Lonzo Ball "can't run or jump", talks surgery and next steps

Fate and misfortune, sadly, hit first Tuesday when the Bulls began training camp for the 2022-23 NBA season. 

Lonzo Ball, Tuesday, acknowledged on the eve of his third knee surgery that he still cannot run or jump nine months after the surgery that was supposed to resolve those issues, can’t flex his knees properly and cannot even attempt routine basketball activities. Which is a devastating, knock-the-wind-out-of-preseason gut punch that, at least for now, is taking the air out of what the Bulls were hoping would be an uplifting start to the season.

Ball said missing the season is a “worst case scenario,” but given now the multiples of surgeries on his left knee, Ball said he’s going to be patient and cautious in his return and not play until he fells completely healthy.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan, asked if the team has to prepare as if Ball might not play this season, said, “Yeah, I think you have to (consider that). I think you have to. I’m as frustrated for him as he is for himself. You don’t even know even if everything goes great with the surgery how long it would take for him to get back in playing form. I certainly hope (missing the season) is not the case, but you have to prepare going into each day not sitting around saying you hope he’s coming back. We don’t know the timetable.”

So how is your day going?

“The pain has gone down, but I still can’t play basketball,” Ball revealed to Chicago media in a noon Zoom call from Los Angeles, where he will have surgery Wednesday. “So, unfortunately, I’ve got to take the next step and that’s surgery. Literally, I really can't run. I can't run or jump. There's a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can't catch myself. Until I can do those things I can't play.

“From my understanding, they’re going in there to see what it is because it’s not necessarily showing up on the MRI,” Ball continued. “But it’s clear that there’s something there that’s not right. So they’re going to go in, look at it, and whatever needs to be done is going to be done. It’s (the pain) every day. Going upstairs and stuff, it’s still painful. It’s something that I’ve never dealt with, and even the doctors are a little surprised about it a little bit. We’re all working together to figure this thing out.

“We're going to do the surgery, we're going to take it slow and just go based on how I'm feeling,” Ball added in a polite, conversational monotone. “If all goes well, hopefully it's not too long and I'm back out there playing. That (missing the season) is not in my mind right now, but that would be the worst-case scenario. I'm at a point now where I know I can't get back out there until I'm comfortable playing and can actually play. So whenever that day comes, that's when I'll have the jersey back on. For me, this will be my third surgery. So this time around I really don’t want to rush anything. I think last time I wanted to get back to the playoffs and stuff, and I thought – we all thought – that was going to be the case and, unfortunately, it wasn’t. So this time we need to just take it as slow as we need to take it and come back 100 percent.’’

Lonzo Ball drives the ball against defender P.J. Tucker.

Hey everyone, close your mouths!

Because as Ball came across dispassionate even as he was the one facing a second surgery on the same knee within a year, it felt like an agape, watershed moment for this season considering the apparent severity of the circumstances.

Sure, the Bulls prepared in hiring veteran point guard Goran Dragić. And they got exceptional production last season from emergency point guards Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu with Coby White available for spot duty.

But it was Ball’s baller presence which launched the Bulls rocket start to last season with his pressuring defense on the ball in a tag team with Caruso, and then his two-way offensive game with 42 percent three-point shooting to help space the floor and up court passing that accelerated the offense. Always loath to question his players, even coach Billy Donovan conceded the team’s pace and space play was hindered by Ball’s absence.

It all seemed so minor almost a year ago in mid-January when Ball was diagnosed with a bone bruise that perhaps was to keep him out a few weeks. Then the concern was upgraded to a meniscus surgery, his second following similar surgery in 2018 after his rookie season. The prognoses was a six-to-eight week recovery period, after which the 24-year-old, 6-6 guard presumably would return for the playoffs.

Ball said he tried. 

“I’ve torn my meniscus before and I came back and was fine,” Ball, wearing a gray turtleneck sweatshirt, offered almost matter of factly. “Like I said, I thought I was for sure going to be back for the playoffs. I think we all thought that was going to be the case. But things happen, and something weird obviously happened. I’ve never felt pain like this or was able to ramp up a little bit but never fully. So definitely a unique situation. But the doctors and the Bulls felt we are all trying to figure out what it is. Like I said, we all came to the conclusion that it’s time for surgery.’’

Lonzo Ball celebrates with DeMar DeRozan after hitting a three-pointer during the 2021-22 season.

It’s obviously a disappointing denouement for Ball and the Bulls, the latter who especially were counting on Ball’s recovery to return to the starting five from last season that led the Eastern Conference for most of the first-half of the season with an offseason emphasis on personnel continuity.

There seemed to be so much promise so quickly last season with the summer signings of DeMar DeRozan, Caruso and what seemed like the free agency coup to wrestle Ball away from the New Orleans Pelicans.

It quickly became what were they thinking moments as Ball bursted on the Bulls scene, 21 points and seven of 10 threes in a victory over contending Dallas and 27 points and also seven of 10 threes in a win over the Lakers back home in Los Angeles. It was the Lakers who first gave up on Ball in the Anthony Davis trade after Ball was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft and then lead executive Magic Johnson declared Ball the face of the Lakers future.

Ball had his best season with the Pelicans in 2020-21, often playing off the ball to emphasize his shooting and remaking his unusual shot that formerly came from his left side. The Bulls made Ball their free agency priority in the summer of 2021, and then the acquisitions of Caruso and DeRozan energized and refigured the team as few expected.

The Bulls were 27-13 after Ball’s last game in January, a period of five previous games in which he made 19 of 38 threes and was averaging three steals over the previous seven games. The Bulls finished the season 46-36 and were run out 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Bulls were 20-27 the rest of the season without Ball, though there also were injuries to Caruso and Zach LaVine.

The hope from all parties was that after the setbacks in April and May a summer of rehabilitation would avoid another procedure.

“The whole summer was meeting with specialists, talking with different doctors and rehabbing,” Ball acknowledged. “Doing everything we could to stay out of surgery and get back on the court. Throughout all the workouts, there was a point where we would warm up and stuff, and I would go through certain days and it would be fine. Then whenever I got to real basketball activities, I just couldn’t do it. Reached a point where we’ve used the whole summer to pretty much work and get as far as I can. Unfortunately, this is what’s at hand and has to be dealt with. We feel like surgery, again, is the best option.’’

Ball, who is in the second of a four-year contract with the Bulls, said he’ll return to be around the team following surgery.

“It's tough,” Ball agreed. “This is my third time working on this knee. I'm at a point where I just want to get it over with and get healthy and get back to playing. I missed the playoffs last year, I haven't played basketball pretty much all year. So for me, I just want to get out there with my teammates and do what I love to do. I'm not going to say I'm concerned about (the future of the knee), but obviously I wish I didn't have to have any surgeries. The plan this whole summer was to stay out of the surgery. But at this point this is all that's left. So it's something that has to be done. I know I'm going in with the best doctors, so I've got 100 percent confidence in them and I think I'm going to be back to normal.

“Things happen,” Ball said. “This is a new year. Hopefully, I can get back sooner rather than later and help those guys reach the common goal which is a championship.”

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