one of the game’s most efficient: He’s converting 43.5 percent of his 3-pointers, and per Hoop-Math.com, 55 percent of his attempts come from beyond the arc (63 percent, if we count only half-court possessions). That’s astounding. Overall, he sports an offensive rating of 1.34 PPP (meaning the team scores 134 points per 100 possessions he uses) and utilizes more than 20 percent of the team’s offense while on the floor: That’s the lion’s share of an All-American’s personal production and a huge chunk of the No. 2 team in the country’s offense hinging on a jump shot that more closely resembles a chest pass than a scoring attempt.
But Ball isn’t just a jump shooter. The consistent accuracy of those shots consistently creates space, and Ball has used it well. Whether UCLA’s guards are running off screens or cutting through the lane, Ball finds them — he has a 37 percent assist rate, the third most of any DI freshmen who has used more than 50 percent of his team’s minutes — with dazzling passes flung from his hip pocket or zipped one-handed just outside the reach of a defender.
That passing instinct shows up most starkly in transition — or more accurately, semi-transition. As soon as a UCLA big man grabs a rebound, he’s got his head up, looking for Ball, who is usually leaking out and pressuring the defense. The Bruins score 1.19 points per fast break, which would rank third among the high majors that run on at least 20 percent of their possessions, behind just Arkansas and Memphis, and ninth overall. UCLA runs on 19.6 percent of their possessions, and their efficiency ranking would drop to 36th if we were to lower the threshold to, say, teams with 15 percent of possessions in transition, but that’s the point: Transition possessions are inherently more valuable than half-court ones. And because the Bruins are wholly committed to the defensive glass (they’re grabbing more than 70 percent of opponent misses, an all-time high under coach Steve Alford, Bryce’s dad), they’ve looked to run more in 2017 — about 50 percent more often than last season — and they’re succeeding. UCLA looks to run even if an opponent scores — per Hoop-Math.com, the team makes 60 percent of its attempts within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock after an opponent’s make.
Ball has not only redefined UCLA’s fast break, but his vision, athleticism and the general sense of not-quite-rightness to his game make Ball a unique player in college basketball this season and certainly one of the most entertaining. In a win versus UC-Riverside, Ball sent a crosscourt Eephus-like lob over the head of the defense to Isaac Hamilton, who stepped into and connected on a 3 from the left elbow.
What’s perhaps most intriguing about Ball is that he could be the greatest college pick-and-roll player ever. He’s got it all: size, handle, vision, shooting. But so far, at least, the team has been content to let him feast on drive-and-kick possessions. This works fine, since Ball is skilled — he almost always “traps” his defender on his hip, forcing help from an opposing big — but clearly, something’s being left on the table. Paired with Leaf, UCLA can either pick and pop (50 percent on 18 attempts), or let Leaf roll to the rim (1.18 points per roll, according to Synergy Sports).
Calipari expected UCLA to hurt Kentucky in P&Rs, but just 9 percent of the team’s possessions include a P&R (a sharp dip from 21 percent in 2015-16). When even the opposing scouting departments are worried about the stuff you’re not doing yet, it’s probably worth looking into. And when that opponent is John Calipari, and he’s disturbed by how well you’re executing what he believes to be a secondary, even tertiary part of your game, you might just have something special on your hands.