Oct 23 2013

Nerlens Noel’s ACL recovery would be the lenghtiest in (recent) NBA history

A 20 month recovery from an ACL tear? Totally normal.

Sam Amico:

Brown, in his first season as Sixers coach, said Noel is likely to miss his entire first NBA season as the result of a torn ACL suffered while Noel was a freshman at the University of Kentucky.

Brown dropped the news prior to the Sixers’ preseason game Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the campus of Ohio State University.

“We don’t want to waste this year,” Brown said of the Sixers’ strategy with Noel. “I think, from all perspectives, it’s an opportunity to break down his shot, really work on his free throws, and start a bit from ground zero. He’s bought in and been great.”

"Tanking, ya know?"

“Tanking, ya know?”

So…okay. Let’s take this at face value. If Nerlens Noel’s first regular season action as a Philadelphia 76er comes in late October 2014–opening night of the 2014-15 season–it would mark just over 20 months of recovery time between his February ACL tear and his return to (non-exhibition) play.

If that seems like a lot of time to you, that’s because it’s a lot of time.

To get a better sense of how long it should take to play after an ACL tear, I went back and looked at all such injuries NBA players suffered since 2005. (I think it’s possible I missed a few. That said, the many I found are a credit to the herculean research efforts of commenters on this APBR thread.) I identified 30 players who tore the ligament in that time frame–20 of whom sustained the tear and returned to the NBA after recovering from the injury.They are our sample.

(Mickael Gelabale and Gani Lawal, who played overseas after rehabilitating and later returned to the NBA were not included in the sample. Nor were Rajon Rondo or any of the other recent ACL tearers who have yet to return to action.)

This left us with the following:

  • Willie Green
  • Nene
  • Robert Swift
  • Nenad Krstic
  • Tony Allen
  • Shaun Livingston
  • D.J. Mbenga
  • Adam Morrison
  • Jason Smith
  • Corey Brewer
  • Al Jefferson
  • Leon Powe
  • Michael Redd
  • Josh Howard
  • Kendrick Perkins
  • Jeff Ayres
  • Derrick Rose (Rose was included because he is, effectively, sure to return for the season opener)
  • Eric Maynor
  • Iman Shumpert
  • Ricky Rubio

This motley crew missed a total of 233 months with their injuries—measured by the duration between the game when each was injured and the one in which he returned—for an average of 11.65 months per ACL recovery. The player who returned the fastest was Kendrick Perkins—he missed only 7 months—while the longest absence belonged to Shaun Livingston, who played NBA basketball 20 months after his gruesome February 2007 injury.

So Noel’s ACL recovery–if he misses all of this season–would be the lengthiest in recent NBA history. Longer than the one that followed this.

But not only would Noel clearly be an outlier w/r/t ACL recovery, the above figures likely overstate how long it takes to play NBA basketball after such an injury. For the sake of simplicity, I rounded up all the numbers (if a player missed 10 months and 12 days with his injury, I rang it up as 11), so the true average is probably a bit lower than 11.65 months. Additionally, 11 of the 20 players in the sample were ready for the start of the season following their recovery. It’s possible many would have returned sooner were that an option.

This projected 20 month timetable is especially peculiar given that Noel seems like he should be able to bounce back faster than most players–not slower than anyone, ever. He’s the youngest player in the sample (younger people, other things equal, heal faster) and his relatively low body-weight–and the proportionally low weight his mending ligament has had to support–should ease his rehab.

If it’s true that the Sixers will sit Noel in 2013-14 (and it may not be–after the franchise’s maladroit handling of the Andrew Bynum fiasco, it’s possible Hinkie and co. are just setting the expectations as low as possible for their new big man) there are only two conclusions available to us: Noel has had a setback that we’re not being told about, or the team is, honest to god, about to unleash the most audacious tank job of all-time; a belly-flop of world-historic proportions.

Sorta feels like the second one, doesn’t it?

  • Kevin Herman

    Well, Brown walked backed some of this. To me Noel should play as soon as he is ready too and after hearing all this stuff about how his ACL wasn’t that bad and how he was doing good in his rehab and how young he is to me for him to not play in a baskebtall game for 20 months it totally ludicrous unless he had some kind of hidden setback. If he doesn’t play this year color me disturbed. You develop the most playing in actual games and once he is cleard to play by docs if Noel feels like he is up to it he should play some minutes. I don’t care if he weighs 175lbs.

    • ken

      why cant we get the best of both worlds and have him work on his offensive game while he recovers and even after hes fully recovered until the last 1/4 of the season which then we can let him play and get his NBA experience and try his new offensive moves on some actual competition.

  • tjchamp

    Rubio started playing again in December 2012.