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When news first broke last Friday that Ben Simmons — the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, the playmaking point forward whose passing panache has drawn comparisons to LeBron James, and the long-awaited fruit of the Philadelphia 76ers’ much-maligned “Process” — had fractured a bone in his right foot, I had a thought that I’m guessing was shared by many NBA fans who’ve limped down this bummerific road before: “Man, I hope it’s not a Jones fracture, like the one that cost Kevin Durant 55 games a couple of years back.”
Well, bad news, rap dudes: according to the Sixers, the “acute fracture” that Simmons suffered while rolling his ankle after landing on another player during a team scrimmage is, in fact, an “acute Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal of his right foot.”
The surgery was performed by Dr. Martin O’Malley, Associate Attending Orthopaedic Surgeon and Fellowship Director of the Foot and Ankle Service at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Dr. Jonathan Glashow, Sixers Chief Medical Officer and Co-Chief of Sports Medicine Orthopedics at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, assisted with the procedure.
Simmons’ rehabilitation will fall under the supervision of Sixers Director of Performance Research and Development Dr. David T. Martin.
“Our sports performance and medical staff was debriefed by Dr. O’Malley following the procedure, and we were encouraged by the positive feedback,” Martin said. “Moving forward, a comprehensive return to court program will be implemented for Ben, and we will closely monitor his progress throughout the rehabilitation process.”
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The Sixers declined to provide a timetable for Simmons’ expected return to play after surgical repair of the Jones fracture, which is a break in the bone that runs back from the pinkie toe toward the heel. Initial reports suggested that the LSU product could miss about three months, a timeframe supported by surgeon Daniel Cuttica of the Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Center of Falls Church, Va., during a recent interview with Derek Bodner of Philadelphia Magazine. (Note: Cuttica has not examined Simmons himself, and was speaking generally about return-to-play timeframes for similar injuries.)
If you’re looking for reasons for optimism in the wake of Simmons’ shelving, you could do worse than starting with the doctor who performed the procedure:
O’Malley performed the second surgery on Durant’s right foot. That March 2015 bone graft procedure ended Durant’s 2014-15 campaign, but corrected the issue to clear the path for him to return to his MVP-caliber self last season, during which he averaged 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and five assists in 35.8 minutes per game, shooting 50.5 percent from the field, 38.7 percent from 3-point land and 89.8 percent from the foul line.
O’Malley was also part of the team that in 2014 both repaired Lopez’s fifth metatarsal and repositioned another bone to lessen the stress on his long ailing right foot. After being limited to five games in 2011-12 and 17 appearances in 2013-14 with foot woes, Lopez has missed just 19 games over the past two seasons for the Brooklyn Nets, averaging nearly 19 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 31.4 minutes per game.
O’Malley is also the doctor who performed the second surgery on Joel Embiid, the July 2015 procedure that removed two screws and used a bone graft from the Kansas standout’s hip to set his right foot, well, right. So far, so good on that score: after two lost years, the highly touted center is finally on track to get on the court for the Sixers, expected to make his debut in Philly’s preseason opener on Tuesday night.
You might also find a silver lining in the nature of the Jones fracture — “acute,” meaning the result of a single traumatic incident (having a dude land on your foot) rather than “stress,” meaning it came through the accumulation of prolonged wear and tear, which could lead to more unpredictable outcomes and higher chances of re-injury.
“The fifth metatarsal stress fractures tend to be a little bit more difficult to heal, and can actually tend to recur as well,” Cuttica told Bodner. “Certainly the (acute) fracture is going to be a little bit more predictable in terms of treatment.”
Moreover, while the fates of players like Yao Ming, Bill Walton and Greg Oden tend to loom Boogeyman-large in our minds when we think about foot injuries and basketball players — especially for a big man like Simmons, who’s listed at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds — we might also think of the players who have bounced back from significant foot injuries in a major way, like Durant, Lopez, Pau Gasol, C.J. McCollum and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. In fact, the 20-year-old’s chances of coming back good as new may well be pretty good.
Researchers John P. Begly, Michael Guss, Austin J. Ramme, Raj Karia and Robert J. Meislin collected injury data on 26 NBA players who suffered Jones fractures over the course of 19 NBA seasons, from1994-1995 to 2012-2013, and analyzed their individual statistical performance from their pre- and post-injury seasons, controlling for variables like position, age, experience and surgical treatment. Their findings, published in December in the medical journal “Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” conclude (emphasis mine) that “National Basketball Association (NBA) players who sustain Jones fractures of the base of the fifth metatarsal have high rates of return to play and do not experience a decrease in performance on return to competition when compared with pre-injury and with control-matched peers.”
The big question, of course, is when Simmons’ return to competition will come, and whether a campaign many in the City of Brotherly Love hoped would mark a turning point after perhaps the worst three-year stretch in NBA history will instead be haunted by the loss of yet another promising young talent.
This time, at least, there’s a kinda-sorta ready-made replacement for the wunderkind-in-waiting. Croatian point forward Dario Saric, who finally came to Philly this summer after turning some heads at the Summer Olympics, could provide a similar if more muted version of Simmons’s playmaking, creativity and fast-break generation at the power forward spot. And while Simmons is sidelined, there’s a bit more breathing room and space to maneuver within the big-man logjam that so frustrated Nerlens Noel, giving Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo some time and opportunity to figure out the next move that he knows must soon come.
Once you take off the rose-colored glasses, though, you’re back where you started: without the No. 1 pick in the draft, the hoped-for catalyst of a comeback years in the making, and with a fresh pot of disappointment brewing.
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“We are obviously all disappointed this happened,” Colangelo said following practice on Sunday. “I feel very badly for Ben to be in a situation to start his career this way. But this is an injury that he should come back from and have a very successful and long career […]
“In no way, shape or form are we going to rush him back,” Colangelo added. “This is a process that we will go through the same way we’ve handled other injury situations in the past.”
Philly, then, once again finds itself in the unenviable position of … well, sing it, Joel:
At least they’ve got plenty of practice. Quoth 76ers coach Brett Brown on Sunday: “There is nobody, sadly, that’s had more experience dealing with injured draft picks than we have.”
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