The NBA’s Newest Problem? “Athletes are Broken Down by the Time They Get There”– Part One

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November 14, 2019

By Claudia Curtis, MS, LAT, ATC

A Review of ESPN Articles

As of 2017, basketball was the most popular team sport in America, with more than ten million young athletes between the ages of six and 17 participating. With the increased interest in basketball has come an explosion of opportunities for young athletes to participate in club programs. The prevailing viewpoint of parents and athletes is that these programs provide increased time, skill development and exposure needed to excel in basketball, obtain scholarships and get drafted. In mid-July, ESPN published a two-part article from the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) viewpoint, focused on the perceived impact the current structure of youth basketball is having on the NBA. Unfortunately, what has been reported from a variety of personnel within the NBA is the trend towards year-round, high-volume basketball participation has led to greater concerns on their part about the players they’re potentially drafting into the league.

The first article, entitled, “These kids are ticking time bombs: The threat of youth basketball,” opens by discussing Julius Randle, who at the age of 19, made it 14 minutes into the regular season of his rookie year before sustaining a season-ending tibial fracture on a non-contact play,. Imaging results indicated a stress fracture had been present, likely accounting for the fracture occurring under the circumstances that it did. In a press conference in 2017, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver indicated that this isn’t an isolated instance; there’s a growing list of young NBA athletes who have missed significant time due to injury very early in their career. The author delves into a few of the reasons why this could be happening with increasing frequency: faulty biomechanics, early sports specialization, decreased age of players at the time they enter the league, and the changing structure of today’s athlete.

Tim DiFrancesco, DPT, ATC, CSCS, discussed with ESPN what he saw in his time with the Los Angeles Lakers organization. As part of the pre-draft screening process, he would evaluate patients’ movement patterns and repeatedly would see elite level athletes who could “jump out of the gym” but somehow weren’t able to squat, lunge or balance on one leg proficiently. His observations led him to believe that if they couldn’t complete the most basic of functional movements, it would become a matter of when, not if, a major injury would occur. Trying to correct these gross movement errors before time expired became a daunting task he began facing with increased frequency in his time with the organization.

The topic of sports specialization has been discussed in the medical community over the past few years. So, let’s focus on a different component than is discussed in the ESPN article. Multiple NBA personnel expressed that NBA athletes rarely focus on basketball outside of their season. For example, Michael Jordan golfed all summer and rarely picked up a basketball (with the exception of an occasional pickup game) until the season neared. A strength and conditioning specialist for the Orlando Magic recommended that his patients spend time boxing, swimming or playing beach volleyball in order to work on their biomechanical deficits in the off season. The NBA doesn’t push 12 months a year of basketball, so why do we?

The third item the ESPN article cites as a contributing cause to the increased injury rate in the NBA is the age of the athletes entering the draft. When Michael Jordan joined the league, he was already 21 years old. Andrew Bynum was only 17. There’s a vast difference in a male’s musculoskeletal maturity at 21 years-old versus 17 years-old. Just because these athletes are tall and muscular doesn’t mean that their anatomical maturation process is complete. Consider Greg Oden, who was drafted at 19. Steve Kerr described him as a “once in a decade player,” and while he showed flashes of greatness, he never was able to remain healthy enough to put together a legendary career. These athletes are making the jump from a level that plays one-third of the volume of games than an NBA schedule has, and adding a demanding travel schedule to it as well. They are not prepared to handle the sharp increase in volume, especially since their bodies are often still trying to finish their skeletal development.

The last factor discussed is the design of today’s athlete. Today’s athlete is bigger and stronger than ever- the product of hours each week spent in the weight room, at speed camps and plyometric sessions. They have raw explosion, but they lack motor control. When professionals are evaluating these NBA hopefuls, they’re seeing that they lack proper landing mechanics; they are unable to dissipate the force they generate. The article states it best: in short, they out-jump their landing abilities.

The article closes by talking with Kobe Bryant, who had a career that spanned nearly two decades. He was drafted at 18, but unlike most athletes drafted so young, he didn’t play the volume of basketball that athletes these days do. He discussed when he grew up in Europe, the focus was on technical skill development and he rarely played more than one game every couple of weeks. He didn’t play AAU basketball until around age 15 and the article asks him if he thinks he would have had the same career if he’d followed the American model of youth basketball instead. His response? He’s not so sure.

While a lot of the information in this article is observational research, it certainly strikes a chord as it reflects evidence that Athletic Trainers are seeing in our patients at all levels of competition. The question is, what more can we do about it?

Read Full ESPN Article Here

Read “Part Two” of Article Series

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