NBA injury trend places American youth basketball under scrutiny


Of the past four first overall NBA draft picks, only one has played more than 45 percent of their rookie season. Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and Zion Williamson–the first players chosen in the 2019, 2017, and 2016 NBA drafts respectively–are only three of the countless young rising stars to have suffered serious injuries. In fact, according to ESPN, the draft classes with the most games missed over the first two seasons have all been within the past four years. Players drafted in 2017 have missed a total of 751 games during their rookie and sophomore campaigns, which is the equivalent of nine full NBA regular seasons. 

“As both a fan of the NBA and of playing basketball, I know that injuries in this sport are inevitable because players play aggressively to compete at the highest level,” said Leo Park (11), avid NBA fan. “However, it is still unfortunate to watch some of the best players get injured. For example, I was really looking forward to seeing Zion play this season, but because of his injury, he has not played a game. As a fan, I was very disappointed to hear of this new development.” 

In light of this phenomenon, America’s youth basketball program, AAU, has been placed under scrutiny. The incredibly competitive and selective race to the NBA has pushed young athletes to play more games, practice longer hours, and increase the intensity of workouts. Estimates by Dr. Darin Padu, chairman of the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of North Carolina, claim that hopeful NBA prospects likely play more than 1,000 organized games of basketball from ages 7 to 19. This estimate—which excludes practices, workouts, and unorganized games—is the equivalent of a child playing 12 NBA seasons over the course of 13 years. Sports doctors and even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver have claimed that this rigorous pre-NBA workload has caused players to enter the league with additional “wear-and-tear” that has led to a spike in injuries. 

“For young athletes, I definitely think there has to be opportunities for rest,” said Timothy Munro, boy’s varsity basketball coach. “When [the boy’s varsity basketball team] has a long weekend, we usually open the gym on Sunday only to give our players Friday, Saturday, and Monday off. Your ligaments can get very pissed off from working hard; they are not meant to be used repetitively for so long.” 

Although the NBA and Silver have expressed concern over the AAU system, widespread reform seems unlikely. There is no centralized organization or league that unifies American youth basketball, which makes regulations nearly impossible to enforce on a national scale. The NBA has released recommended guidelines for hours of practice and play for different age groups, but these recommendations are mere suggestions. Some proponents of the AAU and members of the basketball community have called for solutions at the professional rather than amateur level. Citing the long 82-game, travel-heavy NBA season as being more detrimental than helpful to players, these proponents argue that the NBA should shorten its regular season, normalize non-injury related rest games, and reduce burdens on players to counter the rise of injuries. 

“I think the new AAU debate really puts the load management controversy into perspective,” said Eddie Choe (11), boys varsity basketball player. “A lot of older players have said that the NBA is going ‘soft’ because players have been taking non-injury rest games. Are those load management rest games really a result of a ‘softer’ NBA or more worn down player bodies because of youth basketball?”