With Selection Sunday days away the landscape of the NCAA tournament was altered with the announcement that Kansas center Joel Embiid will be sidelined indefinitely with a stress fracture in his lower back. The injury is a sizeable setback for Embiid, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a favorite to be the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft. However the way in which the injury is managed in the coming weeks could have a direct impact on Embiid’s draft stock and professional career.
The injury itself is likely a medical condition known as a spondylolysis in which a part of the vertebrae known as the par interarticularis is fractured. The affected individual experiences pain in the area and can develop reoccurring back spasms. This injury is best treated conservatively, allowing the athlete ample time for the bone to heal and the symptoms to subside. If managed properly the long-term effects of a spondylolysis are minimal. However if incorrectly treated, the injury can develop into a more problematic condition known as a spondylolisthesis.
In a spondylolisthesis, the broken fragment shifts from its normal location. The slippage can impede on neighboring nerve structures and often requires surgery to mend. Additional issues can develop if inadequate bone remodeling occurs making the spondylolisthesis a chronic problem. Degenerative spondylolisthesis can affect the individuals lower extremities, particularly the hamstrings, altering the way in which they walk and run. Former MVP and current Laker guard Steve Nash has battled congenital spondylolisthesis for the bulk of his career and has had hip and hamstring problems as a result.
The Kansas medical team, led by basketball athletic trainer Billy Cowgill, will treat Embiid’s symptoms and could potentially brace the area before beginning corrective exercises. The need to rush Embiid back should be ignored and he should return to postseason play only if medically cleared. If he does so then his long-term outlook will not be compromised and his draft status should remain unchanged. This position is only strengthened by recent examples of spondylolysis in the NBA.
Since the 2005-06 season there have been three documented cases of lumbar stress fractures. The first occurred during the 2005-06 to then Heat rookie Earl Barron. Barron initially missed 24 games with the injury and an additional 25 after aggravating the area. The next reported case was to center Andrew Bogut. During the 2008-09 season while a member of the Bucks, Bogut missed 12 games with back spasms before a stress fracture was detected. He was ruled out for the remainder of the season missing Milwaukee’s final 31 games. The third and most recent case of spondylolysis occurred last season during the rookie season of Detroit’s Andre Drummond. Drummond missed 22 games in the middle of the season but returned for the final 10 games of the year. He has remained symptom free since then and has yet to miss a game this season.
Of the three aforementioned cases only Bogut reported any future back problems. However his problem was a protruding disc and would only be linked to the spondylolysis if it had developed into a degenerative condition. Drummond is the far better comparison as both Embiid and Drummond have similar stature and were 19 years old at the time of their injury. Given Drummond’s recent success there is no reason to believe Embiid cannot do the same as long as he does not rush back from injury.
Embiid’s future in the NBA could be influenced on how he approaches the next few weeks. If he properly manages the stress fracture there’s no reason to suspect he would be unable to rejoin the Jayhawks at some point in the postseason and maintain his status as one of the top draft picks in June. While some teams may be leery of taking Embiid given the failures of Greg Oden, the two cannot be fairly compared on injury history alone. Properly balancing the present and the future is difficult task but one Embiid must embrace to insure his effectiveness to both the University of Kansas and his future employer.