NBA Draft: Breaking down what we learned in Lonzo Ball-Markelle Fultz matchup

The biggest prospect matchup of this past weekend featured Markelle Fultz of Washington taking on Lonzo Ball of UCLA, my expected top two picks in the 2017 NBA Draft. The game itself failed to live up to the hype, with the Bruins crushing the Huskies, 107-66.

But for the reported 21 NBA scouts in attendance, there were plenty of lessons to take from seeing the two best point guard prospects take each other on.

Let's start with Lonzo Ball

The questions about Ball's athleticism have always looked overblown to me, and that remained the case Saturday night. Is this not athletic enough?

If I'm a scout, I'm heartened by this display, a reminder of what Ball can do around the rim. His six rebounds in the first half alone reinforced this as well.

Another commonly discussed issue with Ball is whether his perimeter shot--specifically, the unorthodox, long nature of it--will make it hard for him to get it off at the next level. I get why it worries scouts. Anytime a player has a skill that doesn't comp easily to a current player in the league, it's at the very least notable.

Here's the thing: if Ball were really going to struggle to do so, we'd see some evidence at the college level that he struggles to do it. Sure, not against every collegiate defender, but the best ones? Size-wise? Skill-wise? There'd be some erosion there.

But that hasn't been the case. Against Kentucky and perhaps the best perimeter defender in the country at the 1 in De'Aaron Fox, Ball shot only 2-for-8, but it wasn't for lack of good looks, nor did he have any problem getting the shot off. And he isn't likely to face a quicker defender, or one capable of matching his size and quickness, than he did in Fultz, who defended him for some of the game. (David Crisp did guard him as well, much smaller, but also quick.)

Ball not only took a big lead early in the second half and put the game out of reach with three straight triples, he managed to get the shots all night in every way possible. Notice how quickly he finds the opening here before a Washington big can come over and help.

And there's another aspect of Ball's shooting that works to his advantage -- his range doesn't end just beyond the three-point line. Watch where he shoots this one, without hesitation.

The combination of seeing him succeed against Fultz is further evidence Ball does not have a ceiling on his range, and should, in turn, calm scouting fears about his shot.

It's going to take a very select set of NBA defenders to slow Ball down from three at all -- and that ties into the earlier point, which is that the more opponents need to close the space he has to shoot it, and the further from the basket they pick him up, the more it helps him neutralize any issues he has with a slower first step. Ball is an outlier, and there isn't much to be gained by assuming his weaknesses are a problem without appreciating that his strengths are well-positioned to overwhelm them.

As for Markelle Fultz

For Fultz, it is always a tough night when your team loses by 41. And sure, Fultz had five turnovers vs. UCLA. But how much of that is Fultz's decision-making and how much is it a function of his lesser-talented supporting cast?

Take a look at how Ball finds his teammate here, with the kind of bullet pass that Fultz has also been firing all season. Ball is single-covered, largely free of pressure and the passing lane is easily accessed.

But Fultz? He was double-covered almost the whole night. Anytime he attempted to drive, multiple UCLA defenders made sure he didn't get a clear path to the basket. This is nothing new, yet it seemed like his fellow Huskies, all night, weren't prepared for his ability to see them around and through double-teams and were just largely a step behind his thinking and vision. For instance:


Note also there Ball getting through the screen to help. Then again, whenever Fultz found the tiniest bit of daylight, he punished UCLA the way he's hurt teams all season, rising and making shots. Will this following shot play at the NBA level? Yes, it'll play. Strong closeout by Ball. Didn't matter.

Sure, Fultz, if he's drafted by anyone at the top of the lottery save for Boston, will again be playing with a less-than-ideal supporting cast on a non-playoff team But everyone in the NBA has some shooters who Fultz can make better, and some bigs who can feed off of Fultz's penetration. The Sixers can pair him with Ben Simmons and he can deliver the ball to Joel Embiid. The Lakers can play him off the ball next to D'Angelo Russell while he creates space for Julius Randle. This is, truly, a Washington-specific problem.

Ultimately, in a blowout, both of these guys did plenty to keep those 21 people interested all night. There's no definitive case against taking either guy number one overall, and plenty of reasons to pick them both.

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