Did NBA's Injured Stars Play Too Much as Kids?
Whenever high-profile players go down, people start wondering what's causing the rise in injuries. In the NBA, this concern is often overblown, as clips of superstars grabbing their knees can give fans a false impression of overall injury rates.
This postseason, however, reality has caught up with perception, with more significant players suffering injuries than anyone can remember. It's nearly a a miracle that the Cleveland Cavaliers, minus the All Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, are two wins away from a championship. (That miracle's name is LeBron James.)
Commissioner Adam Silver has at least one explanation: "Maybe they're working too hard."
Silver notes that players don't really take summers off as they used to, extending their intense training regimens into the offseason and participating in summer-leagues.
But Silver also thinks the problem starts well before the pros, a point hit home by the striking number of top picks from the 2014 draft who suffered serious injuries this year, a list including Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart and Julius Randle. It appears basketball players are working too hard too early in their lives.
During halftime of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Silver pointed to the rigorous schedules young players are subjected to in AAU, often playing many games in one day or over a weekend. Between youth leagues, summer camps, AAU, high school and college, these athletes have already clocked thousands of hours on the court by the time they make it to the pros.
Here's the rub: All those games might not actually increase a young player's chances of getting to the NBA. Sure, AAU exposure is great to get you noticed by scouts and put you on the radar of future endorsement partners -- but a lot of good that shoe deal will be if your career is cut short by injury.
Furthermore, some trainers and youth coaches don't think a player's skills are necessarily enhanced by simply adding more games to their schedule.
The problem in AAU is that, in the words of Kobe Bryant, young players are treated "like cash cows for everyone to profit off of." AAU tournaments are sponsored by major shoe companies including Nike, Adidas and Under Armour; it has evolved from an organization with a focus on youth development to one with big business interests. The result hasn't just been to wear kids down; Bryant blames the profit mentality in AAU for what he sees as the decline of American players's skills, saying it puts an emphasis on competition rather than fundamentals.
Bryant's criticism of AAU is generally too broad, but he and Silver are right that the corporatization of youth ball hasn't been all good for young players. When it comes to injuries, it's similar to what we're seeing in baseball, with more players needing Tommy John surgery at a younger age, due in part to the increased rigors of Little League and club ball.
But while AAU and youth baseball are easy targets, it's rings a little hollow when Silver denounces the number of games played by young players, given that he's also considered extending the NBA's already endless postseason schedule, mulling the idea of adding play-in games or an extra tournament to determine the final playoff spots.
And while Silver rightfully declares, "Everyone in this league has an interest in keeping our best players on the floor for more minutes, for more games, for longer careers," sometimes teams emphasize the immediacy of "more minutes" -- as we saw with the Cavaliers waiving concussion protocol with James in Game 4 -- in sacrifice of the "longer careers."
We can hope it's a good sign that the commissioner has at least expressed a desire for the league take a more active role in youth ball and, perhaps more importantly, the NCAA. The NBA has a clear interest in developing and protecting young talent -- without ignoring its own role in keeping players safe.
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