Lonzo Ball is back on the bench with the Chicago Bulls — but his return to running is delayed by illness

Nearly two years after his last NBA game, Lonzo Ball is beginning to take the next steps to return to the court — and eventually the Chicago Bulls lineup.

Ball has not played basketball since Jan. 14, 2022, when he suffered a meniscus injury that led to extensive, ongoing complications in his left knee. He underwent three surgeries in the past two years, including a cartilage transplant in March. Ball had been ruled out for a return this season.

We’re tracking all the news around Ball.

Jan. 26: Back on the bench, but running delayed due to illness

Ball reunited with his Bulls teammates in Los Angeles on Thursday night, sitting on the bench for the entirety of the 141-132 loss to the Lakers.

Ball sat on the bench alongside fellow injured teammates Zach LaVine and Torrey Craig, keeping track with statsheets in hand and distributing gum and towels on the sideline during the second half.

Teammate DeMar DeRozan said the team does its best to remain close with Ball despite the separation as he rehabilitates in Los Angeles. Ball is in group chats and various teammates check in on him regularly. But DeRozan said it’s a better feeling to reconnect with Ball in person during visits.

“It’s always great to see him,” DeRozan said. “The word(s) that he comes with is such a positive, uplifting feeling that he brings so whenever you’re around, it’s good to see him. Just a reminder the type of special person he is.”

However, both Ball’s reunion with his team and recovery timeline have been delayed due to illness. He was sick most of this week, which meant he was not able to attend practices at UCLA as previously planned or attempting straight-ahead sprints, the next step in his recovery.

Coach Billy Donovan said Ball was previously set to attempt sprints by the end of January. The guard has not been able to successfully sprint without pain or discomfort since January 2022.

“That was the plan,” Donovan said ahead of Thursday’s game. “That’s what I had talked to him about in December when he was in town and the hope was in January, he would start. I do think he is jogging. He just has not sprinted and done that.”

Ball underwent his first workout since he fell sick Thursday. If he continues to improve, he could still attempt straight-ahead sprinting by the end of the month, but Donovan was not certain whether it was approved by Ball’s medical team.

Jan. 22: No setbacks, but no sprinting yet

With a week left in January, Ball is back to running — but has yet to straight-ahead sprint on a treadmill or on the floor, coach Billy Donovan said Monday.

Donovan said Ball has experienced “no setbacks,” which bolsters the Bulls’ hope for his progress. But Ball is still limited in the scope of his recovery exercises as his medical team aims for a slow and steady rehabilitation.

“He’s doing a lot of agility work right now,” Donovan said. This includes high knees, lateral shuffles and other mobility drills. “He has not been fully cleared to sprint but he is doing some more agility work.”

Donovan said he is not certain when Ball will be cleared to sprint. Ball will reconnect with the team in Los Angeles this week, with an extended five-day stay giving him ample opportunity to mix back in with a roster of familiar and new faces.

Jan. 14: Two-year mark since Ball’s last game with the Bulls

Sunday marked two-years since the last time Ball played basketball. In that span, the Bulls have gone 78-87 across three different seasons, winning only one playoff game.

After being ruled out for the 2023-24 season, the earliest Ball will return is the next season opener, which means he will likely go more than 1,000 days without participating in an NBA game.

Bulls fans are accustomed to anxiously awaiting the return of a beloved star. Michael Jordan took 1,291 days away from basketball after his first retirement in 1993, returning to the game midway through the 1994-95 season. Derrick Rose played only 10 games in a span of 30 months after tearing his ACL in a playoff game on April 28, 2012.

Ball isn’t the first NBA player to require a yearslong recovery period before making his way back to the hardwood. Klay Thompson is the most recent inspiration for success in the NBA after a grueling absence due to injury. Thompson went 941 days without playing in an NBA game after he tore his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, then tore his Achilles midway through recovery. He returned in January 2022 and averaged 20.4 points in the regular season and 19 points in the playoffs on the way to a fourth NBA title with the Golden State Warriors.

But when players spend more than 1,000 days away from the court due to injury, it’s rare to return to full speed. The league is filled with examples of this challenge.

After being drafted No. 1 overall in 2007, Greg Oden was plagued by knee injuries that delayed his rookie debut by a year, then sidelined him for 1,502 days before he returned in January 2014. Oden only played 23 more games before he was out of the league.

A similar timeline befell center Emeka Okafor, who sat out for 1,757 days after suffering a neck injury in 2014 before finally earning his way back onto a roster with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2018. He concluded his NBA career after that season.

If Ball’s recovery stays on schedule this year, he will attempt to be a new success story of injury recovery in the league this fall.

Jan. 9: Should the Bulls include Ball in trade packages for Zach LaVine?

Attempting to trade maximum contract star Zach LaVine has been the clear focus for the Bulls front office since November, when the star reportedly made a first-time request to explore a trade away from Chicago. With a month left before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, Ball could emerge as a potential addition to beef up trade packages centered on LaVine.

According to a report by Marc Stein, the Bulls are potentially open to using the insurance coverage currently accompanying Ball’s contract as an incentive to bundle into trade packages for LaVine.

Ball would not offer an immediate lift to any team in a trade. He won’t be available to play until this fall at the absolute earliest and after two years away from the game, it’s impossible to predict how close to his prior form Ball will be able to return to when — and if — he receives medical clearance to play.

So why would Ball be considered an addition to trade packages? The answer comes down to the numbers.

Next season could be Ball’s last with the Bulls. He retains a $21.4 million player option for the season which he will undoubtedly exercise — without doing so, he’d be out of a contract as he attempted to make his return to the court, a situation he would not risk even with confidence that he could make a full, healthy return.

But until Ball receives medical clearance, the Bulls don’t have to worry about his contract. They received a $10.2 million player exception over the summer. And 80% of Ball’s salary is already covered by the league’s insurance due to the severity and duration of his injury.

Moving Ball would also mean moving these injury exceptions. For a team looking to shave a significant amount off its payroll, this could be a good deal — especially if that front office has any optimism surrounding Ball’s ability to bounce back from a 2-plus-year hiatus.

But there are drawbacks to moving on from Ball. Despite reports of some trade interest around DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls front office does not appear interested in moving multiple major pieces at the same time. Making that trade would ultimately mean giving up on a yearslong process that has held the franchise hostage to the hope of what a full return to health would mean for both Ball and the Bulls.

Ultimately, this move is out of character for the Bulls front office. But it’s an interesting consideration to keep an eye on, especially if the Bulls begin to churn their wheels in the next three weeks as they attempt to find a trade destination for LaVine.

Dec. 28: Ball expected to start running in January

Lonzo Ball is expected to begin running again in January as the next step of his nearly two-year-long recovery process from a knee injury.

Ball returned to Chicago last week to meet with Bulls staff and outline a plan for the next steps of his recovery after undergoing a rare cartilage transplant in March.

The Bulls do not anticipate he will return to the court in a game until the 2024-25 season. But coach Billy Donovan said the team has been bolstered by Ball’s response to his third knee procedure.

Ball has been able to progress with weight and mobility training and stationary shooting while recovering in Los Angeles over the past six months. Most importantly, Donovan said Ball is pain-free at this point in his recovery after suffering chronic pain in everyday activities for the first year after the injury.

“Everything they’ve done in terms of progressing him he’s handled very well,” Donovan said. “The pain that he was experiencing that was causing the setback I think has been eliminated in terms of what he’s doing now — but he hasn’t run. The next progression for him will be to start running and that will be here in January.”