Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball has returned to on-court action (albeit on a minutes progression) after missing nearly six and a half months dealing with a series of injuries to his left knee, including a bone bruise and meniscus injury that the medical staff attempted to heal conservatively via a PRP injection and when that failed, went forward with surgery to remove a the small, irritated piece of meniscus (a meniscectomy).
I wrote about that process & saga here, but now that we’re past all that and Ball has met his step-wise progressions in rehab and returned to games, I watched his first two games back with an eye on three things:
- Is he physically compensating in any way for the previous injury? If he were, this could set him up for other injuries down the line.
- Is he hesitating during certain movements or avoiding them completely? The research shows that kinesiophobia (aka fear of re-injury/movement) is one of the last things to dissipate after extended injury rehab.
- How are his mind and body responding to the higher intensity and demands of games? I was looking for any changes in #1 or #2 from game to game, or any signs of fatigue.
With that three-pronged framework in mind, here’s what I came away with:
Ball looks to be moving extremely well in all planes of motion. Whether it’s in a forwards/backwards (sagittal plane) motion:
Or side to side lateral (aka frontal plane) motion:
Further, he was jumping and landing in a variety of ways. Including off and onto both feet on this lob from LeBron:
He was also jumping off both feet and then landing on his left leg with excellent technique: A slight knee bend (flexion) and significant hip bend (flexion) to absorb the force into his posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings):
And jumping off his left leg at high speed:
Additionally, Ball is showing no problems with loading his left knee and changing direction or cutting. The prime example is the following play where he stuck his left leg into the ground without hesitation to stop all his momentum and tried to sneak attack Kevin Durant:
Ball has even showcased new skills — particularly the ability to dish out or absorb contact, like when he drove hard right and used a jump-stop to create contact into Klay Thompson’s body and unmoor him:
Or defensively swiveling his hips to absorb contact laterally to completely negate the onrushing Quinn Cook’s dislodge attempt, and then changing Cook’s shot with superb timing and length:
Ball’s also had no issues with reactionary, multi-layered plays like navigating through multiple perimeter screens:
Or this lock and trail that showcases great movement technique and mental speed as Ball chops his steps, drops his hips on turns, and then immediately reacts to a potential pick and roll coverage situation:
Each of the plays I’ve shown thus far speaks to Lonzo’s confidence of movement, but there’s one that really stood out to me. While guarding Stephen Curry on a drive, Ball had zero qualms about jumping into a “dirty” landing zone with the potential for contact in the air (high-risk position):
Even with contact on the way down, Ball sticks the landing really well. That’s a great indicator that his sensory feedback systems are operating well, because those systems have to be in overdrive during spontaneous contact situations to keep the body in a safe and stable position.
Further, there was a defensive adjustment with 6:12 remaining in the second quarter of the Lakers’ second game against the Warriors that gives clear insight into Ball and the coaching staff’s current comfort level with his ability. Lonzo switched onto Thompson (who was in NBA Jam “he’s on fire” mode) as the primary defender for the rest of the quarter. That decision screams confidence. Like I said at the top, fear of re-injury/movement (aka kinesiophobia) is one of the last things to return in the rehab process, so this vote of self-confidence is a huge indicator. It’s the clearest sign I’ve seen that he’s really close to 100%.
However, there are still some kinks to work out. I did see some hesitation from Lonzo on his first jumper that he left extremely short and air-balled. However, he hit his next one in that game and was shooting without hesitation in game two, so I chalk it up as an outlier, especially since it was his first one since coming back and he was wide open (which can make you overthink things a little bit).
The last thing I analyzed was fatigue and game-to-game changes to gauge Lonzo’s response between games. For fatigue, I looked at moments where he was deeper into his on-court minutes. Even though Lonzo said in the postgame of game one that he was gasping for air in the first half, I didn’t find any obvious indicators of that.
For example, here’s the last play from the aforementioned first half:
That is Ball’s normal movement pattern, normal footwork, excellent defensive positioning, and he exhibited good decision making (which can be one of the first things to go when tired). After the miss, he’s still energized enough to quickly sprint to relocate and make himself available to JaVale McGee … who opted to pass to LeBron at half-court but no blame there.
Further, when gauging game-to-game changes, I didn’t pick up any indicators of a negative response to game one. If anything, Ball was quicker, more agile, and more confident in game two.
All that being said, the one area I noticed him still re-acclimating physically was on his jump. There are a couple instances where Lonzo didn’t have the usual spring that we’ve come to expect, like this one in game two:
This isn’t a concern to me though. After an extended layoff, it’s only natural for certain explosive movements to take a little longer to return.
Lastly, I didn’t see Lonzo doing his patented jump in a crowded paint for a rebound and while in the air snag the ball while looking up court to see his outlets. That’s an incredibly challenging sequence on the mind and body, but if Lonzo had a special move, that would be it. We just haven’t seen it yet.
All in all, Lonzo is looking incredible and I can’t wait to see to see more. For anyone wondering why Marco Nunez and Co. are so meticulous with their progressions, this is it — you have a player coming back six-plus months after injury who doesn’t look like he missed much time at all, with even LeBron commenting on how good he looked during practice. For any rehab specialist, Lonzo’s movement quality, confidence, and consistency across games are exactly the indicators you want to see.