Among the first 10 or so college basketball pieces I wrote for Sports Illustrated magazine was a column about an intriguing, late-blooming sophomore at UCLA who’d begun the 2007–08 season sporting a “haircut out of Ghost Rider: a Mohawk framed by intricately shaved flames, some of which licked a basketball rendered on the right side of his skull.” It was the first time the name “Russell Westbrook” appeared in SI, nine seasons before his current incarnation as a ball of fire scorching the NBA with nightly triple-doubles. I would not go the shameless-plugging-of-old-work-as-column-lede route if it didn’t also have the function of establishing that I covered and watched UCLA’s last, great star-driven offense.
And man, was that Westbrook team loaded! He and Darren Collison, also a future NBA starting point guard, comprised the backcourt; and the 4–5 spots were manned by future NBAers in Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Kevin Love, who was the Bruins’ primary possession-user (well ahead of Russ). They played well together, too, winning the Pac-10, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and reaching the 2008 Final Four.
UCLA has never again reached that level of talent in its starting lineup, but its 2016–17 team is, in multiple other ways, surpassing that Russ squad: The current Bruins are more entertaining, ranking 13th nationally in tempo, compared to 220th in ‘07–08. They shoot the hell out of the ball, ranking first in effective field goal percentage, compared to 75th in ‘07–08. And although present-day Westbrookites might consider this blasphemous, Russell was not even close to being the transformational force in Westwood that current freshman point guard Lonzo Ball has been for the Bruins. They now have a must-watch offense that’s worthy of deeper examination.
A rare combo of speed and quality
Since the 2001–02 season, when kenpom.com‘s adjusted-tempo data begins, just eight teams have finished in the top 20 in tempo and top five in offensive efficiency. This might as well be called Club Roy, as Roy Williams has coached five of those teams at Kansas and North Carolina. The only time a Pac-12 team fell into this category was Washington in ‘04–05, when the Huskies had an electric, small-ball attack led by Nate Robinson, Will Conroy and Brandon Roy.
UCLA is on pace for membership in Club Roy, as it is currently No. 3 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 13 in tempo. At an adjusted 75.5 possessions per game, these Bruins are the fastest team Steve Alford has ever coached, including in his previous stops at New Mexico and Iowa. He says he’s always wanted to play this way in Westwood, and now he finally has a roster to pull it off. “I like to coach more up-tempo than I do grind-it-out stuff,” he says. “But personnel often dictates your style, and we’ve recruited to this style, and now we have the right personnel in place, with a lot of guys who can pass, shoot, dribble—high-IQ players who understand how to play.”
The 6' 6" Ball played in an even faster offense last year at Chino Hills (Calif.) High School, averaging a triple-double while running zero set plays. “What we did [in Chino Hills] was more hectic,” he says, but he’s pleased with UCLA’s pace. “I think pace is perfect: We’re scoring pretty much 100 points in every game, and coach is letting us all play freely.”
The Lonzo Effect
The best way to begin a discussion of Ball’s impact is not with his own statistics, but rather with the stats of the players who’ve shifted to the 2 and 3 spots in UCLA’s offense: seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. In more than a decade covering the sport, I cannot recall seeing two upperclass leading scorers undergo more extensive, late-stage makeovers in how they’re scoring.
Let’s begin with Bryce, who spent his junior season as a pick-and-roll point guard, and is now more of a lethal, catch-and-shoot guy coming off screens:
The data in that chart is from Synergy Sports, and it shows Alford’s pick-and-roll usage dropping from 30.2% of his possessions last year to just 4.2% this year. His off-the-dribble Js have thus decreased, and his catch-and-shoot usage and efficiency have risen rapidly.
Hamilton’s pick-and-roll usage has similarly plummeted, his catch-and-shoot usage has gone way up—and he’s been one the nation’s best shooters off the catch, averaging 1.41 points per possession.
Thanks to the distribution skills of Ball (and backup point guard Aaron Holiday), Hamilton and Alford are getting rewarded for their off-ball movement with high-volume and high-quality looks at threes. And the fact that when they make their cuts, the ball is being delivered at the exact termination point, right between the “C” and “L” on the front of their jerseys, is helping their shooting percentages:
A schematic overhaul
There’s a significant Xs-and-Os aspect to those makeovers, too, in that the addition of Ball and high-IQ freshman stretch-four T.J. Leaf allowed Steve Alford to scrap an offense that relied on pick-and-rolls 28.8% of the time last season. “So many times, with the ballscreen, it’s an offense that involves two people, or maybe a third, and in watching basketball as a whole, it seems like the pick-and-roll has become stagnant,” Alford says. “In my mind, you can be a lot quicker and more effective with good ball movement and people movement.”
Alford played at Indiana for Bobby Knight, the godfather of motion offense, and so that’s what Alford coached early in his career. But Knight’s motion was hatched in an era that lacked a three-point line or a shot clock, and gradually became less of a fit for the modern game. As Alford has shifted UCLA away from the pick-and-roll game this year, it’s been to flowing offense that, like the old Indiana teams, involves all five players. But unlike Knight’s Hoosiers, the Bruins have a freewheeling, transition-first approach that, once in the halfcourt, settles into more perimeter-oriented movement inspired by Alford’s affinity for the NBA’s Warriors and Spurs, and made functional by personnel that doesn’t let things stagnate.
You’ll see possessions where the Bruins use their three guards in a motion wheel, running off screens set by the 4 and 5 men into catch-and-shoot three-point opportunities:
And you’ll see possessions where they’ll simply put the three guards into a perimeter handoff cycle, shifting the defense side-to-side, getting favorable switches and then capitalizing when they see an opening, like this backdoor cut-and-dish by Ball:
Spreading the dimes
Ball’s 8.8 assists per game rank second nationally, but I’m less impressed by his assist volume than I am by his equal-opportunity distribution. Through 10 games, each of UCLA’s primary five scorers around Ball—Hamilton, Leaf, Alford, Holiday and Thomas Welsh—have been assisted by him at least 10 times. Ball plays no favorites, which keeps everyone running and moving:
He also has the luxury of a true variety of passing options—three perimeter snipers in Hamilton, Alford and Holiday; a mid-range specialist in Welsh; and a Swiss Army knife in Leaf. That leads to an assist shot-distribution that looks like this:
Lonzo being Lonzo
It’s clear just from watching Ball play—him throwing passes from non-traditional angles, successfully creating in transition even when there isn’t a numbers advantage, and launching long, pull-up threes—that he feels little risk of getting yanked to the bench after a mistake. “Coach Alford is not putting any restrictions on my game,” Ball says. “If I see something, I go ahead and do it. He trusts me to make the right play.”
And Ball, Alford says, “makes plays that a lot of guards can’t even see, much less make.”
There are plenty of examples of that this season; one of my favorites came in transition in a win over UC-Riverside, in which Ball created such an odd assist: Rather than throwing the ball to a player, he just deadened a cross-court bounce pass that essentially signaled to a trailer—Isaac Hamilton, who was so far behind he wasn’t even in the camera frame—to run and catch up with the ball in that space. It turned into an easy three:
I haven’t seen any other college point guards make a pass like that this season. It’s not normal basketball, but it’s still great offense—and even greater TV. This is the new UCLA.