Injured Bulls Star Lonzo Ball Looking to Enter Uncharted NBA Territory

Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls

Getty Lonzo Ball #2 of the Chicago Bulls.

No one has ever done what Chicago Bulls star Lonzo Ball is trying to do.

“Ball underwent a cartilage transplant,” reported NBC Sports Chicago Bulls insider K.C. Johnson. “This surgery is rarely associated with professional athletes, which is why so much speculation exists as to whether Ball can return and salvage his career at a high level.

Johnson offers the example of former Golden State Warriors big man Festus Ezeli who became the first-ever player in the NBA to undergo this type of treatment in 2017. He never played in the NBA again surfacing with the Westchester Knicks of the G League for two games in the 2020-21 season; both a reason for optimism and a cause for concern.

“Ball’s procedure isn’t the same,” notes Johnson adding, “it’s similarly rare in the world of professional sports.”

There are local ties between Ball and Ezeli’s stories.

“Dr. Brian Cole, an orthopedic surgeon who provides sports medicine cartilage restoration in Chicago, first recommended the cadaver ligament replacement surgery to Ezeli,” revealed Marc Spears for Andscape in 2017.

Ball, 25 has been sidelined since mid-January of 2022 missing the last 47 games of the campaign and the entire postseason following surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He has missed all of this year following a second procedure to clean up after the first and is expected to miss most if not all of next season too recovering from this procedure, per Shams Charania of The Athletic.

It’s his third surgery on the knee in the last 14 months and the fourth of his six-year career.

He and the Bulls have rejected the notion that the injury will end his career but taking such drastic measures is a clear sign they are aware of what is at stake.

“We all understand that’s going to be an uphill battle for him,” Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said according to Johnson. “But I know that he’s going to do everything possible in his rehab to get himself back on the court.”

Ball is in the second year of a four-year, $80 million contract. There are avenues the Bulls can explore to get that money off of their books but there has been some discrepancy over whether or not they should and would pursue them. For his part, Donovan is leaving that decision up to the front office.

A List of Unflattering Comparisons

Just how unnerving is it that this is where things stand with Ball? The comparisons and circumstances surrounding his injury are worsening.

In addition to Ezeli, who ended his career trying to come back with the Portland Trail Blazers, Ball has also been compared to former Blazers star Brandon Roy whose career ended after a series of devastating knee injuries.

Ball is playing under the specter of multiple tragic stories involving Bulls point guards.

Of the most common comparisons for Ball’s plight, only Derrick Rose of the New York Knicks was able to revive his career but, due to his style of play, it took years of altering his game.

Ball’s game is not predicated on the kind of explosive athleticism as Rose’s was. But he is valued for his perimeter defense which requires lateral mobility and an unstable knee could certainly hinder that ability. It’s just another reason the Bulls’ approach to this offseason is something to monitor.

Finding Lonzo Ball’s Replacement

That the Bulls had to go through an entire season without Ball seems to have been more beneficial than last season’s attempt to overcome his absence on the fly.

It has resulted in Patrick Beverley providing a much-needed spark.

The unfortunate development has also provided fourth-year guard Coby White to showcase a more diversified skillset ahead of restricted free agency and, perhaps, even another chance to win the starting point guard role next season.

Second-year guard Ayo Dosunmu will be in contention also but his game has not progressed as expected after a surprising rookie campaign.