Isaiah Thomas had only been a Laker for three days, and had just completed his first road trip with his new team, when he received a text message.
Lonzo Ball had a couple of questions.
Did Thomas work out on his days off?
There are no days off, Thomas told the rookie.
Could Ball join him for his workout?
Ball met Thomas around 11 a.m. at the UCLA Health Training Center and went through the seven-year veteran’s regimen with him.
“I like his mindset,” Ball said on Thursday afternoon. “He doesn’t fear anything and he always thinks he’s the best.”
In many ways, the final 25 games of the Lakers season will be about these two players at very different points of their careers. The Lakers want Thomas and Ball to be able to play together. They also want Thomas to provide an example for Ball, who hadn’t played with a veteran NBA point guard before. As Thomas sees it, that will happen organically, just like it did two weeks ago.
“He wants to be great; he wants to get better,” Thomas said. “I’m all for helping him. I’ve been in the league seven years and I know a little bit about the NBA but at the same time I’m pushing to be great as well.”
Ball went through the Lakers’ entire practice on Thursday, the first time he has participated fully in a full-contact workout. The Lakers have been very cautious with him as he returns from an injury.
So far, he has missed 15 games after he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on Jan. 13 against the Dallas Mavericks. Although he is listed as questionable to play in Friday’s game against the Mavericks, Ball has long expected that to be the day he returns.
“There’s some soreness,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said of Ball’s knee. “But it hasn’t stopped him from being able to do anything, but we went pretty hard again today so again it’s one of those we’ve got to see how he feels once he cools down, once he gets his treatment, he sleeps on it, wakes up tomorrow.”
Thomas knows all about injuries and the impact they can have on one’s career. Thomas played through a torn labrum in his hip and is still dealing with the effects of that injury. While he said he does feel sore and stiff occasionally, he is now healthy enough that he is most concerned with getting back to how he has played in the past.
“I remember last year how long it took me to get to an MVP level,” Thomas said. “To be out seven months with a real serious hip injury that has for the most part healed, but at the end of the day I still got a labrum tear in my hip. I’m still working around that. I’m pushing every day to get back to that level. It’s just a matter of time.”
Thomas admitted these final games offer a chance to remind people what kind of NBA player he was last season, when he led the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals and finished fifth in voting for most valuable player. But he also has his eye on the opportunity to surprise people.
The Lakers are a longshot to make the playoffs. At 23-34, they are in 11th place and eight games behind the eighth-place New Orleans Pelicans, but Thomas still has a playoff push in his sights.
When the Lakers acquired Thomas from the Cleveland Cavaliers two weeks ago, some wondered what his role would be on a team that already has a point guard. His agent balked, at first, at the idea that Thomas would come off the bench, but Thomas has accepted that so far. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka insisted Ball and Thomas could play together, saying anyone who didn’t think so, didn’t know basketball very well.
Both Thomas and Ball are saying they can see it, based on their different styles of play.
“That’s why I think it’s going to be fun though,” Ball said. “Opposites attract. I like to pass, he likes to shoot. So I think we’re going to work well. And he can definitely help me on the offensive end, just the way he comes off screens. How he gets to his spots on the floor, so he definitely helps me a lot.”
Said Thomas: “We both have high IQs, and at the same time I can play off the ball, he can play off the ball. We’re just going to figure out things on the fly. There’s 25 games left. We’re going to make a push and get better.”
Practice had been over for a while when Thomas and Ball remained on the court. They shot at the same basket for several minutes as the South Bay Lakers prepared to take the court for a practice. Nobody told them to shoot together, but doing so could help both of their futures.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
On Air: TV — ESPN, Spectrum SportsNet, Spectrum Deportes; Radio — 710, 1330
Update: The Mavericks left the All-Star break having to answer for a report by Sports Illustrated that said the organization created a hostile work environment that included rampant sexual harassment. Mavericks center Dirk Nowitzki told reporters in Dallas that the situations alleged were “heartbreaking” and “disgusting.” The team is under investigation by the NBA. It also ranks second to last in the Western Conference at 18-40.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli