Vice Sports, "What Joel Embiid Can Learn From Tim Duncan and - Gulp - Andrew Bynum"

Published February 10, 2017

By Spencer Lund

Where's Joel Embiid? Philadelphia's cornerstone big man either wasn't in uniform or wasn't with the team in 10 of Philadelphia's last 11 games, including Thursday night's game with Orlando, which ended in T.J. McConnell's second buzzer-beating game-winner this season. After a hyperextended knee on January 20 and a bone bruise a week later, the Sixers are evidently practicing what coach Brett Brown calls "extreme caution." The lone game in which JoJo did suit up, against the Rockets on January 27, he added another dynamite line to what has already been an explosive year: 32 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks in a little over 28 minutes of action. He is "The Process," hear him roar—when you can, anyway. That one game was when Embiid suffered a bone bruise, thereby restarting the recovery "process" he's gone through more than a few times in his short career.

Despite single-handedly transforming the Sixers into one of the more exciting teams in the NBA this season, Embiid's frequent absences can't be disregarded as simply an overly cautious front office. His injury history is already too extensive at an early age. But there are two players Embiid can learn a lot from as he attempts to string more than a handful of healthy games together: Tim Duncan and Andrew Bynum.

Apologies if wading through Embiid's injury timeline gives some Sixers fans PTSD, but it's an important caveat to a career that's still, for all its promise, in its very earliest stages.

First, it was a stress fracture in the back that brought his lone season at Kansas to a premature end back in 2014. Then, that summer, Embiid suffered a fracture of the Navicular bone of his right foot, which is a big reason Philly even snagged him with the third overall pick, right behind Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. And while some said he re-broke that same Navicular bone the next summer, a CT scan revealed that it hadn't healed as the team wanted. And so Embiid sat out his entire second season following a second surgery on the foot.

At the time of the first Navicular fracture, Nick Grosso, a sports medicine surgeon and president of The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, explained to USA Today why that specific bone in his foot was a big deal:

"The navicular bone, the best way to describe it, is it's the keystone of the foot, top of the arch. Typically, this type of injury, it's for jumpers—basketball and volleyball players. Historically, (NBA centers) Yao Ming and Bill Walton have had this injury. ... Coming off the surgery, you want to take it slowly. The way I describe is it's like a paperclip, it's going to break if you bend it too fast."

Yao Ming and Bill Walton are flattering comparisons if the subject is dominant centers, but worrying once you consider what injuries did to their careers.

When Grosso was asked what a person's size has to do with that type of foot injury, he ran up another red flag:

"In basketball players, foot injuries are so common in the big guys. ... There's just a lot of stress. The average human's not seven feet tall. There's no give to hardwood. ... In the healing portion of it, weight has no function at all. (But as he returns to his feet) the more weight you have it on it, the more stress is going to be placed across that joint."

The weight thing is where Tim Duncan and Andrew Bynum come in.

Duncan famously lost a ton of weight later in his career, which helped him remain effective long past his peers. He had early injury issues like Embiid, too, although they're largely forgotten now. Duncan tore his left lateral meniscus in 2000, but was able to recover for four more titles and two consecutive MVPs while becoming the greatest power forward of all time. It's worth remembering that in 2005, at the peak of his prime, Duncan battled a painful bout of Plantar Fasciitis, an inflammation of tissue in the heel. It's hard to imagine he'd have come back from that injury as he did without taking some pressure off of his feet.

Bynum, on the other hand, had trouble keeping the weight off, which stressed his body even further, particularly his knees. There's no secret scientific complexity to this: you try dragging 300-plus pounds up and down the hardwood and see if your knees can handle it. That's the biggest reason why Bynum never suited up for the Sixers and his career was cut short.

Lets all take a deep breath, though. Embiid isn't Andrew Bynum, although he has gained a significant amount of weight in a relatively short period of time. He wasn't always a 7-foot 250-pound banger. Remember the before and after pictures of him floating around the web when he was drafted?

On top of that weight gain, Embiid increased his upper body strength throughout his convalescence in 2015. Muscle is heavier than fat, adding even more stress to his lower body.

Added upper body muscle isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. Embiid is more dominating with added strength, and there's no way that the 2011 version of Embiid couldn't handle the incessant pounding of opposing NBA big men. The muscle-bound version Sixers fans have been treated to this year has shown what a force he can be on the block despite limited game time. If he wants to be a center in the NBA, Embiid needs to keep that strength.

But if his lower body fails him, it won't matter how strong he is, so he needs to do everything he can to lessen the impact on his lower body. Eating better, maybe cutting down on the sugary Shirley Temples, and maintaining equilibrium with any muscle gain will all go a long way towards that pursuit.

Maybe the retired Duncan can recommend some exercises and meals. Or maybe Andrew Bynum can caution him on the dangers of letting his body balloon.

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