The Memphis Grizzlies will be without the services of their All-Star center after the team confirmed Tuesday that Marc Gasol underwent surgery on his fractured right foot. In the release, the team revealed the injury to be a non-displaced Type II fracture of his navicular bone. Unfortunately the precedent set by those who have previously broken this bone suggests Gasol is in for a lengthy recovery process.
The navicular bone is one of the seven tarsal bones and is situated in the mid-foot. The boat-shaped bone serves as an attachment site for a stabilizing ligament of the foot, as well as a muscle utilized in pointing the foot and rolling it inward in a motion known as inversion. It also plays a key role in proper weight transfer and force absorption created with ground impact.
The ends of the navicular have a reasonably steady supply of blood, allowing fractures isolated to these areas to heal without surgical intervention. Unfortunately if the extent of the fracture runs into the middle segment of the bone, surgery is often warranted. Since Gasol’s break was graded as a Type II fracture and surgery has been performed, it seems reasonable to assume his diagonal break carried into this region. While this is disappointing, the fact that the break was also classified as a non-displaced fracture is a small win for Gasol, as the broken pieces remain aligned and in place.
Navicular fractures are rare but not unheard of in the NBA as several notable players, including Yao Ming, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Michael Jordan, have endured the injury. Sixers big man Joel Embiid has yet to make his professional debut as he recovers from two separate surgeries for a stress fracture to the navicular in his right foot.
Focusing primarily on big men to suffer navicular injuries presents a discouraging pattern. Ilgauskas missed over 200 games and needed multiple surgeries to repair his fractured navicular. Yao missed the entire 2009-10 season following his injury and saw his career end the following year as he battled continued problems in his foot and ankle. Even Brendan Haywood, who had no reported problems following his navicular injury and subsequent surgery, played just 22 more games in the NBA after he was cleared to return.
While hardware failure and malunions of the navicular are less common than other foot injuries, specifically Jones fractures like the one Kevin Durant sustained last season, a 2006 study revealed pain can linger at the injury site for up to two years following surgery. Furthermore Gasol’s age may work against him as he is older than all the aforementioned examples except Brendan Haywood.
Gasol may very well bounce back from this unfortunate setback but he’s fighting against history. The nature of the injury makes it difficult for a quick and smooth recovery and his inherent injury risk will be elevated for the immediate future. The well-respected Grizzlies medical staff will be a major factor in his recovery and are familiar with the process having successfully managed former Grizzly Quincy Pondexter’s rehab from a similar injury.