Bulls' Lonzo Ball set to hit 1-year absence, making 'slow progress'

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Ball set to hit 1-year absence, making 'slow progress' originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Saturday marks one year since Lonzo Ball played in an NBA game.

That the Golden State Warriors---the last opponent Ball faced---are in town on Sunday is the definition of cruel coincidence.

And cruel is about the only word for Ball’s lingering left knee rehabilitation, which has followed two surgeries and myriad stories about how much the Chicago Bulls miss his two-way impact.

Ball posted videos of himself dunking and running on a treadmill among others on his Instagram on Friday with the message: “He that can’t endure the bad will not live to see the good.”

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As someone who has returned from a torn ACL and his own offseason arthroscopic knee surgery, Zach LaVine can relate.

“Injuries suck. I think he takes it harder than anybody. It’s his career, his games. He’s the one who is having to put the work in every day,” LaVine said. “Just keeping him level-headed and trust the work he’s putting in. He’s going to get back eventually. There’s no point in rushing him now. Just make sure he’s feeling good and he’s still the same Lonzo. He’s in here messing around, talking mess to guys, cheering up the room. He’s in good spirits.

“He’s a huge part of our team. Just because you haven’t been named to an All-Star team doesn’t mean you’re not an incredible player. He does a lot offensively and defensively. I think his impact was shown last year. It’s hard to replace anybody on our team. But a guy like that you’re not going to be replace. Obviously, he’s missed.”

Indeed, the Bulls went 21-14 before Ball’s season ended. Initially, the Bulls said he’d be back in six to eight weeks from the torn meniscus that occurred in January 2022. Instead, Ball didn’t return last season, missing an opportunity at his first postseason.

Then, Ball needed an arthroscopic debridement in September and continues to make extremely slow progress to return.

“Those are things that maybe six weeks ago he couldn’t do. As much as they’re little steps, it’s still progress that he’s continuing to make,” coach Billy Donovan said of Ball’s social media videos. “I think the idea of running and cutting and sprinting and doing it day after day after day, that’s where the timetable becomes really difficult. But things you saw him do, he wasn’t able to do. So it’s progress. It’s just really, really slow.”

Donovan said Ball still experiences some discomfort, which is why he hasn’t been cleared for cutting or daily, full-speed, on-court running.

“The way it was explained to me is maybe doing those things six weeks ago---I’m not saying this is the number but if 10 was excruciating and 1 is not bad, maybe he was at a 7 or 8 six weeks ago. And now he’s at like a 2 or 3 doing some of those things,” Donovan said. “So is there pain there? Yes, there’s still some discomfort there. But not at the level it was six weeks ago.

“I’m not trying to say what Lonzo’s pain is. But the question is does he have pain? Yes. Is it the same pain he was dealing with six weeks ago? No. How much better is it? It’s good enough that he can get on a treadmill and do some running and he can go jump and go dunk the ball.”

Donovan said as far back as training camp that the Bulls had to prepare mentally for the possibility of Ball not playing this season. While both Ball and the team remain hopeful, all parties also understand the significant steps that must be taken for him to return to action.

“There’s going to be a pretty significant ramp-up period for him before he gets back on the floor. Once they say, ‘Hey, he’s free to cut and sprint and take on contact,’ that’s just the first step of however long it’s going to take that process to get to a place where the medical guys and he feels comfortable that he’s built up enough endurance, strength and stamina that he can withstand coming back the next day and doing it again and doing it again,” Donovan said. “Because I think in those situations as he tries to regain his conditioning, his timing, and those types of things, what sets those things back are the next day he can’t do anything.

“I don’t know where that’s going to be when that time comes. But I think the medical guys will be very, very careful in terms of making sure he’s got a pretty long runway to be able to prove and show he’s able to have enough strength and endurance and his timing is back. Listen, when you’re out a year, whenever he gets back to playing, I don’t think missing that much time anyone is going to expect him to pick up right where he left off. There’s going to be an adjustment period, there’s no question. How long that is? I don’t know.”

Ball’s absence has cast a shadow over the Bulls because management has touted continuity and Ball’s impact was clear when he played. But without knowing when or if he’ll return, that philosophy could be tested as the Feb. 9 trade deadline approaches.

“I think Lonzo’s been out for so long, we’ve just kind of gotten accustomed to playing without him,” Donovan said. “I see him and certainly wish he was out there for himself, how much he loves to play. I think it was pretty significant the impact he had on our team when he was out there playing.

“The biggest thing for me is for us to get somewhat healthy. Javonte (Green) is going to be out for a period of time. We just got Alex (Caruso) back off the ankle. I don’t know how long Demar (DeRozan) is going to be out. I’m sure (management) is taking it all into consideration what’s happened with some of our players in terms of guys missing games. I know Arturas and Marc and his staff, they’ll be evaluating all that stuff. But I have not heard anything in terms of, ‘We’re going to look at these 11 games and we’re going to make decisions off that.’ I don’t think Arturas would do that. I think he’s going to take a pretty good view of everything. He’s going to do his job to try to figure out ways we can get better.”

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