Philadelphia 76ers rookie Markelle Fultz and Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, who are former Pac-12 foes, are poised to be the NBA’s next great rivalry.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Those are just a few of the greatest rivalries in NBA history. Each is synonymous with the other, attached together at the hip.
Those in search of the league’s next great rivalry need look no further than the latest rookie class and its two best players: Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball.
In a draft class loaded with franchise point guards, Fultz and Ball were the first two off the board. And in a recruiting class defined by its depth of talent, Fultz and Ball weren’t just two of the best point guards, they were two of the best players.
After Ball committed to UCLA in January 2014, Fultz opted to joined him in the Pac-12, signing his National Letter of Intent to play at the University of Washington, meaning that not only would the two battle for supremacy as the class’ top point guard, but they would do so in the same conference.
On February 4 of this past year, the two went head to head, with Ball’s team emerging victorious, 107-66. Despite the convincing win for UCLA, neither Fultz nor Ball gained the upper hand in their lone matchup of the season (Fultz sat out the other meeting with a knee injury). In the win, Ball contributed 22 points on 7-12 shooting to go along with six rebounds, five assists and four steals. Not to be outdone, Fultz shined as well, putting up 25 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Both Fultz and Ball hold their counterpart in high regard — but don’t be quick to confuse respect with concession.
“Markelle’s a great player, but I feel I’m better than him,” Ball said during an interview with ESPN 710 Los Angeles in late March. “I think I can lead a team better than him. Obviously, he’s a great scorer—he’s a great player, so I’m not taking that away from him.”
And three weeks later, Fultz fired back.
“I have a lot of respect for [Ball], and he’s supposed to say that. Anyone that’s your competitor is going to think that they’re better,” Fultz said in an interview with Sports Illustrated Now. “To me, it was just funny, he just motivated me to work harder and be sure I put myself further and further in front.”
Fultz doubled down on his previous comments during an interview with the Los Angeles Lakers after a pre-draft workout last week.
“Lonzo is a great guard, so we’re both competing for the same position,” Fultz said. “Stepping on the court, I’m going to try and beat him in everything I do, if that’s tying my shoe faster or anything.”
For months, with the two point guards firmly entrenched at the top of most mock drafts, Fultz and Ball had the looks of Johnson-Bird 2.0 as the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers held the draft’s first two selections.
Instead, Fultz joined the Philadelphia 76ers as the result of a trade between the Sixers and Celtics, in which the two teams swapped picks in this year’s draft (Philadelphia moved up to one, Boston dropped down to three).
While Fultz in Boston made for a more compelling storyline, underscoring a historic rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers, there still exists the potential for a great rivalry between he and Ball.
Rather than play a contributing role for last season’s Eastern Conference finalists, Fultz gets the opportunity to help lead a young Sixers team that has combined for just 85 wins over the past four years.
Ball gets a similar opportunity in Los Angeles while playing for a team with 16 NBA Championships, the second most in league history. But the Lakers are in desperate need of a superstar, having failed to make the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, the longest such streak in franchise history.
Fultz and Ball now have the chance to guide a pair of storied franchises back to prominence.
Both are homegrown talents with Fultz living just two hours south of Philadelphia in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, while Ball resides in Chino Hills, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. With the two now playing for teams in opposing conferences, an East Coast-West Coast rivalry could be brewing, further pitting the two against one another.
The two young point guards have all the makings of the league’s next great rivalry. But even if it doesn’t turn out that way, it shouldn’t really matter. If Fultz and Ball quickly develop into NBA stars, the two will be a treat to watch for many years to come. And in the end, isn’t that all we really want?