Lonzo Ball’s passes could travel two feet or the length of the court. They all tend to trigger the same reaction from his UCLA teammates.
Hearts flutter. Reflexes are tested. Some brow wiping may be required when they’re over.
Guard Isaac Hamilton received a refresher in the high-wire nature of Ball’s deliveries last week during the Bruins’ exhibition game against the Master’s University. Ball came up with a steal near halfcourt before flinging a behind-the-back pass that Hamilton gathered for a layup.
Forward T.J. Leaf likes it when Ball snatches the ball out of the net, plants one foot out of bounds and launches a baseball-style outlet pass. LaVar Ball’s favorite pass that his son throws is an over-the-shoulder heave from the backcourt, something Lonzo did with regularity at Chino Hills High but may not unfurl during what’s expected to be the freshman point guard’s only season in Westwood.
“Nobody at UCLA knows how to leak out and catch the ball like that yet,” LaVar Ball said this week on the eve of the No. 16 Bruins’ season opener against Pacific on Friday evening at Pauley Pavilion. “But he’s going to shock the world. He’s going to give ya’ll something you ain’t seen before.”
UCLA is in need of enchantment after last season. The Bruins finished 15-17, only their fourth losing season over the last seven decades. Their struggles prompted a petition and a plane flying over campus with a banner calling for the firing of Coach Steve Alford.
Ball’s arrival could generate a different kind of noise. He’s part of a loaded freshman class that includes Leaf, a 6-foot-10 dunking machine who passes and shoots like a guard, and forward-center Ike Anigbogu, who could give the Bruins the rim protection they lacked last season once he returns from a knee injury in a few weeks.
The presence of Ball alongside guards Hamilton and Bryce Alford will allow defensive dynamo Aaron Holiday to come off the bench and occasionally play alongside the others as part of a four-guard lineup that could fluster opponents with its pace and savvy.
Ball’s duties as the primary ball handler will free Alford from a smorgasbord of responsibilities that included initiating the offense, defending larger wing players and pouring in the points. Now Alford can just focus on his shooting.
“Adding a guy like Lonzo to the mix can really let me do what I do best,” said Bryce Alford, who made 13 of 24 three-pointers (54.2%) during UCLA’s three exhibition games in Australia over the summer.
Ball tinkered with his shot during the overseas trip, and it didn’t go well. His form is a bit unorthodox, resembling the stroke of former NBA shooting guard Kevin Martin. He decided to move his release point from the left side of his body to his right, and the switch led to his shooting only 25% and earning a rebuke from his father upon his return.
“When he came back, I said, ‘I’ve got to reboot him,’” said LaVar Ball, a former forward at Washington State who finished his college career at Cal State Los Angeles and also played on a couple of NFL practice squads.
Lonzo went back to shooting the way he liked and recaptured the run-and-fun style of his high school days. He was in the middle of the team huddle before UCLA’s exhibition game, smiling as a mass of humanity danced around him.
There is no pretense to Ball. He said he expects to be at UCLA only one season before declaring for the NBA, where his goal transcends becoming an All-Star. He wants to become the best player in the history of basketball.
“I think if you have a passion for the game, who wouldn’t want to be the best player ever?” said Ball, who considers Michael Jordan the all-time greatest player and LeBron James the top contemporary star. “I’m not going to play to be like, ‘Oh, well I was close to him.’ I don’t want to be close, I want to be better than him.”
Ball’s candidacy will undoubtedly start with his passing. His dad intentionally put him on lesser teams growing up, encouraging him to maximize his teammates’ abilities by putting the ball in the best possible spot.
That mentality carried over to the McDonald’s All-American game in March. Ball took just three shots and went scoreless but finished with 13 assists, nearly doubling the total of the next-highest player.
“I feel that if I pass and get my teammates involved,” Ball said, “then they’re going to want to play with me and make the team that much better.”
Hamilton said Ball has a tendency to get his teammates the ball in the shooter’s pocket, making it easy to catch and release. That is, when he’s not firing behind-the-back passes that require a little more effort to retrieve. Steve Alford said those passes are fine, with certain restrictions.
“As long as that behind-the-back pass doesn’t hit me or somebody on the bench,” Alford said with a smile. “We don’t want to throw away possessions, but I want that personality that he has to continue.”