The NBA draft lottery will, in part, determine which players are picked by which teams, because every franchise has different needs. But a consensus is forming regarding which two players will hear their names called first. Both are freshmen. Both are point guards. On Saturday night, they will share the court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion before what is expected to be the Washington Huskies’ first sellout of the season.
DraftExpress projects the Boston Celtics will select UW guard Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick, and that Phoenix will follow by picking UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. NBADraft.net foretells the same situation. ESPN’s Chad Ford lists Fultz and Ball as the top two prospects in the draft, in that order. CBS Sports also projects Fultz and Ball as No. 1 and No. 2. (For what it’s worth, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge was in attendance for UW’s game Wednesday night against USC.)
The Huskies aren’t any good this season. The Bruins, at 20-3 overall, are ranked 11th nationally and have a loaded roster capable of a deep run in the NCAA tournament. So while this matchup isn’t likely to tantalize from a team perspective, it should at least provide a fine spectacle for fans curious to see how the nation’s top two draft prospects fare against one another.
Ball, a 6-foot-6 graduate of Chino Hills High School, is a superstar distributor who leads the Pac-12 in assists (8.0 per game), scores 14.8 points per game and seems as comfortable tossing alley-oop lobs as he is catching them and dunking. He has made a fan out of UW coach Lorenzo Romar, who compared Ball’s influence on UCLA’s offense — the Bruins lead the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy — to what Magic Johnson did with the Los Angeles Lakers.
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The Bruins already had a pair of senior guards, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, capable of scoring 30 points on a given night. And the Lakers already had Kareem Adbul-Jabbar.
But, Romar said, “they get Magic Johnson, and within a year, it’s ‘Showtime,’ and guys are passing the ball and chest-bumping, and that’s what Lonzo Ball has brought to that team, to me. In one year, it’s just changed. … The ball does not stick in one person’s hand for a very long time, and I think he has a lot to do with that.”
Fultz, the Pac-12’s leading scorer, said he knows Ball a little, though not particularly well. The two played against each other in the McDonald’s All-American game, and Fultz said “I met him a couple of times at camps and stuff like that.”
“He’s a great player,” Fultz said. “He’s a good point guard. He can pass the ball really well. He can score the ball. He sees the game good. So I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
Still, Fultz prefers to view Saturday’s matchup as Washington vs. UCLA, not Fultz vs. Ball.
“I don’t really worry about them,” Fultz said. “I worry about more the team. If I do that, (everything) will take care of itself. That’s mostly what I do with everything that goes on. I don’t ever worry about myself. I’m more worried about doing what I can do for the team to win. And usually if I do that, it makes myself look even better.”
Fultz has looked good all season. The rest of his team, not so much. The Huskies have lost four consecutive games for the second time this season, and are 2-8 in conference play for the first time in Romar’s 15 seasons at UW.
They seemed on the cusp of a breakthrough on Wednesday against USC, leading 37-27 at halftime, then 66-69 with a little more than seven minutes remaining. But the Trojans outscored them 23-8 in the final 6:17, winning 82-74 after holding UW to just two made field goals in the final seven minutes.
Washington’s defense, active and effective in the first half, allowed the Trojans to shoot 68.0 percent in the second. And now here come the Bruins, who shoot 53.1 percent from the field and have scored 100 or more points in seven games this season.
Ball, transcendent as he is, will not be Washington’s only problem.
“If we don’t get stops, it won’t look good for us,” Romar said. “We must get stops. We don’t have to force them to shoot 25 percent or anything like that, but we’ve got to be able to contest their shots, and we’ve got to make it hard on them. We’ve got to try and make them work to get good shots.”
WASHINGTON (9-13, 2-8 PAC-12) vs. NO. 11 UCLA (20-3, 7-3)
7:30 p.m., Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Seattle
TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7-FM
All-time series: UCLA leads the series 96-42.
Projected starters (statistics for 2016-17):
2 Lonzo Ball, G (6-6, fr.): 14.8 ppg, 8.0 apg, 5.8 rpg.
20 Bryce Alford, G (6-3, sr.): 16.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg.
10 Isaac Hamilton, G (6-5, sr.): 14.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg.
22 T.J. Leaf, F (6-10, fr.): 17.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg.
40 Thomas Welsh, C (7-0, jr.): 10.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg.
20 Markelle Fultz, G (6-4, fr.): 23.1 ppg, 6.0 apg, 6.0 rpg.
1 David Crisp, G (6-0, so.): 13.9 ppg, 3.0 apg.
4 Matisse Thybulle, G (6-5, so.): 9.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg.
33 Sam Timmins, F (6-10, R-fr.): 3.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg.
15 Noah Dickerson, F (6-8, so.): 10.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg.
Scouting report: After finishing 15-17 overall and 6-12 in Pac-12 play last season — a result so bad that coach Steve Alford gave back his contract extension — UCLA was picked to finish third in the league in this year’s preseason media poll. The addition of star freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf, plus the return of top scorers Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton, suggested a quick turnaround, and they’ve made it happen. … With Ball at the helm, the Bruins have turned into an offensive juggernaut. UCLA leads the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage (53.1, though that number drops to 50.6 percent in league games), 3-point shooting percentage (42.3), scoring offense (92.3 points per game) and scoring margin (plus-15.3). Six UCLA players average double-figure scoring, and five of them rank among the Pac-12’s top 24 in scoring. The Bruins have four players rated among the nation’s top 50 in offensive rating, per Ken Pomeroy — Leaf (17th), Ball (35th), Welsh (40th) and Alford (50th). … UCLA’s defense hasn’t been bad, either, as the Bruins rank fifth in the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage defense in conference games, though KenPom ranks UCLA eighth in the Pac-12 in adjusted defensive efficiency. … The Bruins’ three losses have all come in league play — at Oregon, at home to Arizona and at USC. Their best victory this season was a 97-92 win at then-No. 1 Kentucky in early December. … Washington State was able to hang around for a little while against the Bruins on Wednesday, but ultimately lost 95-79 in Pullman. Leaf led UCLA with 32 points and 14 rebounds, and the Bruins made 70 percent (35-of-50) of their 2-point attempts. … The Huskies swept UCLA last season, beating the Bruins 99-93 in double overtime in Seattle, then 86-84 in Los Angeles.