The Los Angeles Lakers had a lot to work on in the final week of the preseason after struggling to compete with the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and even Sacramento Kings the week before.
No development, however, was more important than the return of Lonzo Ball, who had been unable to play since March due to a knee injury that required offseason surgery. Ball’s injury was a setback for the team and for himself personally.
He really needed to work on his game and conditioning this offseason but was largely unable to do so. till, he did add 15 pounds of muscle, going from 190 pounds last year to a 205 pounds now.
No one knew what to expect from Ball when he returned to the court on Wednesday. He started off with an air-ball on his first shot attempt, but he settled down quickly and played well. Most important, there was no setback with his knee so he was able to start and play even more minutes Friday.
In his debut, a 123-113 Lakers victory, Ball finished with 7 points, 4 rebounds and 4 steals in limited minutes. Three sequences stood out.
First, he took a high-arching lob from LeBron James and leaped high to stuff the ball through the rim. Second, showing the quick hands that made him a surprisingly good defender last year, Ball stole the ball and triggered a fast break basket. Finally, he drove to the rim and muscled Klay Thompson out of the way for a finish.
In Friday’s game, a 119-105 victory over Golden State, Ball played 24 minutes and scored 8 points while grabbing 6 rebounds and dishing 7 assists.
Ball faced enormous pressure last year as a rookie to come in and be an instant savior for a franchise that had fallen on hard times. His every move was scrutinized, and with every missed shot, the media delighted in his struggles. It is easy to forget that the 10 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists he averaged as a rookie has rarely been duplicated in NBA history.
Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson did not help matters when he proclaimed during Ball’s introduction to the media that his jersey was going to be retired one day and hang from the rafters; and that Ball would end up breaking all of Johnson’s records. Nor was Ball helped by the inane and off-putting public statements made by his father.
This season, there are many storylines that should take the constant spotlight away from Ball. For one thing, the Lakers now have the best player on the planet in LeBron James, whose every move on and off the court is reported and debated by an insatiable media.
Then there is Brandon Ingram, who appears to be on the verge of stardom. The Lakers also signed some eccentric veterans like Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, who attract attention even if it is for the wrong reason such as in the last game when both players were ejected.
All of this is likely to reduce the spotlight on Ball to some extent and allow him to relax a bit. He will still be a magnate for the media, but slightly less so this year as there will be plenty of other Laker stories to cover.
After Ball was missing in action for six and a half months, this week was important primarily because it provided a reminder that Ball is a unique and very good player, and the Lakers are far better when he is on the court.
Because of his inactivity over the offseason, it will take Ball time to catch up in terms of conditioning. He told reporters after his first game back that he was winded in the first quarter but felt better afterwards. He is going to be rusty for a while.
For these reasons, he is likely to start the season coming off the bench alongside fellow young core members Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
If the Lakers are going to meet or exceed expectations this season, Ball is going to have to do his part. He is very important to the team’s success, and to start, it is essential that he stays injury-free. The biggest disappointment last season was not with his play, but with the fact he could only appear in 52 games.
If Ball stays healthy, he is very likely to build and improve upon a rookie season in which he was very good when he was able to play. The fact that he was able to return this week, play in both games, and suffer no ill-effects, suggests that he is healthy for the first time in a long time. This was the most important part of the wee for the Lakers.
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