Lonzo Ball has been dealing with a nagging knee injury for what seems like forever. In July he finally had surgery on the troublesome joint, a partial removal of the meniscus which had caused swelling and discomfort dating back to last season. With this as the context, then, it should be as little surprise that he’s not yet fully cleared for the start of training camp which begins in a week.
In an interview with Spectrum Sportsnet, head coach Luke Walton laid it out and explained exactly where Lonzo is currently in his recovery and what that means when camp opens. From ESPN’s piece:
“He will be in camp participating. He won’t be doing full 5-on-5 contact at camp, at the start of camp,” Walton said in an interview with Spectrum SportsNet that will air at 8 p.m. PT Wednesday. “So we’re starting to ease him into it again, play some one-on-one, things like that, half-court stuff.”
“But with a player of his ability, and how much he’s gonna be a part of our future, the conversation is … take as much time as you need to make sure he’s healthy. We won’t rush him back at all.”
There are several layers here, all them important.
First, it’s fair to wonder about Lonzo’s health, general durability, and just plain old worry about his knee. Surgery always brings risk, full recovery is never guaranteed, and Lonzo missed 30 games last season with lingering leg issues. It’s totally fine if you want to ignore those and write them off as bad luck while projecting a rosy, injury-free future. Just understand others might not take that same approach.
Second, this timeline is not ideal even if it is understandable based on the approach to treatment Lonzo and the Lakers took. Remember, Lonzo didn’t so much “put off” surgery as much as he tried different options before going under the knife. He tried rest. He tried a PRP injection. Those things didn’t work, so he had the surgery. Trying those other things first pushed a surgery until mid-July and now, in late September, he’s not yet ready to go. That said, I think the preference would be he be ready for full activities at the start of camp. This roster has turned over by more than half and Lonzo is a big part of that. Missing any reps with new teammates puts him slightly behind. Again, this isn’t ideal. It’s also not the end of the world.
Most important in all this, however, is that Walton is 100% right — Lonzo should take as much time as he needs to get to be fully healthy. Forget for a moment his long future in the league and the career ahead of him. Just looking forward to this season, the Lakers will need Lonzo 100% healthy as much as possible to be the best version of themselves. Full stop. Compromising that in anyway to meet an artificial deadline like the start of camp is not prudent. Bring him along at whatever pace makes sense to optimize and maximize his participation in actual games that count in the standings for a push towards the playoffs and as high a seed as possible.
Further, as much as Lonzo has to grow as a player and has to show that the refinements and improvements sought in his summer training regimen are being realized, the fact is that Lonzo’s game is still going to be one most influenced by instincts and the next level manner in which he sees + plays the game. While so much about basketball can be taught, these aspects — the ones which I believe make him special — cannot be. This is the context that guides my belief that if any player can afford to miss a bit of scrimmage time, it’s Lonzo.
Sure, there’s an argument to be made that any time missed disrupts his ability to gain chemistry and develop familiarity with his teammates. This, after all, is what will allow him to mesh his strengths with those of his teammates in order to produce outcomes greater than the sum of the parts. I’d counter, however, that Lonzo is that rare type of player who, once he’s on the court, helps bend the game towards his style while also making it inviting for players to adapt to him. He’s not going to dominate the ball, he’s not going to be overly reliant on actions which have precise timing for them to work. No, Lonzo is going to pass you open, he’s going to see the crease first and then lead you into it, he’s going to play ahead of the action in a way which makes things easier.
In other words, I believe he can miss time, come back, and pick up right where he left off. Even if where he left off was a season ago. Even if where he left off means the teammates he has now weren’t even Lakers yet. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong here, but I don’t think I will be.
Lastly, some will say Lonzo being partially limited to the start of camp only puts him behind in the competition with Rajon Rondo for the starting PG spot. Maybe that’s true. And if it is, fine. Competition is supposed to be hard, it’s supposed to be heated, and it’s supposed to inspire the best in people to get them to produce at the highest level they can. I believe in Lonzo as a competitor and if he has to make up ground on Rondo, so be it. If Lonzo’s as good as I think he is, he’ll be just fine. And if the people who built and run this team are as smart as I think they are, it will all work out.