Breaking Down Andrea Bargnani’s Elbow Woes

The Knicks continue to be ravaged by injury as offseason acquisition Andrea Bargnani joins Kenyon Martin, Metta World Peace, and Amar’e Stoudemire on the sidelines. Bargnani suffered a torn ligament in his left elbow on his now infamous failed dunk attempt. According to Knicks reporter Scott Cacciola, the injury occurred to his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and will sideline him indefinitely.

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A UCL tear is rare in basketball but this does mark the second notable UCL tear this season. Lakers guard Steve Blake tore the UCL in his right elbow during practice in early December.  The UCL provides support to the inside portion of the elbow. When torn, surgical intervention may be necessary. The procedure is often referred to as Tommy John surgery and has become commonplace in Major League Baseball. Numerous pitchers, including Stephen Strasburg, Adam Wainwright, Matt Harvey, and Joba Chamberlain, have undergone the procedure. The associated recovery for Tommy John is significant for pitchers due to the large amounts of stress they put on and through their elbows as they throw an overhand pitch. Since this motion is rare in basketball, the injury and the surgery are considered rarities in the NBA. Prior to this season only four UCL diagnoses were made and reported in the NBA over the last five seasons. All four players avoided surgery.

Based on the rarity of the injury, establishing a timeline can be difficult. The average number of missed games for a UCL sprain in the NBA is roughly 16 games but that includes a 15 game absence by Kurt Thomas who suffered a partial tear and not a complete tear. Blake’s injury was reported as a complete tear and he has missed 22 games and will miss at least another week of action.  Bargnani will likely follow a similar path and a minimum of six weeks before his return should be expected.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t Bargnani’s first elbow injury. Last season the Italian forward suffered two different injuries to the opposite elbow.  He missed 26 games in the beginning of the year after spraining his right elbow and wrist. He would return before an unrelated avulsion injury in the same elbow forced him to miss the final 19 games of Toronto’s season. An avulsion injury occurs when a ligament pulls away a small part of bone instead of tearing itself. Both of these injuries may have involved the UCL though the team never specified. His latest elbow sprain may not as serious since it did not involve his shooting arm but significant time will be needed for the ligament to heal.

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