Lonzo Ball becoming the soul of UCLA basketball

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

WESTWOOD, Calif. — All of a week into his college basketball career, UCLA freshman guard Lonzo Ball is becoming as much a part of a Sportscenter broadcast as the da-da-da, da-da-da intro music.

“Last time after Lonzo was No. 1 [on the Sportscenter Top 10 Plays for a one-handed lob-dunk vs. Pacific], I told him as soon as we got to the bench, ‘Dude, you’re going to be No. 1,'” Bruins senior guard Bryce Alford said Sunday. “Now, I was talking to T.J. [Leaf] and said, ‘He might be one, two and three.”

Ball individually — and the No. 14-ranked Bruins collectively — made enough highlight-reel plays in a 114-77 rout of Long Beach State, not even Sportscenter could showcase them all. A lob dunk from Aaron Holiday. A Dr. J-inspired scoop slam on a breakaway. A throwdown set from a pass off the backboard. Those accounted for six of his 20 points against the 49ers.

Sportscenter‘s only an hour-long show, but at least Twitter has near-endless bandwidth to spotlight them all.

Pat Riley, who Alford said “is hard not to notice,” was among the Pauley Pavilion audience. Maybe that explains Ball and his UCLA teammates channeling Showtime Lakers.

“They share the ball in transition like no team I’ve ever seen,” head coach Steve Alford said. That’s where this UCLA version of Showtime shines: distributing opportunities in the fast break to exploit numbers advantages, a style those 1980s Lakers teams mastered. In that regard, Ball functions as the Bruins’ Magic Johnson.

For every jaw-dropping dunk, he provides countless more precision passes to set up teammates for scores. His consummate facilitating has transformed the UCLA offense from one that went stagnant for long stretches a season ago, into a free-flowing machine now averaging 103 points per game.

“He’s just a special talent,” Steve Alford said. “He’s a special passer. That makes everyone else want to equally share it…They’re taking better shots [as a result of the ball movement].”

Perhaps no Bruin has benefited from Ball’s presence as much as Bryce Alford. Alford was an easy, if not lazy source for derision in 2015-’16, playing out of position as UCLA’s point guard out of necessity.

Ball’s seamless transition into collegiate 1-guard allowed Alford to move to the two, a more natural fit. His field-goal percentage is up from 38.5 to 50, and his 3-point shooting has climbed a remarkable 21.6 percent, from 36.7 to 58.3.

“It’s awesome. There’s so much less pressure on me as an offensive player,” Bryce Alford said. “I get to do what I do best, which is run off screens, shoot the basketball and really focus in on that. I think that’s why my efficiency will go up when I’m open, and I won’t to take as many tough shots as I did in years past.”

So much of what Ball brings to the UCLA offense cannot be replicated, because key qualities of his game are uncoachable. While the mechanics of a brilliant entry pass to the post, or a well-timed no-look on a breakaway can be practiced, court vision of his level is an innate ability.

And the unselfishness that lends a capable scorer like Ball to distribute the basketball so freely extends beyond the court.

“Everybody talks about my passing, but half of it is my teammates getting open and hitting the shot,” Ball said, deflecting credit.

The attitude has proven infectious. UCLA leads the nation in assists through the first week-and-a-half of play, with 24.3 per game. More than half the Bruins’ buckets are coming from ball movement.

This initial offensive eruption came exclusively against mid-major competition, including three games with more than 100 points scored against Pacific, Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State. The intensity dials up for UCLA Thanksgiving weekend when the Bruins make the short trek south to Anaheim for the Wooden Classic.

The holiday tournament kicks off a grueling non-conference run, which includes a road game at Kentucky; a visit to Pauley Pavilion from Michigan; and a showdown with Ohio State in Las Vegas.

Steve Alford cited half-court offense as an area of emphasis for the Bruins in December, to shore up once Pac-12 Conference play begins in January. It’s worth noting that one of Ball’s Sportscenter worthy plays Sunday came from Holiday’s alley-oop feed in a half-court set.

Should the Bruins improve that facet of their already dangerous offense in time for conference play, Ball’s best highlight just might be bringing a Pac-12 championship back to Westwood.

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