MEMPHIS, Tenn. — To his credit, for all the time he has spent in front of a camera or microphone over the course of the past five weeks, and for all the extraordinary basketball players he has judged to be inferior to his son Lonzo, LaVar Ball is not known to have made any public pronouncement disparaging Kentucky freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox.
That’s a relief, right?
Because all the stuff about Lonzo being better than Steph Curry will stand as mere conjecture until at least the autumn, and all the stuff about him being “Magic Johnson with a jump shot” and Michael Jordan’s superior never will be proven either way.
On the other hand, Friday night in the NCAA Tournament's South Region semifinals, Lonzo Ball was confronted in person by Fox. The Wildcats won 86-75. This was not some bar argument or TV debate-show topic. This was an actual basketball game, and Lonzo was not the best point guard on the floor, not even one of the two best freshmen (Malik Monk scored 21 and made four 3-pointers for UK) and really not even one of the three best (UCLA’s T.J. Leaf delivered 17 points and sevenrebounds).
Lonzo Ball, top,and De'Aaron Fox compete for a loose ball. (Getty Images)
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to declare that De'Aaron Fox blew Lonzo Ball off the floor with 39 points and fourassists. Those were the most points ever scored by a freshman in an NCAA Tournament game. Think about that. Michael Jordan played in the tournament as a freshman. So did Magic Johnson and Steph Curry. But let’s not allow all that to get out of hand.
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“As a competitor, you’re going to be ready for this game,” Fox said. “I know my teammates have my back. If I’m scoring, everybody’s happy for me. You don’t see anybody being selfish or anything like that.”
Ball scored 10 points, passed for eight assists and committed four turnovers. He tried a half-dozen times to change the momentum with one of his deep, Jimmer-style 3-pointers, but only one found the target.
“Not good. I didn’t do nothing to help my team win,” Ball told ESPN. “(Fox is) a great player, one of the best guards in the country, and coming off the screens he’s very difficult to cover.”
This was the second time the two gifted point guards had opposed one another. In December, Ball had scored 14 points and passed for seven assists, statistically inferior to Fox's 20 points and 9 assists. But UCLA won the game at Rupp Arena, 97-92. Regarding that confrontation, LaVar Ball had told ESPN's Ian O'Connor, ""He can't mess with Zo. You can have 40 points and Lonzo can have two points and make the game-winner, and I'm going with him. You had more points, but look at who won the game ... I don't know if he'd be in the top five of the draft for me. I want a bigger, stronger guy."
Oh, that's right. LaVar Ball did say that. You can't say the man is not thorough.
Lonzo Ball and Fox weren’t directly matched the entire night. That’s partly because Ball was among a series of defenders who could not keep Fox from marauding through the lane the Bruins ostensibly were defending. Fox was 13 of 20 from the field and converted 13 of 15 free throws.
“When I missed one of those free throws at the end, Malik said, ‘Man, you scared to get 40,’ ” Fox said. “I was like, ‘Man, that’s crazy.’
Through the course of winning the SEC Tournament and advancing to the NCAA Elite Eight, the Wildcats have played six postseason games and Fox has led the team in scoring in every one. He has averaged 23 points and shot 57 percent from the field.
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This is the player many of us imagined he would become when he tore through the non-conference portion of Kentucky’s season with his astonishing quickness, length and dexterity. He recorded a triple-double against Arizona State. He scored 24 points and passed for 10 assists in a win over North Carolina. He had 27 points, six assists and sixrebounds in a win over Arkansas.
Then he hurt his ankle in a win over South Carolina. He played eightminutes that day. To that point in the season, he’d been an All-American. He wasn’t that player again for more than a month. He contributed a bit to some important results, but he wasn’t this guy.
“Today all I did at halftime is say, ‘Guys, are you watching this game?’ They said, 'Yeah,'” coach John Calipari said. “OK, good, then you know we’re playing through De’Aaron Fox. The rest of you take a back seat, play off him, but everything we’re doing good is through him. And they were ecstatic: 'Good, let’s do it.'”
The offensive explosion from Fox was easy to see and easier to quantify. His performance on defense, and the team’s work collectively on that end, might have been even more impressive.
Because, think about it: The Wildcats were playing against one of the poorer defenses, statistically, in the tournament. They should score on UCLA. But these Bruins -- and too bad we’ve seen the last of them, with Ball declaring for the NBA Draft in the locker room postgame —were the best offensive team of this decade. They averaged 90 points and were held under 80 just 10 times. If not for a late, pointless basket in the final 30 seconds, UK would have held the Bruins to their lowest scoring output of the season.
Lonzo Ball looks toward the scoreboard as his UCLA career comes to an end. (Getty Images)
“We did an excellent job of getting after them. They made some tough shots, but we never relinquished. We stayed after them,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said. “They understand over the last month how important the defensive end is to this team.”
After losing 97-92 to the Bruins at home in December, and given their success Sunday in a low-possession game against Wichita State, it stood to reason the Wildcats might try avoid racing into another 90-mph game this time. Payne said that was not Kentucky’s approach.
“Not at all,” he said. “We would love to play a 90-point game with them, but we don’t want them to score 90. Our motto was, 'We don’t want this to be an offensive game for both teams.'”
It was not an offensive game for both point guards, certainly.
“Fox had one of those special nights,” said noted basketball dad Steve Alford.
It seems certain one member of the Ball family, maybe two, did not see this coming.