Bulls operating with ‘no guarantees' on Ball's status

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ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski made waves Wednesday night when he reported on air that there are "no guarantees" that Chicago Bulls guard Lonzo Ball returns from his prolonged injury absence this season.

"There are no guarantees, I'm told, that he plays at all this season," Wojnarowski said. "He's rehabbing that knee now. He's still feeling some pain in it.

"I think the hope is that perhaps by the All-Star break in mid-February they have a sense of whether Lonzo Ball is ready to come back and play for Chicago. I think a lot of that may depend on, where are the Bulls in the standings? Right now, they're 11th (in the East), they're out of the playoff picture. And I think if they're lingering around that area, there'll be a real decision to be made about whether he plays at all."

Bulls head coach Billy Donovan addressed Ball's status similarly during the team's recent West Coast road trip, saying on Nov. 30 that he was still experiencing pain in his left knee.

The team, meanwhile, has given nothing close to a rough return timeline for their starting point guard. A return after the calendar flips in 2023 — perhaps, as Wojnarowski noted, around the All-Star break — has been reported as an optimistic projection. But because of the uncertain and precarious nature of his predicament, it is also impossible to say with certainty Ball will return this season.

The latter dynamic has been in play since training camp, when Donovan said that he, his coaching and his players must prepare as if Ball is not returning.

"I think you have to," Donovan repeated after Thursday's practice. "I knew that he was not gonna be back and he was gonna be out all of training camp, and you just don't know how the recovery's gonna go. I would love for him to be back, and I think he's a smart enough, bright enough player that whatever we're doing, with him being around, he'll pick those things up quickly.

"But I think going forward, we can't just sit around and say, 'Hey, hang in there guys, we're just waiting for Lonzo to come back.' I don't think you can do that."

Donovan was also asked if, as Wojnarowski alludes, the Bulls' record or standing in the conference will affect the decision for Ball to return — a decision, Donovan noted, which will come down a collaborative process between Ball, his representation, the Bulls' medical staff and the Bulls' front office.

"This is just my feeling, I haven't talked to medical or Lonzo about it, I'm just giving you my opinion," Donovan said. "I just think, for an NBA player to potentially go more than a year without playing, and wherever our season's at whenever he comes back, my guess would be he'd always want to play.

"Basically, you're talking about (being out) almost two years (if Ball does not play this season). And I would think that, for him, he's gonna want to get out there and play. But there's obviously going to be a team of doctors, him and front office and medical that will have those discussions. But nothing has been said where like, 'Hey, if we get to this point and this is where our team is, and this is to the date, and hey we're shutting him down, or hey, no, if it gets to this date we're gonna play him.' There's been none of that discussion at all.

"Everything has been more about trying to help him get back to get on the court where he can start playing. And then I think once that happens those decisions would be made."

So, essentially, as with seemingly every update in Ball's injury saga, it is too soon to say.

If the Bulls' season continues to trend as it is currently — Wednesday's loss to the Knicks dropped them to 11-16 and 1.5 games out of the East's last play-in tournament spot — such questioning will only intensify.

But the big picture is that Ball has still not been able to run or cut at full speed on a basketball court since his first of two knee surgeries back in January. This story will not advance until he clears that hurdle, and as of now, there are as of now no indications he is close to doing so.

Then would come the issue of acclimating Ball back to game speed after at least a year away from basketball. Given his injury history, that process can and will not be rushed.

So stay tuned if you have the stomach. But a substantive light at the end of this tunnel has yet to emerge.

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