After being sidelined for six weeks and missing the past 15 games because of a sprained MCL in his left knee, Lonzo Ball at last is returning to the court as the Los Angeles Lakers play their first game after the All-Star break.
When Ball was drafted last summer, some thought he might do for the purple and gold what he did in his lone season at UCLA, which was single-handedly transform a moribund program into the most exciting collegiate team in the nation.
We will never know what might have been had Ball stayed healthy, although there are 25 games left for him to get back on track. Ball’s absence hurt the Lakers, as the intent when the season started was for everything to be built around his unique skill-set.
During his first extended absence in December, the Lakers did not win a single game. But something happened during Ball’s long absence the past six weeks.
At one point the Lakers won 12 of 16 games, which was the second-best record in the NBA during that stretch. Not only did the team prove it could win without Ball, it appeared to finally turn a corner for the first time in five years.
Of course, the momentum and chemistry were disrupted by the front office’s moves at the trade deadline. The silver lining is that, in Ball’s absence, certain Lakers made huge progress which is important for the future.
Things would not be as clear if Ball had been around this entire time soaking up the minutes and attention that have gone to others the past six weeks, enabling them to shine. With Jordan Clarkson gone, Julius Randle is the only member of the roster who has played in every game this season.
He has played well all season, but in Ball’s absence the past month, Randle took his game to a new level. It now appears, at age 23, that he is on the verge of stardom. He has finally learned to excel against bigger opponents, which was a problem for him the past, and he has found the consistency that so often eluded him before.
On the season, Randle is averaging nearly 15 points a game on 56 percent shooting from the field. Leading up to the All-Star break, he was regularly scoring 20 points a night. His defense is vastly improved this season, and he has played so well that he survived the trade deadline, which few expected when the season began and Randle was sulking on the bench.
Another key beneficiary of Ball’s absence has been Josh Hart. The Lakers learned that he is a really good player on both ends of the court. On defense, Hart is tough and never backs down. On offense, he finishes at the rim well and knocked down three point shots at a high clip. His rebounding surprised everyone.
Hart has played so well that some are predicting he may receive second team All-Rookie honors when the season is over. There were high hopes for Hart going into the year but injuries derailed his progress in summer league and the preseason.
When he finally got his big chance with Ball out, he made the most of it. Hopefully the Lakers find minutes for Hart after Ball’s return.
With Ball out, Brandon Ingram has been playing point guard and this may have been the most astute move head coach Luke Walton made all season. Ingram has been outstanding in Ball’s absence, much more engaged, and playing the best basketball of his short career.
He regularly scored 20 points a game with efficient shooting, his assists were up, and he played tough defense. Ingram is now shooting 45 percent overall on the season and 38 percent from 3-point range, both massive improvements over last season.
Like Randle, he has gained consistency which eluded him earlier in the season. The Lakers also learned in Ball’s absence that Tyler Ennis is not a regular rotation player and that Alex Caruso might be, when he has more experience.
Corey Brewer can’t be counted on every night, but in the right game against the right opponent, he can make a solid contribution in a few minutes.
Another lesson learned the past month is that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a pretty good defender but not as good as advertised. On offense, he takes too many hasty, erratic shots and is never going to be a big scorer. He has not proven to be a keeper for next season.
Brook Lopez played better in recent games. Like Caldwell-Pope, he hurries too many impossible, long distance shots but his play improved when he finally decided to position himself in the paint leading to higher percentage shots and to some blocks on defense.
Lopez is too slow afoot to play big minutes in Walton’s system, but with DeMarcus Cousin’s season-ending injury, the free agency pool for centers this summer will be thin.
The Lakers also learned in Ball’s absence that they need to find out who is the real Kyle Kuzma. Is he the player they saw in 2017, when he was a serious Rookie of the Year candidate, or the late first-round pick he has looked like so far in 2018?
Kuzma had a spectacular December, when he became the first Lakers rookie since Jerry West to score 25-plus points in three consecutive games. He scored 38 points to lead the Lakers to a win in Houston, and 31 points in a nationally televised game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Christmas Day. He finished the year on Dec. 31 with 23 points (including five 3-pointers) in another game against the Rockets.
Since Jan. 1, however, and especially with Ball out, Kuzma has rarely looked like the same player. He was excelling as a starter but Walton made a change, Randle took his place in the starting lineup, and Kuzma has not been the same since.
To his credit, in January, Kuzma did lead the Lakers to a huge win over the Boston Celtics when he scored 28 points including 17 in the fourth quarter.
On the whole, what the Lakers have learned is that even without Ball, they have plenty of talent and if they play together and don’t lose focus, they can win with or without him. After the disastrous December, the team had to decide if they would go through the motions with Ball out, using his absence as an excuse for losing, or would they figure it out without him, and if and when he returned, fine.
Happily for the coaches, the front office, and the fans, the Lakers players opted for the latter. When someone suffers as many injuries as Ball has experienced since Summer League, one must question whether his body is prepared for the rigors of the NBA. Now that he’s returning, is it realistic to think he will play the rest of the season without another injury?
It would be great if Ball could finish the season on the court, but this past month, when no one player has dominated but lots of different players stepped up, we learned that the Lakers don’t need Ball to be good.
That bodes well for the team’s future, and it gives a boost to Walton’s standing as a coach that he was able to get the mindset of the team right in Ball’s absence.
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