What NBA scouts are saying about Lonzo Ball in advance of UCLA vs. Kentucky

Saturday should be a fun day in college basketball thanks to four games between Top 25 teams -- none bigger than No. 11 UCLA at No. 1 Kentucky in a showdown between the schools with the most national championships.

More than 23,000 people will be inside Rupp Arena.

Some of them will be NBA scouts.

And why not?

Truth is, there won't be many games this season with three, and possibly four, projected lottery picks on the court together -- outside of Duke games when Duke is healthy, of course. But this UCLA-Kentucky game qualifies thanks to the presence of UK's De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo -- and UCLA star Lonzo Ball.

"Ball has looked great so far but hasn't really played against tough competition," one NBA scout told me this week. "So I can't wait to see him against Kentucky. Let's see what he does against Kentucky."

***

Even if you're just a casual fan of college basketball more focused on football and the NBA, odds are you've at least heard something about Lonzo Ball and what he's doing at UCLA. The Bruins are 8-0 with seven double-digit wins. Ball, a 6-foot-6 freshman point guard, is averaging 14.6 points, 9.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds.

The 9.6 assists per game rank first nationally.

"He's special," UCLA coach Steve Alford said after Ball earned Most Valuable Player honors in last weekend's Wooden Legacy.

But how special?

And will Ball be special in the NBA?

I spent the past two days asking those questions to, and discussing Ball with, five different NBA scouts in an attempt to get a grasp on what they see when they watch the dynamic playmaker who transformed UCLA's program the moment he stepped on campus. The reviews were ... somewhat mixed.

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There is no doubt Lonzo Ball is a special college player. We'll see about the NBA. Getty Images

To be clear, everybody likes, and is intrigued by, Ball.

He's a lottery pick, undeniably.

But the sense I got is that, at this point, Ball is more likely to go outside the top three of the 2017 NBA Draft than inside the top three. Somewhere between fifth and 11th overall seems to be the consensus.

"I wouldn't consider him with the first pick right now," one scout said. "But I'll keep an open mind."

What the scouts I spoke with love is Ball's size for his position -- plus his unique vision, incredible instincts, rare unselfishness and passing ability that creates easy opportunities for teammates. UCLA ranked 51st in offensive efficiency last season. The Bruins are sixth in the same category this season. That's not all because of Ball. But it's mostly because of Ball. He's a great college player already. Everybody agrees.

That said, there are NBA concerns.

For starters, Ball has looked like a better athlete than he seemed to be during his high school days in California, and that's encouraging, but he's still not a top-shelf athlete relative to most great NBA point guards.

"So can he guard those guys?" one scout asked.

"What does he do in the halfcourt?" another wondered.

"In today's NBA, your point guard has to score," another scout said. "Can he score at this level? Maybe. But I don't know that for sure. And his jumper is funky."

The good news about Ball's jumper is, well, that it goes in. He's shooting 47.4 percent from 3-point range, and his true shooting percentage of 71.0 -- which includes dunks, sure, but also jumpers -- ranks 31st nationally. But, like the scout said, the jumper is funky. He's a right-handed player who shoots from the left side of his body, which is fine but not ideal. It's not something that'll keep him from being great in college, obviously. But could it be an issue in the NBA? Yes, and for a variety of reasons -- most notably because it's easier to contest.

"He's a good player," one scout said. "I like him. But he's not without flaws."

***

Bottom line, here's the deal: Washington's Markelle Fultz, Duke's Jayson Tatum and Kansas' Josh Jackson, at minimum, appear to be higher than Ball on most NBA Draft boards at this moment. Or, at least, that's the impression I was left with after those conversations with those five NBA scouts. But Ball remains super-intriguing.

Which is why Saturday's game at Kentucky is massive.

If Lonzo Ball outplays De'Aaron Fox on network television -- tipoff is at 12:30 p.m. ET on CBS -- it'll suggest he might not struggle with NBA point guards because Fox is a super-quick athlete with size. And if he somehow leads the Bruins to a rare upset of Kentucky at Rupp Arena, the #LonzoBallHypeTrain will reach full speed.

Either way, he's going to be very rich very soon.

Bet that.

And it should serve as a lesson for all prospects that there is no one way to become what Ball has become. As I detailed two years ago, his family's approach was unconventional in that Ball never played on a big shoe-company-funded summer team that traveled the nation. He never transferred to a so-called basketball power or attended most of the All-Star events elite prospects are invited to attend.

And yet he's still here and on everybody's radar.

He's still flourishing in every way.

So will Lonzo Ball be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft? At this point, I'd bet against it. But he'll almost certainly be selected in the lottery. Probably the top 10. Maybe the top five. And then the world will watch and learn, over the years, if the Jason Kidd comparisons currently being thrown around were spot-on or farfetched.

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Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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