Ball was rated as a consensus five-star recruit by major scouting services. In November 2015, he signed a National Letter of Intent to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and play for the Bruins. As a freshman in 2016–17, he was one of 50 players named to the preseason watch list for the John R. Wooden Award, given annually to the top college player in the nation. Ball's vision and passing skills led UCLA's rise up the national rankings, as he and fellow freshman T. J. Leaf helped the Bruins bounce back from a 15–17 record from the year before. Ball led the nation in assists and transformed the Bruins into the top scoring offense in the country. In his first collegiate game against Pacific, he had 19 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds. Later in the year, Ball was named the MVP of the Wooden Legacy tournament, after he led UCLA to a win over Texas A&M in the championship game. He remained on the Wooden Award list in midseason, when he was also joined by Leaf, as UCLA was one of just five schools with two candidates on the list.