Joel Embiid Back Injury Puts Kansas and NBA on Notice

Will CarrollSports Injuries Lead WriterMarch 11, 2014

Jerome Miron/USA Today

Joel Embiid has put himself into the discussion for the first overall pick in a rich NBA draft with his play this year, but there may be a cost.

Kansas coach Bill Self announced Monday that Embiid will miss time, perhaps into the NCAA tournament, with back and knee injuries, via ESPN

(He is) going to need some time off. Joel is beat up. He's beat up. I'm not going to make an excuse for him because you have to perform. But he's going to need some time off. I don't know how much time, but he's going to need some time off.

The knee injury is a mild sprain, thought to be the MCL. While this isn't serious in the long term, any knee injury for a big man is amplified. Think Greg Oden or Andrew Bynum on the bad end, but the forces due to the long levers are just tougher to deal with, especially if they start a cycle of problems.

So far, there's no indication of that.

However, Embiid is also dealing with a stress fracture in his lower back, according to both Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Eisenberg and medical sources, which is going to be much more concerning in both the short and long term. The injury is believed to be in the lumbar spine (the lower back).

What is unknown is the level (exactly where the injury occurred) and the location (where on the vertebrae the fracture is noted). 

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

This is a very serious injury, especially for a big man.

While Kansas acknowledged the injury, an indication of the severity is that Embiid was sent to Los Angeles for a second opinion. Sources tell me that Embiid saw Dr. Robert Watkins, the same surgeon who worked on Peyton Manning and Rob Gronkowski. He advised Embiid to sit out for a short period.

The NBA has seen similar injuries. Most recently, Andre Drummond dealt with a lumbar stress fracture, which necessitated some missed time but has no real long-term consequences. While severity and location could change that, this is easily checked with both medical records and exams in the draft process.

"This is no different than dealing with any known injury," said one NBA athletic trainer, who is involved in his team's draft. "Something like (Nerlens) Noel is a value judgement after you get the facts, and this would be no different."

Michael Perez/Associated Press

In the short term, Embiid will simply have to deal with pain.

A stress fracture might in fact be less painful to deal with in the short term than a muscular injury. Back spasms are painful and, while transitory, can feel like the world is ending. Even if Embiid posts up and is pushed by another big man, he's unlikely to have any sort of further problem.

In fact, one medical source I spoke with said that if Embiid has a known stress fracture, it could be so far along that it is already healing. "It's going to calcify and even with someone pushing on him, it's not going to get unstable. He'll have a bit of pain to deal with, but it's more discomfort and management than an injury situation." 

Bleacher Report's Dr. David Siebert told me that Embiid's issue is going to be one of management.

"Playing with a lumbar stress fracture—an overuse injury of one of the vertebrae that encases and protects the part of the spinal cord that controls movement and sensation in the lower body—is not only likely painful, but it also risks more serious complications such as nerve damage. It's not the fracture itself that is worrisome, it's what it could turn into if not properly managed."

In the longer term, Embiid shouldn't worry for his NBA future.

While having this sort of back problem isn't a positive, it's not a chronic situation and doesn't portend future problems the way a chronic back or knee problem would. Both of these will heal up and could be checked easily in a pre-draft physical.

While Embiid will be forced to sit out for at least a couple of weeks, leaving him out for the Big 12 and putting the first week of the NCAA tournament in jeopardy, it's hard to imagine that Coach Self would place one of his young players at any sort of long-term risk.

Expect Embiid to miss time but to not fall far in the NBA draft come June, when his back and knee will have had plenty of time to heal and be checked out.