Going deeper on Embiid's foot

76ers draft pick Joel Embiid. (Orlin Wagner/AP)

People are hungry for information about the 76ers. This hasn’t happened in a while — that interest in the team has such breadth and intensity. The Sixers aren’t a particularly competitive team yet, but they’re an interesting one, in part because of the tank-now-to-flourish-later strategy of general manager Sam Hinkie, in part because they’ve drafted intriguing players who, for one reason or another, haven’t been able to play for them right away: Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, and of course Joel Embiid.

On Monday, I wrote a column based on a phone interview I conducted last week with Richard Ferkel, the orthopedic surgeon who last month repaired a stress fracture in the navicular bone in Embiid’s right foot. The piece has inspired a good bit of feedback from readers, both in e-mails and on social media, and most of that feedback has been questions about Embiid’s injury and treatment and Ferkel’s upbeat prognosis. You wouldn’t necessarily think people would be so curious about a foot, but they are. Again, the Sixers have made themselves interesting.

Anyway, within the limits of a 1,000-word newspaper column (which is a pretty long newspaper column), I couldn’t use every quote, fact, or insight that Ferkel provided me, and I couldn’t address all the possible questions and details about Embiid’s rehabilitation. So I’ve tried to tackle a few of them here.

Several readers asked an obvious question: Why would anyone expect Ferkel to say anything other than what he said — that he was optimistic about Embiid’s making a full recovery? After all, no competent or confident surgeon would say, Yeah, well, I’m not sure the procedure went so well. The kid may never play again. My bad.

It’s a fair point, but there a couple of caveats. One, from a journalistic standpoint, you have to ask Ferkel what his expectations for Embiid’s recovery are, and you have to post/print the answer. No matter what he says, it’s newsworthy because of who he is, and besides, what he says might surprise you. Two, Ferkel tied his optimism not to his skills in the operating room but to the severity (or relative lack thereof) of Embiid’s fracture. He said he’d seen worse navicular bone breaks than Embiid’s. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Embiid is guaranteed to have a long, productive career with the Sixers, but it does clarify the nature of the injury and provide a context for optimism or pessimism.

* One reader e-mailed me to ask why I hadn’t mentioned whether Embiid’s bone density might play a role in his injuring or reinjuring himself and how Ferkel and the Sixers might strengthen Embiid’s bones through improved nutrition. I discussed this very subject with Ferkel but, because of the column’s already-substantial length, couldn’t include Ferkel’s quotes.


Should the 76ers play Joel Embiid this season if he is medically cleared?

“We do very intense metabolic screenings of players, including [Embiid], to make sure there are no vitamin deficiencies, no hormonal issues or anything that would prevent healing,” he said. “If there is anything, we address to try to promote quicker and better healing of the bone. …

“In terms of the metabolic and nutritional status,” Ferkel added, “we’re still looking at that.” He said he’d have Embiid’s test results back sometime this week.

* I did mention in the column, as I had in a previous column about Embiid, that other NBA players had failed to recover fully from similar foot problems. Bill Walton and Yao Ming were two of those players. Ferkel spoke to each of their situations, vis-à-vis Embiid’s.

First, on Walton:

“Bill Walton’s injury was initially missed. That led to some of the problems that came down the road for him.”

Then, on Yao, who spent significant time during his career with the Houston Rockets practicing for and playing with the Chinese national team:

“I can’t really discuss it per se in specifics, but I can tell you that he had a completely different set of circumstances that were unique to him that made it a little more difficult. In general terms, I can tell you from doing this for a long time that when an NBA player also plays for the national team during the summer, when he should be resting, it makes it much more difficult to prevent injuries when they come back the following NBA season. I have personally shut down some of my players who I’ve operated on from playing for their national teams to prevent them from getting reinjured and giving them time to really rest.”

* Ferkel noted that once Embiid signed an endorsement contract with a sneaker company, the company would design a custom-made shoe for him to try to prevent or mitigate further injury to his foot. This is common practice around the NBA. “Everyone wears orthotics,” Ferkel said. As it turned out, the news that Embiid had signed with adidas broke on Monday—the same day the column went online.

* Some readers wondered why Ferkel spoke to me at all, given the privacy provisions and restrictions of The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The answer: Ferkel told me that Embiid, through agent Arn Tellem, had given his consent.

Email: msielski@phillynews.com

Twitter: @MikeSielski