Here We Go, 'Zo: Can Lonzo Ball bring UCLA back to the top?
- The scenario in Westwood: A coach on the hot seat after a rare losing season turns the offense over to stellar—and hyperkinetic—freshman point guard Lonzo Ball.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
As UCLA gathers for its sixth practice of the year, a midafternoon workout on Oct. 7, Lonzo Ball relaxes on a courtside folding chair. His black Beats Pill speaker occupies the seat to his right. The most intriguing freshman in college basketball pulls out his phone and scrolls to a song that fits his mood. Seconds later, he’s on his feet lip-synching to Travis Scott’s “Serenade.” Ball shakes his head while he mouths the lyrics to teammates lounging nearby, then wheels and almost blindly drains a three-pointer from the corner. He drifts out—way out—to a line of white tape affixed to the edge of the Pauley Pavilion logo at center court and effortlessly launches another shot. It splashes through the net.
The previous day’s workout had been a bit of a slog, a low-energy, mistake-addled exercise in frustration for the entire roster. Ball was particularly irked by how poorly he shot. But 24 hours later he’s bouncing all over the gym, singing and flinging behind-the-back shots from three-point range. His rhythm has returned. “If you see me, you’re going to hear some type of music coming out of me,” Ball says. “I like the vibe.”
UCLA is due for some good vibrations. After reaching the Sweet 16 in coach Steve Alford’s first two seasons in Westwood, the Bruins went 15–17 last winter, prompting Alford to return a contract extension (for the 2020–21 season) he had received after his first year at UCLA. If this season is a referendum on a historically great program and its coach, optimism abounds due to the presence of Ball, a lithe, hiccup-quick 6' 6" guard whose shooting range is surpassed only by his exceptional court vision. He averaged a triple double (23.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, 11.5 assists) for a 35–0 high school team that scored nearly 100 points a game. And his reputation for making spectacular plays—lobs, dunks, threes—is not restricted to the U.S. Dozens of fans in Australia clamored for his autograph during the Bruins’ foreign tour in August.
Ball may have the zealous following of a revolutionary, even if he won’t exactly reinvent college basketball. But the Bruins will reinvent their style of play for him. Now at practice, coaches push for the Bruins to accelerate their dribbles and to talk to each other through every movement. UCLA’s current offense is all spacing and reads instead of formulaic spot-to-spot choreography. It is both a course correction after last year and a way to maximize the skills of a wizardly freshman. As the Bruins’ prized recruit walks the ball up the floor, Alford’s voice booms through the arena. “Go, ‘Zo, go!” It’s a whole new Ball game in Westwood.
At the end of the 2015–16 season, Chino Hills (Calif.) High was less a team than a scoring machine. Unremitting full-court defensive pressure and a speed-of-light offensive attack fueled a season in which the Huskies averaged 98.4 points. In 32-minute games, Chino Hills scored 100 or more points 18 times and beat De La Salle High by 20 for the state championship, matching its smallest postseason margin of victory. Anywhere the Huskies played, fans arrived hours early to secure seats; the Inland Daily Bulletin reported that a Chino Hills game at Damien High in January featured a sellout crowd of 2,500 with more than 400 people turned away at the door.
Ball, the eventual Naismith national player of the year, was not the only attraction—even in his own family. His brothers LiAngelo, a 6' 6" junior forward who averaged a team-leading 27.4 points, and LaMelo, a 5' 10" freshman guard who chipped in 16.4 points and 3.8 assists, also powered the Chino Hills turbine. A MaxPreps preview video for 2016–17 features a clip from last season in which an opposing player loses the ball in the post. Four seconds later, Chino Hills hits a layup. “The ball would go through the hoop, and you’d turn around, look, and the ball is in the air and someone is catching it and going up for a dunk,” says UCLA freshman forward T.J. Leaf, whose Foothills Christian High team lost to Ball & Co. three times last year. “It was pretty unbelievable, actually.”
Lonzo Ball says he’s held a basketball since he could walk and that he was groomed by his father, LaVar, who played forward at Washington State and Cal State–Los Angeles and later played tight end for the London Monarchs of the World League of American Football. As a grade schooler, Lonzo’s standard driveway workload was 25 bank shots from each side, followed by floaters from the top, followed by shooting games against Dad or one-on-one with friends or his brothers. By fourth grade, Lonzo was competing against eighth-graders, and his affinity for passing bloomed out of necessity. “Knowing some guys are way bigger than you, way faster than you, you have to find other ways to do what you want to do,” Lonzo says. Early on, LaVar drilled home the idea that point guards are judged by wins, not points. “As long as people want to play with you, you’ll have a good team,” Lonzo says. “If you have a point guard that’s coming up and jacking [shots] every time, ain’t nobody going to want to play with him.”
This explains Ball’s line from the McDonald’s All-American game last March. He tied an event record with 13 assists ... but took only three shots, scoring no points. “If I have the best high school players in the country, why not let them do what they do?” Ball says. “It wasn’t that I was not going to shoot. It’s just like, Why would I shoot, when I can have them do it?”
Ball’s uncanny ability to see the floor resonated with Alford immediately, even though the point guard was only a sophomore at Chino Hills during the coach’s first year at UCLA. “He has the ability to see a play in front of the play that’s happening,” Alford says. That aspect of Ball’s skill set, perhaps more than anything, informed an overhaul the UCLA staff began last spring. In 2013–14 the Bruins were highly effective on the run, spending 21.4% of their possessions in transition and scoring 1.167 points per trip. That ranked 31st nationally. But by 2015–16, transition accounted for just 13.1% of the Bruins’ possessions. Their 0.969 points per transition opportunity sagged to 279th in Division I. Meanwhile, the lack of a stretch power forward forced the Bruins to play two centers at once, limiting UCLA’s options in the half-court offense. It maddened a coach who believes in flow and motion and in trusting players to read defenses and react accordingly.
Ball joined three double-digit backcourt scorers who were returning for UCLA: 6' 5" senior Isaac Hamilton, 6' 3" senior Bryce Alford (the coach’s son) and 6' 1" sophomore Aaron Holiday. The Bruins were also adding a power forward with range in the form of the 6' 10" Leaf, a five-star recruit himself. And 7-foot junior center Thomas Welsh, whose 56.3% shooting on jumpers inside 17 feet makes him lethal in screen-and-roll action, would also be back. The strategy was self-evident. The Bruins would play fast and free, with a nod to the high-flying pro team a few hundred miles to the north. “We’re trying to emulate the Warriors as much as possible,” Bryce Alford says. “Screening, cutting, at the fastest pace you can possibly run offense. It’s not an offense you can really scout, because we don’t really have a rhythm to what we’re doing. The defense can’t take away everything.”
No, UCLA won’t be a blue-and-gold blur. But it will certainly tailor its attack to the strengths of its kinetic prodigy. “I’m coming at you 100 miles per hour every time I can,” Ball says.
“He’s got, like, batteries in his back,” Hamilton says of his new backcourtmate. “He never stops moving.”
Ball certainly commands attention, even in practice. On a fast break he spins around a defender, flings the ball upcourt, gets it back and delivers a touch pass for a layup assist. After a backdoor cut Ball receives a feed in position to score ... and redirects it into an alley-oop to freshman center Ike Anigbogu. Failed passes, meanwhile, are merely opportunities to recalibrate. When Hamilton mishandles a lob caught at chest level, Ball asks, “Isaac, you want that up top?” Ball then shrugs as the coaches tease him for the minor miscalculation. “I didn’t even know he could dunk,” the freshman deadpans.
There are plenty of plays that would go viral on YouTube. Leaf recalls a sequence in which Ball grabbed a make out of the net, planted a foot out of bounds and fired a one-handed, length-of-the-court lead pass to junior forward Gyorgy Goloman for a dunk. “Like [Tom] Brady,” Leaf says. Ball regularly finishes lobs and reverses with tomahawk jams, and a blinding crossover preceded a gnarly step-back three-pointer with Bryce Alford in his face. But in Ball’s hands, UCLA’s offense is a 3-D representation of legendary Bruins coach John Wooden’s adage: Be quick but don’t hurry. “I wouldn’t say I slowed myself down—now we actually have plays I can run, instead of fast-breaking the whole time,” Ball says. “If I feel I can push it and go get a bucket, I can do that. It gives me a lot of freedom.”
He knows he cannot flaunt that privilege if he is to lead a successful college attack. At one point, while waiting for Alford to draw a play for the opposition in a five-on-five session, Ball casually drains two 30-footers. He misses his next two. The second rebound bounces to Bruins assistant Duane Broussard, who flips it to Ball. Another 30-footer falls. “It’s all in the pass,” Broussard cracks.
Before he returns to work, Lonzo Ball turns and points at his coach, like truer words were never spoken.
Steve Alford sits on an office couch beneath a collection of plaques commemorating each of the teams he has coached over the last two decades. One space is empty but for strips of black Velcro. It is the spot reserved for UCLA’s 2015–16 plaque, which fell off the wall and now rests on the sofa’s arm, temporarily out of sight.
The ‘15–16 flop was Alford’s first losing season since he went 14–16 in his inaugural season at Iowa, back in 1999–2000. When state-of-the-program discussions with UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero began last spring, Alford insisted that he wasn’t willing to make staff changes. He preferred to demonstrate his commitment to winning by altering his own bottom line. So he wrote an open letter to Bruins fans explaining why he was returning the extension he had been given after Year 1. “It puts all the responsibility right where the buck should stop,” Alford says. “These are ultimately my decisions that are made in how we go about recruiting, the people we bring in here, how we play. That’s ultimately me. I thought it was a significant way of saying, Hey, I’m not happy, either. I’m in this thing.”
If there was one positive takeaway from 2015–16, Alford believes, it’s that last year “shook the tree.” His film session before UCLA’s first practice involved watching zero film; Alford wrote CULTURE on a board and opened a discussion about what that meant to this team. Talk of competitiveness and selflessness followed. Change will come, one way or another, next spring. The Bruins must be explosive on offense and respectable on defense. (They ranked 119th in defensive efficiency last year.) They must return to the NCAA tournament (of course) but also make a deep run. And for the future, Alford must prove that he can extract the most from his most treasured recruit: The plan for Lonzo Ball has to work, if for no other reason than to ensure that both of Ball’s talented younger brothers follow through on their pledges to play for UCLA.
So if this is not quite Chino Hills West, it is still another program that will move as fast and far as Ball takes it. The experience of playing in Australia revealed that much, at least to Ball. He averaged a team-high 30.6 minutes in three games but shot just 25.0% from the field. He fiddled with the release point on his shot. He tried to play mistake-free. He tried to fit in. None of it worked very well. When Ball returned home after the trip, his father asked which Lonzo was in the house. “The one from Australia,” LaVar said, “or my son?”
Over the next two weeks, they worked out the identity crisis. UCLA’s coaches visited, too, eating LaVar’s pancakes and then scouring film from the games Down Under with his point guard for about 45 minutes. Alford had wanted to leave Ball alone until then, to let his new protégé feel and process adversity. And now the Bruins coach told him, No one wants you to fit in. The player with energy, the force of personality who ripped teammates in a huddle and told them they were not taking a second loss on the trip—that was what UCLA needed. “The No. 1 thing I learned out there was to be myself,” Ball says. Everything depends on it. That much hasn’t changed at all.