“The cool kids are back.”
The disembodied voice of Lonzo Ball calls out to his teammate, Brandon Ingram, from a spot just out of the reach of his iPhone’s camera. Ingram, outlined by the careful dimensions of an Instagram story, laughs in agreement as he glides towards Ball’s spot on the practice arena floor.
Before the two teammates’ paths can converge, the video cuts. “Social distancers” wait with bated breath for Ingram’s response, but it never comes. The story, like the season, simply ends without any regard for structure or completion-ism.
Only a few hours later, the NBA would announce that players’ access to practice facilities would be revoked indefinitely, as the country grappled with an ongoing pandemic.
At that time, this 15-second Instagram story, in all its incomplete glory, appeared to have been the last we’d see of Lonzo Ball’s third season in the NBA. A season, and a stretch of play, that found Ball playing the best basketball of his professional career.
For those who’ve followed Ball’s career closely, since he and his family’s scene-stealing introduction to the general public, this feels strangely apropos. Despite his best efforts, his season has once again (temporarily) ended just as he, personally, was getting started.
The theme of Ball’s early NBA years has been a maddening lack of control.
While his shooting form, father’s involvement, and crushingly high expectations have all been well documented, Ball’s trepid injury luck has grabbed far fewer headlines.
To date, Ball’s body hasn’t allowed him to check off the first requirement to become a consistent impact player: health. A myriad of injuries has always managed to find him as he is hitting his groove.
For example, the month of December has continually been kind to Ball. In his rookie go-round, it was the month he looked like the player that had been promised. His percentage from the field was hovering above 40 percent and his jump shot, his most dangerous collegiate weapon, was connecting at a 38% clip.
But in mid-January of that particular season, Ball would have the first of many knee injuries. While the injury’s bark was much worse than its bite, Ball did miss a few weeks of all-too-important development time.
When he returned, his stroke had abandoned him, and after a few weeks of sub-optimal play, his knee forced him to be shut down for the remainder of the season. The injury bled into the summer and required him to spend his offseason rehabbing instead of attacking the weaknesses that had been exposed in his rookie season.
Year 2 came with a very different set of challenges but a scarily similar result.
The eldest Ball son hit his stride in December, as his squad continued their efforts to break the Lakers playoff drought. Shortly afterward, both he and LeBron, found themselves nursing injuries. While Ball’s injury wouldn’t require surgery this time, it did cost him the last few months of the season and the opportunity to fight alongside his teammates to remain in the playoff hunt.
Once again he found himself cut-off from the sport he loved, with nothing but an offseason of rehab to look forward to. While Ball ultimately would return from the injury, he would have to do it in a new city and a new jersey.
The fact that Lonzo has gone through more turmoil in his three years than most players do in ten, makes it easy to lose track of how little actual NBA minutes he has under his belt. Through three seasons — two full and the current postponed season — Ball has only played a total of 155 games (which is slightly less than two full seasons worth of games, if a player was to suit up for every one of them).
Rarely have we seen players, particularly at the point guard position, look anything like the player they will become in their first two seasons. That should go double for a player who had as much trouble staying on the court as Ball has.
The fact that Ball has not only improved his jump shot but markedly improved upon his game-to-game consistency, is a testament to the amount of work he has put in off the floor.
As Andrew Lopez of ESPN detailed, Lonzo had become one of the New Orleans Pelicans’ hardest workers, with him and teammate Brandon Ingram consistently getting “at least 250–300 shots up per day with [shooting coach] Vinson before and after practice.”
Ball’s improvement, coupled with the long-awaited debut of Zion Williamson, had re-energized the Pelicans and had them feeling optimistic about their chances of sneaking into the playoff with a strong finish to the season.
The league’s postponement essentially ruled that “strong finish” out. Instead, a re-start to the season with an 8-game schedule will be played before jumping into the playoffs. A two week slate of games could be enough to get players into some sort of game shape, but potentially too few for the Pelicans to bolster some momentum and make up the necessary ground to secure the West’s eighth seed.
Being this close to the playoffs and having it possibly torn away by something so beyond the control of anyone in the NBA’s orbit has to feel like some sort of practical joke to all players who were in the thick of the postseason race.
But it must feel like a frustratingly similar, and thus doubly cruel twist of fate, for a player like Ball, who has done nothing but persevere through an anxiety-inducing level of poor luck and was finally in line to have his redemptive arc.
Now, players and league executives are ramping up for a return under the “new normal” and the Orlando bubble, with their hands partially tied behind their backs at the mercy of this pandemic. Meanwhile, this unnatural disruption may cause Lonzo Ball’s third season to be forever lost in translation.
This article was originally published on The Intermission’s Medium site on April 8, 2020.