MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Soft-spoken, mild-mannered, understated LaVar Ball wants you to believe his oldest son, Lonzo, is the greatest point guard of all time.
In the real world, virtually all analysts believe Ball is one of the top two point guards in the 2017 draft class, slotting him anywhere from first to third in mock drafts.
Friday night, though, he wasn’t even the best point guard on the floor at FedEx Forum.
That was De’Aaron Fox, the Kentucky freshman who sliced through and floated over UCLA in a virtuoso performance. The fastest player in college basketball completely dominated his high-profile matchup with Ball, carrying the Wildcats to an 86-75 victory in the South Region semifinals, and into a very juicy Elite Eight matchup against North Carolina Sunday.
Fox has widely been projected as a top-10 pick, even top five by some. But with Los Angeles Lakers execs Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka watching from the front row and plenty of other NBA scouts in the building, Fox gave everyone at the top of the draft something to think about.
His line: 39 points, four assists, one turnover and the win.
Ball’s line: 10 points, eight assists, four turnovers and the loss. Not really the stuff of billion-dollar shoe deals, as LaVar has predicted.
Afterward, Ball immediately declared himself historical at UCLA, not even waiting for the sweat to dry from his last college game. Next stop: the NBA draft.
“I built a lot of relationships at UCLA,” he said in the locker room, looking up between scrolls through Twitter on his phone to answer questions. “I appreciate my time there and I appreciate my teammates. Much love to them.”
The timing of that was straight out of the Rashad McCants playbook at North Carolina, not even waiting until the jersey was off to declare for the draft in 2005. That may bother some people, but why fake it?
“Everyone knew [he’d declare for the NBA] from the start,” Ball said. “So it’s not a surprise.”
Ball’s very bad final night as a collegian did include occasionally grabbing at his hamstring during the first half and something close to a full-blown limp late in the second. He said he tweaked his hamstring early, but declined to play the excuse card.
“I got outplayed tonight,” he said.
There’s no doubt about that. Fox was phenomenal, scoring Kentucky’s first eight points and racking up 15 by halftime. Late in the second half he went into closer mode, taking the ball to the basket repeatedly, drawing fouls and making his free throws (13 of 15 on the night).
UCLA has been a soft defensive team all season, and Fox exploited that. The fact that the freshman from Houston is left-handed may have been left off the Bruins’ scouting report, because they gave him the drive to the left repeatedly. Fox tortured UCLA in pick-and-roll situations from the top of the key – blowing past Ball and other guards, then pulling up in the lane when the Bruins’ big men gave him room to shoot.
“It’s tough to stop a guy who has as good a mid-range game as he does,” said UCLA guard Bryce Alford. “That’s a lost art in college basketball, and it’s very hard to stop. … If we had to do it all over again, I don’t know if we’d change our game plan. He was just phenomenal tonight.”
And phenomenal from the very start. There was no feeling-out process, no waiting for the game to come to him. Fox grabbed it from the get-go.
“Honestly,” Fox said, “since the postseason started I’ve been in attack mode.”
This is an accurate statement. In the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments, Fox has averaged 23 points while making 57 percent of his shots and getting to the line 55 times. He’s cranked it up since the calendar hit March.
But Fox also admitted that this game carried a little extra cache with the chance to battle Ball in an elimination game that would be closely watched by NBA brass. They’d matched up plenty of times on the AAU circuit, but this clearly was a game with higher stakes.
“He’s in contention for the No. 1 pick of the draft,” Fox said. “He’s a great player and we’re boys off the court, but today I got the best of him.”
Ball’s court vision and handle are elite, especially for a 6-foot-6 teenager, but he will take some questions with him to the next level.
First is defense – he’s got to improve dramatically in that area. Second is strength, which should come naturally. Third is his sidewinder shooting form, which has been discussed for months but remains an issue (he shot more than 40 percent from 3-point range this year, but was 1 for 6 against Kentucky and won’t be open as easily on the next level).
And fourth will be toughness – will he get down and dirty when the need arises? There was at least one play against the Wildcats where Ball wanted no part of getting on the floor for a loose ball. And he pretty much quit playing any pretense of defense late, jog-limping downcourt behind the play as Kentucky’s lead expanded.
Fox, on the other hand, devoured this opportunity. He played vigilant defense and was willing to throw his body into the fray at both ends of the floor.
“What he’s learned to do is play physical,” John Calipari said. “He’s learned to play through bumps. He’s learned to work. He’s understood the grind now.
“Today all I did at halftime is say, ‘Guys, are you watching this game? … Then you know we’re playing through De’Aaron Fox. The rest of you take a back seat, play off of him, but everything we’re doing good is through him the whole half.’ ”
This was a rematch of a high-wattage December game, which UCLA won in Lexington. Now the Wildcats have another rematch game Sunday, this time against North Carolina, a team Kentucky beat in a 103-100 thriller in Las Vegas.
Malik Monk had 47 in that game for Kentucky, one of the great individual performances of the year. Monk was asked what he expects this time around against the Tar Heels.
“I think they’re going to play me even tighter,” Monk said, “so that means Fox is going to have his way.”
He’s had his way all March. If he does again on Sunday, Kentucky could be Fox-trotting into the Final Four and giving NBA execs even more to think about when it comes to drafting a point guard.
More March Madness coverage on Yahoo Sports:
• How Chris Chiozza hit the shot of the NCAA tournament and saved Florida’s season
• These photos of Florida’s buzzer-beater are almost as incredible as the shot itself
• Billion-dollar bust: De’Aaron Fox upstages Lonzo Ball to lead Kentucky past UCLA
• Commercials during March Madness mistakenly thank Republicans for repealing Obamacare
• The Internet loves LaVar Ball memes after UCLA’s loss to Kentucky