The Los Angeles Lakers rolled up a pair of double-digit wins this weekend, knocking off Victor Oladipo’s Indiana Pacers on Friday night before walloping the visiting New York Knicks in a Sunday matinee. L.A. won both games without the services of rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who’s missed the team’s last four outings with a sprained left knee … and, to hear Lakers head coach Luke Walton tell it, the 2017 NBA draft’s No. 2 overall pick might not see the floor again for a while.
Ball’s not expected to suit up for Tuesday night’s meeting with the longtime rival Boston Celtics. He’s reportedly going to be traveling with the Lakers during a five-game road trip that starts Friday in Chicago, but he hasn’t practiced with the team since suffering the sprain in an overtime win over the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 13, in which he chipped in nine points, seven rebounds, seven assists and a steal in 43 turnover-free minutes. Traveling or no, until Ball proves capable of getting back on the court away from game action, Walton’s not going to let him see live fire, according to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:
“He did more yesterday than the day before and he says he feels good today but he is still out. … I get the call from the training staff telling me whether he will be ready to practice or not or play which obviously is not the case yet so … I don’t expect him back [anytime soon],” coach Luke Walton said. “I haven’t seen him on the court doing anything but they’re looking at it, still just taking it day by day to see when the knee is feeling better.”
Walton wants Ball to go through a practice before he will be able to play in a game. But before he can practice, he must successfully go through on-court agility drills to determine whether his knee is ready. […]
“I think as players grow, especially when they’re players [who] come in young, part of it is growing into your body,” Walton said. “You become stronger, and as you become stronger I think you become more durable.”
While Ball continues to work his way back, receiving treatment and progressing to jogging on a treadmill, Walton has leaned more heavily on sixth man Jordan Clarkson, who on Sunday became the first Laker in more than two decades to drop 25 points and 10 assists off the bench, and undrafted rookie/two-way contract signee Alex Caruso. The Texas A&M product did a very solid job of offering Lonzo-esque stat-sheet stuffing in L.A.’s weekend wins — seven points, six assists, three rebounds and 1.5 steals in 29.3 minutes per game — and has made just under half his field-goal attempts in 185 minutes over 15 appearances in purple-and-gold this season, taking advantage of the short time that two-way players get to make an impact before having to return to their G League squads.
“I only get 45 days so I’ve got to make the most of them,” Caruso said, according to Ganguli. “Getting opportunities like this is what guys in my position live for. I’m just glad I’m starting to play a little loose, a little free and playing with the energy I normally play with.”
Even with Clarkson and Caruso playing well alongside spot starter Tyler Ennis, though, the Lakers are eager to get Ball back into the mix. Despite the 20-year-old’s well-publicized shooting woes, L.A. has gone 15-21 in Ball’s 36 starts, compared to just 2-8 in the 10 games he has missed. According to NBA.com’s stats, the Lakers have been about four points per 100 possessions worse with Lonzo off the floor this season; according to Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers have posted the point differential of a 41-win team in Lonzo’s minutes — in a Western Conference where a .500 mark would put you right in the thick of the playoff chase — and the differential of a 26-win team when he’s been off the floor.
No, Lonzo hasn’t been a ready-made superstar off the bat, but he’s still the Lakers’ best option on the ball and a key piece of what Walton and company are trying to build in Hollywood. That’s why they’re not going to get overzealous with getting him back on the floor, preferring patience to potentially jeopardizing the blueprint.
“Whether he plays or not [on the upcoming road trip], that all depends on the knee,” Walton said Sunday, according to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN. “We are not going to rush him back from a sore knee. Once that gets better, we will get him back on the court.”
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