One of the next generation’s fiercest rivalries pits point guards Lonzo Ball against De’Aaron Fox.
It is a Head2Head battle that dates back to their Kentucky-UCLA days when the Wildcats ousted the Bruins in the 2017 NCAA Sweet 16 round, with Fox scoring 39 points on UCLA in the elimination game.
For Fox, it was sweet revenge after Kentucky lost a 2016-17 regular season game to UCLA, with Ball posting 14 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in a five-point victory (Fox had 20 points and 9 assists in that contest).
But that is just where things got started.
Ball would be drafted second by the Lakers in the 2017 NBA Draft (Fox went fifth to the Kings) where the 6-6, 190 pounder continued to grab the spotlight as Zo became a social-media sensation, thanks to his outspoken dad, the Big Baller Brand shoes, his rap album and the family’s Facebook TV show.
In comparison, the 6-3, 175-pound Fox took a backseat.
Fox fans would say Ball ducked him in 2017 Summer League, 2017-18 preseason and a couple regular season games, while Ball backers note they finally did square off, splitting their two pro matchups.
In 2017-18, Fox’s Kings got the best of Ball’s Lakers last November, 113-102, when De’Aaron scored 13 points on 11 shots in 23 minutes (Ball had 11 points, 7 rebounds and 11 assists in 37 minutes).
Meanwhile in January, Ball and the Lakers finally got revenge, 99-86, when he posted a 5-11-11 line with 5 steals in 36 minutes (Fox had 15 points on 16 shots in 32 minutes).
Alas, Ball-Fox III continues Saturday when Lakers host Kings in an NBA rubber match. The pace will be fast when these two rev it. Buckle up.
(Stats through November 7, 2018)
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; TSP true shooting percentage; PER Player Efficiency Rating.
Ball is not a scorer by any means, but the 6-6 point guard has taken the necessary precautions to make sure his game does not become an offensive liability because of his inability to shoot. As a rookie, Ball’s unorthodox shooting motion—where his right shooting arm crossed his face at a left angle when releasing outside shots—caused problems (Ball only made 31 percent of his three-pointers in 2017-18, lowering his true shooting percentage to .444 and points per game to 10.2 in 34.2 minutes per game). However, through his first 11 games this season, Ball has taken deeper three-pointers—and more of them—while increasing his accuracy and efficiency simultaneously, shooting 39 percent on three-point attempts at an overall .557 true shooting percentage. Likewise, Ball’s scoring has increased on a per-minute basis (9.0 points in 26.1 minutes per game in 2018-19), making what was once a weakness now a non-liability.
Fox also has seen a transformation in his scoring attack, with the Kings installing a faster-paced offense that suits the point guard’s skills perfectly. As a team, Sacramento has gone from the NBA’s slowest team last season to the League’s second-fastest pace this season. It is no accident Fox’s scoring rise—from 11.6 points in 27.8 minutes as a rook to 18.7 points in 32.3 minutes-per game in 2018-19—has come as a result. Now Fox gets better shots, hits with more accuracy and puts up seven more points in four more minutes per game without having to take more attempts—simply because he has become so productive. His three-point percentage has risen from 31 to 38 percent, his true shooting percentage from .475 to .577 and he also has become a better playmaker to boot, increasing rebound and assist metrics as well. As a team, Sacramento is top five in fast-break points, points off turnovers, points in the paint and points scored in transition. With a team-high 24.3 percent usage rate, Fox is the big reason why.
Indeed, both the 21-year-old Ball and 20-year-old Fox (he turns 21 next month) have made big improvements as scorers, but Ball has gone from bad to okay, while Fox has gone from bad to good.
You will find few youngsters nowadays that have a better floor game than Ball, but we must give credit to Fox for raising his game to a level even higher than Zo at this stage of their careers. True, rookie Ball had the edge on rookie Fox when it came to the transition and halfcourt floor game, averaging 6.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game, while Fox only managed 2.8 boards and 4.4 dimes per game last season. But again, a change in Kings style has seen Fox transform into one of the game’s best young coast-to-coast playmakers, where he now averages 4.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists in 32.3 minutes per game. Fox relies on his speed and quickness—to which he dominates Ball, and as demonstrated by this segment:
With the addition of Rajon Rondo to the Lakers roster, Ball has seen his playing time and averages diminish, with 4.8 rebound and 4.5 assist averages in 26.1 minutes per game, while his percentile metrics remain sky-high. Zo’s assist ratio (31.4 percent) is significantly better than his turnover ratio (11.5 percent), while Fox has become one of the game’s top assist-to-turnover playmakers—at nearly a 2-to-1 rate—without seeing a rise in mistakes (27.1 assist ratio and 12.5 turnover ratio in 2018-19). Ball does look to pass more than Fox and possesses more natural instincts at finding the open man. After defensive rebounds, he always has his head up for a streaking teammate to throw a long pass ahead to, and not to one-upped by Fox’s quickness, he once passed a ball through the backseat of a moving Escalade:
Pretty good. But not as good as Lonzo. We’ll call this even with both having their own strengths
Critics knocked Ball’s shooting and scoring prowess last season when he was a rookie, but nobody anywhere criticized his defense, rebounding or playmaking skills because Ball quickly showed how talented he was in all three aspects of the game. Now a year older, wiser and stronger, the Lakers point guard is an even better defender, perhaps ranking as his squad’s most reliable defensive player to date.
Fox is getting better, but he is nowhere near the on-ball or off-ball defender that Ball has been. In fact, the NBA’s only young perimeter defender that matches up with Ball at this level would be San Antonio’s injured point guard Dejounte Murray, who made 2017-18 All-Defense second team last season.
This is a tough category to quantify because we believe Ball has all the leadership skills one would hope to see in a 21-year-old prospect. However, Ball is not empowered to lead the Lakers as Fox is currently empowered to lead the Kings. Right now, Coach David Joerger has built his team around three key cogs: Fox, Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein. As for L.A., Ball does not even rank amongst the top 5 Lakers in either usage rate or minutes per game. We believe Ball is a natural leader, but with the large looming shadow casted by LeBron James, he is still in role-player usage as of now.
As well as Fox has been playing offensively—and he has been playing surprisingly well—it feels downright criminal of us not to be giving Ball more love in the offensive categories, especially if one day Zo becomes the elite playmaker we believe he can become. Ball has the basketball IQ that reminds us of a young Jason Kidd. We talked about his innate passing instincts and defensive prowess, things that are tough to teach and get better with experience. While we cannot ignore the physical talents and offensive exploits of Fox this season, we do believe Ball has special qualities that one day in the future will come shining through for the Lakers.
A year ago, Ball would have gotten our vote and we still think in the long run, Ball will emerge as the superior NBA player. However, Fox has emerged as one of the NBA’s best stories, as has the whole Sacramento Kings franchise thus far. So far be it from us to steal the young prince’s glory so early into the Kings’ resurgent 2018-19 season.