By John Hooper
Two of the most memorable clashes of this past year of college basketball were the Kentucky - UCLA duels. The games they played against each other felt like they were at a different level than any other NCAA games this season because of the abundance of NBA talent of the court, making for some highly entertaining games.
At the heart of the matchup was the point guard battle between De'Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball. Now, the two players are now both top five prospects in this year's draft. Their teams split the two games but Fox dominated both matchups statistically. Some point to Ball's body of work as the reason he should be considered as the superior prospect, but others say that Fox emerged as the clearly superior player after lighting Lonzo and the Bruins up for 39 points in their second matchup in the NCAA tournament.
Let's take a dive into how the two players's freshman seasons stacked up versus one another with the results from our projection model.
This is the category where we have our largest gap between the two prospects. Fox only averaged 2.1 more points per game than Lonzo this year, but once all the factors are being taken into account, our models has Fox winning in a landslide here.
Fox received the fifth highest grade of all point guard prospects since 2011 in scoring potential. His aggressiveness, ability to penetrate, and the frequency with which he got to the line all bode very well for projecting him as a scorer. He graded out similarly to Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard here with a score of 91.2, so you can expect him to put up 21-24 points a night.
On the other end of the spectrum, Lonzo graded out as the fourth worst of all point guards in our database. Despite his good size and youth (potential positive indicators), he had the third lowest usage rate and the third fewest free throws made per 100 possessions of the sixty-three point guards in our database. Those numbers tell us that his style is to be a facilitator instead of a ball-dominant scorer, but they're also a red flag that he'll struggle to score consistently in the NBA since he's so dependent on making threes. His grade of 37.1 for scoring potential puts him in the lofty company of Peyton Siva and Marquis Teague. Expect Lonzo to be a 12-15 point a game scorer at his peak.
It's well known that Fox's biggest weakness is his outside shooting, but the players' grades here were closer than I expected.
Fox graded out at 70.3 for shooting potential, which put him at 46th of the 63 point guards in our database. His three point percentage of 24.6% was the second worst of the group, but his reasonable 73.9% clip from the charity stripe brought him back up to a somewhat acceptable level projection-wise. Being a young prospect also helps him here as our model factors in that he's likely to improve as he comes into his own as a player. Look for Fox to be a player who eventually shoots in the 30-34% range from deep.
Ball is one of the more unusual players to evaluate the shooting ability of, and that's without even taking his unique stroke into consideration. He hit 41.2% of his three-pointers (8th best of 63) and made the 18th most per 100 possessions of the point guard group. Based on that alone, I would've expected him to grade out much higher than the 80.3 he received. His poor free throw shooting came back to haunt him here, however, as his 67.3% rate was 6th worst of all point guards. Interestingly, his true shooting percentage was second best of the sixty-three man group, which is a testament to his Daryl Morey approved shot-selection. Expect Lonzo to shoot 38%-42% from three in the NBA and eventually become a 75%-80% shooter at the line.
Lonzo graded out as the better offensive facilitator out of the two, which should come as no surprise. I won't go into detail here because of how clear this is if you've watched the two play, but Lonzo received a 99.3 grade for his passing potential (3rd best) and Fox received a 74.1 grade (23rd best).
One statistic of note is that when comparing each player's personal offensive rating to that of his team, Lonzo's rating was 10.3 points higher than UCLA's overall rating and Fox's rating was 0.2 worse than Kentucky's overall rating. This is an indicator that Ball's presence on the court made a significantly positive impact on his team's offensive efficiency, while Fox was basically a net neutral. There are many factors other than passing and racking up assists that can play into this, but Ball's ability to bring the best out of his teammates really shines through here.
Fox is often touted as a player who will be able to wreck havoc on defense while Lonzo is looked at as a liability. Interestingly, Lonzo scored slightly better here, with a 70.8 rating to Fox's 66.7.
The two players had very similar steal rates, with Ball ranking 26th and Fox ranking 31st. Ball had a higher block rate, coming in fifth best of all point guards. It's a nice bonus but it's not a game-changing attribute of his. A similar comparison of the player's defensive rating against his team's overall defensive rating was one of the factors that gave the edge to Ball, as he had a positive 1.1 point impact compared to Fox's negative 1.1 point impact.
Despite the film telling us that Fox is lock-down defender and that Lonzo will need help, our model showed that Lonzo's overall impact on UCLA's team defense, likely as a result of his high awareness, was enough to swing this category in his favor.
Part of the reason Lonzo gets the Jason Kidd comparisons is because of how good of a rebounder he is for a point guard. He pulled in 6.0 rebounds per game and will be a consistent triple double threat at the next level. He ranked fifth of all point guards in rebounding potential with a 53.2 score. Look for him to average 6-7 rebounds a game at his peak.
Fox is an adequate rebounder for the position and will most likely be a neutral contributor for his team here. Expect him to average 3-4 rebounds a game during his career.
Lonzo had the higher grade in four out of the five categories, but Fox projects far better as a scorer. Depending on what you value in perimeters players, a case can be made for either being the superior prospect. Would you rather have the guy putting up 14/6/8 or the one going for 22/3/5? Our model gives Lonzo the edge.
I'm a believer in the Jason Kidd comparisons being made to Lonzo. He'll never be a dominating scorer, but he affects the game in many other ways with his passing, rebounding, and defense, using his great court awareness to help elevate the level of play of his team. The incredible thing about Lonzo as a prospect is that it's likely that he'll be a better offensive player than Kidd because of his three-point shooting. It's this kind of potential that has him as the number one prospect on our board this year.
There's a much larger range of potential futures for Fox in the NBA. If he can improve his shot to the degree that Mike Conley did after leaving Ohio Stage, the sky is the limit for him. He'd be likely to end up being a player very similar to Kyrie Irving if that's the case. If he doesn't improve at all as a shooter, he'll be closer to Elfrid Payton in the NBA. My guess is that he's somewhere in between those two universes, and the player he will be most similar to is Monta Ellis. Like Ellis early in his career, Fox is a lightning bolt on the court athletically with a slim 6'3" frame. Both have a knack for penetrating defenses but struggle from deep. Monta has been a 31.2% shooter for his career from three, which is right around where I anticipate Fox will end up. Monta's slash line from his time with Golden State for the first seven years of his career was roughly 20/4/5, which is right in line with what I expect from Fox.
So which of those players is more valuable in the league today? I'm a believer that Jason Kidd would be impactful in any era. His presence changed the dynamic of any game he was in through the way he controlled the pace and raised the level of play of his teammates. Monta thrived in the league of the early 2000s, but with his inability to be a consistent threat from three, it'd be a challenge to have a successful offense in today's game that was based around him.
Lonzo Ball is an elite all-around contributor and the number one player on our board. Believe the Jason Kidd hype.
De'Aaron is a talented prospect whose strengths fit best in bygone eras. He's the fourth best point guard prospect in this year's draft. He's not John Wall (smaller, inferior vision), nor is he Mike Conley (more aggressive, not a facilitator). Expect Warriors-era Monta Elllis production from him.