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March Madness: Joel Embiid's injury and prognosis

Kansas' star center is believed by many to be the top prospect in June's draft. But what does his back injury mean for his prospects of playing in March?

March Madness: Joel Embiid's injury and prognosis

Kansas center Joel Embiid (21) shoots over Iona forward Daniel Robinson (44) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas center Joel Embiid (21) shoots over Iona forward Daniel Robinson (44) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

March Madness is officially upon us. In Philadelphia, the focus is squarely upon the lower portion of the South bracket, where Villanova and St. Joe’s are on a potential collision course for a Saturday matchup. Nationally, however, one of the big storylines is the health of Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid.

Embiid, a 7-foot center, was one of the top incoming prospects in college hoops in this season. But the freshman has been sidelined since March 1 with a stress fracture in his lower back.

Reports soon followed that Embiid would miss the Big 12 Tournament (he did) but would likely return at some point during the NCAA Tournament. Skeptics responded that such a quick return was dangerous to Embiid’s long-term health.

NBA Draft experts have Embiid consistently rated among the top-3 prospects in June’s draft, should he choose to forgo his remaining eligibility at Kansas. Take a quick look at the Sixers’ position in the NBA standings and it’s easy to see why Embiid’s health is of great local interest.

What are the chances we see the freshman during March Madness?

“If he has a compression injury, you’re looking at a minimum of 8-10 weeks’ recovery—certainly for the duration of March Madness,” says Alex Vaccaro, M.D., Ph.D., attending surgeon at the Rothman Institute.

“But if it’s a spondylolysis—a true stress fracture—yes, there is a chance he’ll be back,” continues Dr. Vaccaro. “An exacerbation of a pre-existing stress fracture will be treated symptomatically, and could allow him to return quickly.”

Spondylolysis is the most common lower back injury associated with overuse in sports, and is especially common in growing adolescents and teens. While Embiid recently turned 20, his tremendous height and status as a relative newcomer to the sport of basketball (he first played competitively in 2011) would suggest a higher risk for such an injury.

As of right now, the consensus is that Embiid will miss Friday’s game against Eastern Kentucky, as well as a potential Sunday contest. But the door is open for him to return as soon as next Thursday, should Kansas advance that far.

But local fans are likely interested in the long term effects. Repeated stress fractures have disrupted and in some cases ended the basketball careers of numerous 7-foot-plus centers. Sam Bowie, famously drafted ahead of Michael Jordan, retired prematurely following repeated stress fractures to his legs. Is Embiid at long-term risk?

“Past injury history can be an indicator of future likelihood for re-injury,” says Dr. Vaccaro. “This may be an isolated occurrence, but it doesn’t portend well for the future.” 

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.
Robert Senior Event coverage, Sports Doc contributor
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Whether you are a weekend warrior, an aging baby boomer, a student athlete or just someone who wants to stay active, this blog is for you. Read about our growing list of expert contributors here.

Brian Cammarota, MEd, ATC, CSCS, CES Partner at Symetrix Sports Performance
Ellen Casey, MD Physician with Drexel University Sports Medicine
Desirea D. Caucci, PT, DPT, OCS Co-owner of Conshohocken Physical Therapy, Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist
Michael G. Ciccotti, M.D. Head Team Physician for Phillies & St. Joe's; Rothman Institute
Julie Coté, PT, MPT, OCS, COMT Magee Rehabilitation Hospital
Peter F. DeLuca, M.D. Head Team Physician for Eagles, Head Orthopedic Surgeon for Flyers; Rothman Institute
Joel H. Fish, Ph.D. Director of The Center For Sport Psychology; Sports Psychology Consultant for 76ers & Flyers
R. Robert Franks, D.O. Team Physician for USA Wrestling, Consultant for Phillies; Rothman Institute
Ashley B. Greenblatt, ACE-CPT Certified Personal Trainer, The Sporting Club at The Bellevue
Eugene Hong, MD, CAQSM, FAAFP Team Physician for Drexel, Philadelphia Univ., Saint Joe’s, & U.S. National Women’s Lacrosse
Martin J. Kelley, PT, DPT, OCS Advanced Clinician at Penn Therapy and Fitness, Good Shepherd Penn Partners
Julia Mayberry, M.D. Attending Hand & Upper Extremity Surgeon, Main Line Hand Surgery P.C.
Jim McCrossin, ATC Strength and Conditioning Coach, Flyers and Phantoms
Kevin Miller Fitness Coach, Philadelphia Union
Heather Moore, PT, DPT, CKTP Owner of Total Performance Physical Therapy, North Wales and Hatfield, PA
Kelly O'Shea Senior Health Producer,
Tracey Romero Sports Medicine Editor,
David Rubenstein, M.D. Team Orthopedist for 76ers; Main Line Health Lankenau Medical Center
Robert Senior Event coverage, Sports Doc contributor
Justin Shaginaw, MPT, ATC Athletic Trainer for US Soccer Federation; Aria 3B Orthopaedic Institute
Thomas Trojian MD, CAQSM, FACSM Associate Chief of the Division of Sports Medicine at Drexel University
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