As the league prepares for All-Star weekend in New Orleans, two players known for their nightlife antics will spend the break recovering from facial injuries rather than partying in the bayou. Within the last week both Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders and New York’s JR Smith suffered facial fractures after colliding with opponents. Sanders suffered a fractured orbital bone following an inadvertent elbow from Houston’s James Harden while Smith broke his zygomatic bone (cheekbone) after falling into the knee of OKC’s Kevin Durant. Both injuries are very painful but present very different problems.
The human skull is divided into two parts, the neurocranium, that houses the brain, and the facial skeleton. The most commonly fractured part of the facial skeleton is the nasal bone. However another area of the face, the orbit, is also susceptible to injury. The orbit, or eye socket, is comprised from seven bones from the neurocranium and the facial skeleton. These bones include the maxilla (the upper jaw), the frontal bone, and the cheekbone. Fractures to the area generally occur following direct contact, particularly the vulnerable orbital floor. The severity of the injury depends on multiple factors including location and size of the crack, any soft tissue or muscle involvement, and whether or not the bone is displaced. Surgery is often warranted if there is bone displacement or significant damage to the eye itself. Recovery time appears directly connected to whether or not surgical treatment was required. Of the eight most recent facial fractures that did not require surgical intervention, only former Thunder forward Lazar Hayward missed more than six outings. Cleveland’s Tyler Zeller missed four games but his orbital fracture was accompanied by a concussion that delayed his return to the court. By comparison, those players that needed surgery following a facial fracture missed a minimum of five games and an average of 12 games.
Smith suffered a non-displaced fracture of his cheekbone and it has already been determined that surgery will not be required. It sounds like Smith’s injury is in a favorable spot and does not involve the eye or any muscles. Sanders’ injury is less certain. He initially reported double-vision before imaging revealed the fracture. By describing the injury as an orbital fracture, it seems likely that the floor of the eye socket (a possible combination of the maxilla and zygomatic bones) was broken. He visited with a specialist on Tuesday but the team did not provide an update on his status. However Tuesday afternoon Sanders provided the following cryptic tweet that suggests the visit did not go as well as he hoped.
UPDATE: The Bucks announced Thursday Sanders underwent surgery to repair his fracture and believe he will miss at least six weeks. The lengthy recovery timeline suggests a very extensive break occurred, possibly a blowout fracture in which greater than 50 percent of the orbital floor was damaged.
In the case of Smith, it may be odd that a player would be available to play immediately following a broken bone in the face. However, a quick return to the court is often accompanied by one small stipulation. Each of the aforementioned injured players were forced to wear a protective facemask in their return to the court. The NBA facemask, made famous by former Pistons guard Richard Hamilton, can be an annoying distraction for players unaccustomed to wearing one. However over the years numerous players have donned a mask and continued to perform a high level including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Chris Paul. Unfortunately the mask is already an issue for Smith, who failed to play Wednesday after his did not properly fit.
Both Smith and Sanders will spend the extended time off recuperating but the recovery of the latter will be more extensive. Still it appears both players avoided catastrophic injury to the eye itself and will join the growing list of individuals to suffer this scary but surprisingly common ailment.