March Madness: Joel Embiid's injury and prognosis

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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.” 


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