Lonzo Ball undergoes cartilage transplant in his left knee -- beginning an unprecedented recovery process for the Chicago Bulls guard

Julia Poe, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — Chicago Bulls point guard Lonzo Ball underwent a cartilage transplant in his left knee Monday, a rare procedure that could decide the fate of his return to the court.

This was the third surgery on Ball’s left knee in the last 14 months. Uncertainty has shrouded every step of Ball’s recovery since the injury occurred in January 2022, but this procedure throws Ball’s future into completely unprecedented territory.

Cartilage transplants are rare in professional sports. The procedure is relatively new, designed as a step down from a full knee replacement to maintain the integrity of the knee joint. No NBA player has undergone a cartilage transplant and returned to the court.

Coach Billy Donovan said Ball’s doctors were optimistic after the procedure Monday. But with no clear timetable or standard of success to look toward, the Bulls don’t know what to expect from the next stage of Ball’s recovery.

“There’s nothing that’s out there that says that, ‘Hey, here’s how guys have come back and been able to respond to this,’” Donovan said. “But I do know that Lonzo — just based on the information he was able to gather from different sets of doctors making the decision — felt like this was the best chance to be able to get him back on the court.

“I think we all understand that’s going to be an uphill battle for him, but I know that he’s going to do everything possible in his rehab to get himself back on the court.”

Growth in sports medicine continues to bear improvements in athletes’ ability to recover from major injuries.

Donovan cited Bernard King — a former New York Knicks and Washington Bullets star who became one of the first players to return in full from a major ACL reconstruction in 1987 — as a reminder of hope. A torn Achilles used to be similarly catastrophic, but Phoenix Suns star Kevin Durant and New York Liberty star Breanna Stewart made full returns from the injury in 2019.


But the Bulls also know this procedure is a reflection of desperation. For Ball, the goal isn’t just to reclaim his starting role with the Bulls — it’s to get back on the court at all.

The target date for that return is another area of uncertainty. Reports from The Athletic suggest Ball could miss the entire 2023-24 season. Donovan did not rule out Ball playing next season, but the Bulls will plan to enter their second consecutive year without him.

“It’s indefinite,” Donovan said. “I did not really get a timetable, just that he is going to be out indefinitely. My feeling would be next year’s training camp, you’ve got to go in there with him not being available.

“I think you have to prepare like that, but I just don’t know what the length of time actually will be for him being able to get at some point back on the court playing again.”

Ball has played only 35 games in his first two seasons with the Bulls after signing a four-year, $80 million deal in August 2021. As he faces a potential third season on the sidelines, the Bulls will need to make adjustments in the offseason to account for their lack of a starting point guard.

That could come in the form of retaining Patrick Beverley, who has offered a significant lift since signing with his hometown team last month. But regardless of whether it comes from the current roster or elsewhere in the league, the Bulls must find an answer at the point as Ball’s future remains a mystery.

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