Standing in front of the locker next to Lonzo Ball’s on Thursday night, Julius Randle marveled at the way his rookie point guard had been playing since returning from a six-week absence because of a knee injury.
“He actually came back better,” Randle said. “Making his shot. Just coming back and making shots he’s confident, he knows what he wants to do out there on that floor on the defensive end he’s active and talking.”
The Lakers had been playing well without Ball ever since Lakers coach Luke Walton found a lineup that worked. But when Ball returned he didn’t take long to make sure everyone knew just how much better they can be with him on the court. Thursday night was his best game since his return after the All-Star break, as Ball learns to play through the soreness that remains.
“I can feel it but it is not going to be any worse,” Ball said. “Just play through it. … No one in the league is really 100%, especially with this long season, there’s always something. Just got to play through it and stay positive.”
There was an adjustment period for Ball at the start of the season — for his shot and his game. But since the start of this calendar year, the Lakers have a significant statistical advantage when Ball is playing.
“He’s one of the very unique players, it doesn’t matter if he’s taking shots, scoring 20 a game or not, he can impact the game from all over,” Walton said on Thursday. “He was doing that for us tonight. All around probably, in my opinion, the best player on the floor tonight.”
Since the start of January, the Lakers average five more assists per 48 minutes with Ball on the court. They also average 6.7 more points, 3.3 more steals and six more rebounds per 48 minutes with Ball playing. They’ve been shooting 50.9% when Ball plays compared to 46.6% when he doesn’t.
“It’s great, like I said it’s contagious how he plays,” Randle said. “Everybody gets the ball, he’s always looking to make plays for other guys.”
Ball had a 20-minute restriction in his first game back, against the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 23. He skipped the next day’s game in Sacramento as the Lakers opted to prevent him from playing back-to-back nights immediately after returning from a six-week layoff. His restriction increased by five minutes on Monday against the Hawks. Then, Thursday, Ball didn’t seem to be restricted at all. He played 34 minutes.
“Just trying to focus in on defense first off,” Ball said. “And offensively just making sure everybody gets their touches and make sure that they’re happy and tonight made it easy because everyone was hitting.”
No one expected Ball to make an impact defensively as a rookie, but that defensive focus he mentioned shows, too. With Ball on the court, the Lakers’ defensive rating is 13 points better.
Hart has surgery
Lakers rookie Josh Hart had surgery to repair his broken left hand on Friday afternoon. Dr. Steven S. Shin performed the surgery in Los Angeles.
According to the team, Hart’s recovery will take between four and six weeks, which is a standard recovery time for a fracture in the hand. While Walton said Hart will play when he’s ready, even if few games remain, he also said there was no plan to rush Hart back.
The Lakers’ final game this season is on April 11, about five-and-a-half weeks from now.
Hart broke the fourth metacarpal bone in his left hand on Wednesday during a practice in Miami. Hart flew back to Los Angeles on Thursday, when the Lakers’ doctors evaluated his injury and determined he needed surgery.
Wear gets a shot
Former UCLA forward Travis Wear signed a 10-day contract with the Lakers on Friday.
Wear had been playing with the South Bay Lakers, the Lakers’ developmental affiliate, where he played in 33 games with 29 starts. He averaged 16.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and two assists a game.
Wear was also part of Team USA as it competed in the first round of World Cup qualifying.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli