Is Lonzo Ball's Play Against Tough Competition a Cause for Concern?

In the Sweet 16, we saw Ball get torched by De'Aaron Fox and Kentucky. Could that be an issue going forward?

While Lonzo Ball and his UCLA Bruins still played for a chance to become national champions, his father -- LaVar Ball -- had his face on TV and radio outlets everywhere. Some people loved the entertainment value, but others grew annoyed.

Naturally, that created some unwarranted hate toward Lonzo himself, but through it all, his on-court performance excited viewers and NBA scouts alike. The result? A lot of people caught between mad love and knee-jerk annoyance.

If that conflict wasn't enough, Ball was exposed in a Sweet 16 meeting with Kentucky by fellow NBA prospect De'Aaron Fox. His Bruins were eliminated from the tournament, and it wasn't long after the final buzzer that Ball announced he was declaring for the 2017 NBA Draft.

We all knew that was coming, but for a Kawhi Leonard-like Ball, it was surprising to see him join his father on ESPN's First Take and proceed with interviews and the like. He was confident but not too confident -- that was until he spoke out, stating he's better than Markelle Fultz, the consensus number-one prospect in this year's upcoming draft.

It wasn't a cocky statement -- Ball stated his opinion and explained that he thinks he's a better leader. That could be the case, but as we already touched on, Ball was out-played by Kentucky's point guard, who experts consider to be a lesser prospect than Ball and Fultz.

With that in mind, was this an alarming pattern for the UCLA guard? Is it time to temper expectations because of his play against top teams and players?


With the 19-year-old having played just 36 games in one collegiate season, we don't have a giant sample size to operate from, but Ball has had eight games against four teams in the top 50 of Sports Reference's adjusted defensive rating. Overall, here's how he's performed in comparison to his season averages.

Per Game Points Assists Turnovers FG% 3P% eFG%
vs. Top-50 Defenses 14.3 6.6 2.9 51.2% 34.5% 62.2%
Season Average 14.6 7.6 2.5 55.1% 41.2% 66.8%
Difference -0.3 -1.0 0.4 -3.9% -6.7% -4.6%

It's evident he hasn't been all that bad against the elite defenses of Kentucky (9th), Cincinnati (12th), Oregon (18th) and Arizona (27th). Still, his turnover-to-assist ratio has gone from 3:1 to 2.3:1 in those games, telling us he does struggle against better competition when handling the ball and making decisions.

Another interesting thing to note is that he's had a usage below his season-average of 18.1% in four of the eight games, possibly suggesting he's had a tendency to defer just a little more in these games. Combining that with his substandard shooting percentages, he may not be the unstoppable offensive force some are making him out to be. If anything, it will at least take him more time to reach such a level.


Defense is where Ball has been a little less than stellar and quite possibly just average. His defensive rating of 100.7 ranked fourth on the UCLA roster, but UCLA wasn't much of a defensive team this year. For the sake of comparison, though, let's assume Ball's defense has been respectable all year.

Has he been just as respectable against top-50 offenses? This is how he's performed in 12 games against six teams of that caliber.

Defensive Rating 90-100 101-105 106-110 111-115 116+
Number of Games 1 2 2 2 5

Only once -- with a defensive rating of 91 in a win over USC -- did Ball perform better than his season average. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he had five games with a rating of at least 116 points allowed per 100 possessions, with four of those at or above 123. And -- yeah, you guessed it -- the worst of them came against De'Aaron Fox, who delivered a defensive rating of 133 to Ball's ledger.


Now, we move on to the juiciest of them all: matchups with other top guards.

Against Games PPG APG Total Net Rtg
Markelle Fultz 1 22.0 5.0 79
Jordan McLaughlin 3 14.0 6.3 27
Derrick Walton, Jr. 1 19.0 4.0 14
Allonzo Trier 3 14.3 7.3 3
De'Aaron Fox 2 12.0 7.5 -54

For the most part, Ball's fared pretty well when facing these five players. Has his defense held up, though?

Star vs. BallGamesPPGAPGTotal Net Rtg

It's only one game, but Ball easily outplayed Michigan's Derrick Walton. The net rating of 72 between the two sure says it all.

As for the aforementioned Fultz, Ball did show out against his fellow lottery pick, but the Huskies star did the same against Ball's squad -- he posted 25 points with 5 three-pointers and an offensive rating of 105.

As for his play against fellow Pac-12 guards -- McLaughlin of USC and Trier of Arizona -- it's two totally different narratives. While Ball has gotten the best of McLaughin, he's been outshined by Trier in their teams' in-conference meetings. Trier put up more points per game and has had a net rating of at least five in each of the three games.

Then there's Fox, who, despite a loss to Ball's Bruins back in December, has been better on both occasions. Even when he posted a net rating of -16 in the loss, Ball's -18 was worse. In the Sweet 16, it was all Fox, who posted an offensive rating of 155 to Ball's 97.

This is all not to say Ball is bad or worse than Trier or Fox. However, it's enough to be skeptical about just how good he'll be at the next level.