It’s hard to give a breakdown of how last year’s NBA draft class did because so many of them actually broke down.
With the exception of Andrew Wiggins and Elfrid Payton, none of the other 2014 draftees played all 82 games while averaging 30 or more minutes. No. 2 pick Jabari Parker lasted just 25 games until his season ended with a torn knee ligament. No. 3 pick Joel Embiid has yet to play because of a foot injury suffered in college and No. 7 pick Julius Randle lasted 14 minutes before he broke a leg.
While many have suggested the rash of NBA injuries is a result of frequent back-to-back games or stretches of four games in five nights or a regular season that’s too long, commissioner Adam Silver pointed to what might be another factor that involves the amount of basketball that young players experience before they reach the league. Most high school teams play 25 to 30 games a season, but elite players frequently play 100 or more games on their summer club teams or in showcase events.
“We know there is a correlation between fatigue and injuries … One of the things we should look at is the amount that kids are playing basketball,” Silver said during a television interview at the NBA Finals.
“Everybody talks about back-to-back games in our league, but you have AAU programs where kids are playing five games in a weekend or four in a day. We have to take a better look at the medical research and understand what it means. For example, in Little League, they have pitch counts and limits. We don’t have limits for our kids and it might lead to some of the injuries (later).”
Silver indicated his office would work with the USA Basketball and try to let USA Basketball take the lead on working with AAU and other groups on this issue.
The summer leagues sponsored by the major shoe companies host their final events over the next two weeks. The teams competing qualified by playing three or four weekends over a period of about 45 days, depending on the league. Those circuit stops are jam-packed with games with teams generally playing four times over three days.
Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) coach Steve Smith isn’t sure the frequency of the summer league games is the root cause of the number of injuries for young pros, but he knows something is going on. In recent seasons, three of his starting point guards (Nate Britt, Quinn Cook and Shelton Mitchell) missed much of their senior years with knee injuries.
“It seems like there are more injuries than there were,” Smith said. “You can go back to the ’80s when we didn’t have all these personal trainers for high school players and the AAU wasn’t as extensive. Does that mean because they’re playing more, they are getting injured? I don’t know. I think kids work harder and they’re doing different things. They’re playing year-around. They feel if they don’t do that, they’re getting passed by. I tell my guys, they have to work all the time because somebody else is.”
That attitude of a basketball arms race, so to speak, is especially prevalent among elite players.
Apple Valley, Minn., guard Gary Trent Jr., considered by ESPN to be the No. 8 player in the 2017 class, came straight from winning the MVP at the FIBA Americas U16 World Championship in Argentina to play seven games in four days at the NBPA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va. He followed that up with a trip to the Nike Skills Camp.
Trent won the regular season scoring title in the Nike EYBL and will play at Peach Jam this month.
“I’m really kind of sore now, but I have to play through it, so it’s whatever,” Trent said after the NBPA Top 100 Camp.
For many elite players, going through the grind of the summer circuit is a necessary part of improving their games and getting noticed.
“A lot of games in one day shows, I guess, how much you want it,” said Cypress Woods (Tex.) guard J.J. Caldwell. “So you kind of train yourself for it. Everyone knows (the NBPA 100) is a long camp, everyone has put a lot of sweat and energy to get here so I think everyone knows it is going to be tiring and everyone will be exhausted by Day 3.”
Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.) guard Devearl Ramsey said if he wasn’t playing in a tournament or a camp, he’d be playing somewhere.
“I love to play the game,” Ramsey said. “I love it. Four or five games in a week may be a lot, but you just will your body to do it.”
Dinos Trigonis, the president of Pangos Basketball, which puts on camps and AAU events in Southern California, said looking to summer basketball as a possible for the frequency of NBA injuries is misplaced.
“When you think about some of the high-profile injuries to Derrick Rose, Paul George and Kyrie Irving, the common denominator is not something these guys did three or four years ago, it’s playing USA Basketball,” Trigonis said. “A guy like LeBron. He’ll play 82 games, then four more rounds in the playoffs, so that’s like 24 games. Then he has USA Basketball and it is just crowding the calendar.”
Trigonis said that many of the events USA Basketball has added, unlike some camps or AAU events, conflict with typical high school academic schedules.
“There’s no reason for our kids to leave their school, miss their academics for some of these USA Basketball events,” Trigonis said. “As much as we all want to represent our country, is playing 3 on 3 basketball in Indonesia more important than anything else we do? People are scared to ask that because they’ll sound unpatriotic. Cliff Alexander missed ten days in the fall (in 2013, his senior year at Curie in Chicago) to compete in the 3 on 3 event for USA Basketball. That guy barely qualified academically and his academic situation was part of the reason he didn’t go back to Kansas.”
Archbishop Stepinac (White Plains, N.Y.) forward Jordan Tucker said it’s not so much what players do on the court that may be getting them hurt, but what they’re not doing off it.
“I do a lot of extra things after basketball,” Tucker said. “I do hydrotherapy, I do Pilates, I do a lot of recovery things. Right now. I feel great and my legs are under me. I think one problem for players is the lack of information they have about what they’re doing after they’re done playing basketball and how they eat. I think a lot of these guys are natural athletes who keep going and going and they don’t feel they have the need to do anything (recuperative) until they break down.”