SEATTLE — The NBA waited for months for Saturday night, when the UCLA Bruins and their point guard, Lonzo Ball, traveled here to Alaska Airlines Arena to take on the Washington Huskies and their point guard, Markelle Fultz.
Yes, there was a game played Saturday night – if you can call the 107-66 pounding UCLA handed Washington a game, given the Bruins jumped to an 18-4 lead in the blink of an eye and cruised from there against their hopelessly overmatched rivals. But make no mistake: the 21 NBA scouts and executives that made the trip to see these two teams play had no interest in the final score of the game, or the fact that the Bruins, ranked No. 11, are headed for a top seed in the NCAA tournament while the Huskies are likely going to miss the postseason altogether.
Instead, this game, at least from an NBA perspective, was all about the head-to-head matchup between Fultz and Ball, the virtual consensus top two picks in the 2017 NBA draft. And, from that standpoint, Saturday’s game was a smashing success.
Fultz finished the game with 25 points, six rebounds and five assists, burying five three-pointers along the way, while Ball had 22 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals, while hitting four threes of his own. And, by the time the dust had settled, the debate over which should go at the top of the draft raged on without a clear answer in either direction.
“He’s a shot-maker,” Ball said of his rival. “Obviously I played as good a defense as I could on him, but he still made shots. He’s a great player.
“I’m just glad we got the win.”
The fact UCLA came away with a victory was never much in doubt. But right from the opening possession, when Ball tried to hit fellow freshman T.J. Leaf with a cross-court alley-oop, it was clear both players had shown up ready to go. During one stretch early in the second half, Ball and Fultz took turns burying three-pointers, with each hitting shots from several feet behind the college line.
Fultz, who played at DeMatha before heading to Washington for what — barring a very unexpected development — will be his only season of college basketball, showed off the well-rounded game that’s made him, in the eyes of most, the top prospect in the country.
Watching him play brings comparisons to Wizards star John Wall. Fultz isn’t quite as athletic as Wall, and is a better shooter (he went 5 for 10 from long-range Saturday, and is shooting 42 percent from three-point range for the season), but he has a similar build and passing vision. He’s also drawn at least one comparison to Dwyane Wade, which lends credence to the belief that he’s capable of playing either guard position.
“He’s the real deal,” UCLA’s Bryce Alford said. “We knew it coming in, watching the film and just knowing about him and his career, what he’s done here. Anytime you’re leading the Pac-12 in scoring by however much he is, going out and getting 25, 6 and 6, we knew he was going to be a hard cover.
“It wasn’t going to be an individual thing. It was going to be a team thing. I thought we did a good job of making him take tough shots, but a player of his stature still made some of them.”
Trying to pick between Fultz and Ball comes down to what they have around them. Ball is playing on a team with several talented players — including two expected future first-round picks in Leaf and center Ike Anigbogu. Fultz, on the other hand, is essentially a one-man band for the Huskies.
After Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss left after their freshman seasons to become first-round picks in last year’s draft, the cupboard has been left bare for Fultz and Washington. He routinely makes passes that should be assists, but teammates are unable to finish their shots.
Ball, on the other hand, has no such problems. But it’s also undeniable that he’s come into a program that underachieved last year and immediately changed the tone around it, which has led to him earning some lofty comparisons to Jason Kidd.
At 6 feet 6, Ball not only threw several alley-oops during Saturday’s game, but also finished one off himself with a dunk — something point guards don’t often do. More importantly, though, he’s a pure point guard, someone who is always looking to push the tempo and get the ball up the court, which has been a big part of UCLA’s success this season.
The fact that Ball is more of a pure point, while Fultz is thought to fit in well at either guard spot, has led some to speculate which winds up going first overall could simply come down to fit on the roster for the team that holds the top pick.
Still, according to UCLA Coach Steve Alford, the hype and attention that has surrounded Ball over the past few months, and particularly leading up to Saturday’s showdown with Fultz, hasn’t fazed him.
“If you were with us the last two days, it’s the same Lonzo each and every day,” Alford said. “Lonzo just does what Lonzo does, and that’s prepare his team the best he can and do the things that he does to make everybody else better, and he made a lot of guys better tonight.”
The truth is that one game, even one between two highly-ranked prospects like this one, will be the determining factor in deciding which winds up being the top pick in what is thought to be a loaded 2017 draft, and which winds up being No. 2. That Washington and UCLA spent much of the game in zone defenses didn’t help that fact, either.
But for everyone in attendance Saturday night, the talent both possess was easy to see, and the debate over which one deserves to have his name called first by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is likely to last all the way until June. The only thing that seems certain is choosing between them will be a decision all 30 NBA teams would love to have.