What does the future hold for Jusuf Nurkic?
Jusuf Nurkic won't play again this season. But barring complications, the Trail Blazers' injured center will be back on the basketball court at some point next season — and perhaps early in the 2019-20 campaign.
And the injury shouldn't negatively impact the 7-foot Bosnian's future in the NBA.
That's the word from Dr. William Ricci, chief of orthopedic trauma at Hospitals for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City.
Nurkic underwent successful surgery on Tuesday to repair a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in the left leg, an injury suffered Monday night in Portland's 148-144 two-overtime victory over Brooklyn at Moda Center.
Ricci hasn't seen X-rays of Nurkic's leg. But as an orthopedic surgeon with more than 20 years experience and one who has worked with professional athletes, he is familiar with such injuries and the timetable for rehabilitation and recovery.
Nurkic's injury is of "moderate seriousness," Ricci said Tuesday by phone from his office in New York City. "Any time the bone comes through the skin, it increases the severity. The reason for that is when the bone comes through skin, it increases the risk of infection and delayed healing."
The tibia is the shin bone. The fibula is a small bone below the knee toward the ankle.
"The tibia is the main issue here," Ricci says. "That's the weight-bearing bone. The fibula heals itself without needing surgery."
Ricci said the rehab and recovery process can "usually be reasonably quick."
"I'm assuming it's a mid-shaft tibia and fibula, and (surgeons) put in a rod and a couple of screws," he said. "Once the skin heals, he'll start walking on it reasonably soon, within a couple of weeks.
"The healing process will take several months. He'll do muscle-strengthening and range-of-motion exercises, and the last step would be getting his leg and body used to impact loading, where you jump up and down. That would typically be six months down the road before he's ready to jump up and down on it."
Ricci estimates it will be "a couple of months" before Nurkic could step on the court and shoot baskets.
"For the running and pounding on it, he could likely begin that in about six months," Ricci says.
That wouldn't mean he would be ready to play in an NBA game — just to begin the process. But Ricci said it's not unreasonable to think Nurkic might be able to play again before the end of the calendar year.
Nurkic, who turns 25 in August, has some history with leg injuries.
After his rookie season with Denver, he underwent surgery in May 2015 for a partially torn patellar tendon — the structure that connects the kneecap to the shinbone — on the left knee. Nurkic returned to action in early January but was limited to 32 games with the Nuggets that season.
After being traded to the Blazers in February 2017, Nurkic missed the final seven games of the regular season — and managed only one ill-fated appearance in the playoffs — with a non-displaced right leg fibular fracture. He came back healthy and played 79 games in the regular season and all four playoff games in 2017-18.
Does the previous knee surgery impact Nurkic's ability to recover from this injury on the same knee?
"Probably not," Ricci said.
Does Nurkic's young age work for him in terms of rapidity of recover from his recent injury?
"Certainly," Ricci said. "Youngsters bounce back pretty quickly."
Does the compound fracture threaten Nurkic's future career?
"In the absence of complications — infection and delayed healing — he should be able to get back without any risk to his career," Ricci said.
Six months after surgery would be late September, but don't get the idea Nurkic will be ready to play games by then. The Blazers' medical staff will move slowly and will err on the side of caution with the return of Nurkic, who signed a four-year contract extension for a guaranteed $48 million last summer.
But it doesn't appear as if he will have to miss the entire 2019-20 season — and with good fortune and proper healing, he may be back early in the regular season.
Nurkic's injury seems similar to that of Paul George, who suffered a compound fracture to his right leg in August 2014. George, 24 at the time, came back to play six games in April 2015 — eight months after surgery. George has played four relatively healthy seasons since then and is a Most Valuable Player candidate this year with Oklahoma City.
Boston forward Gordon Hayward had a catastrophic ankle fracture in his first game with the Celtics in October 2017. It required surgery. Hayward sat out the entire 2017-18 season but has returned to have a relatively healthy 2018-19 campaign, though he has not yet regained his All-Star form.
Nurkic was playing the best ball of his career at the time of Monday's injury, averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds. He was sensational against the Nets, collecting 32 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots in 34 minutes before he went down in the second overtime.
How will the Blazers survive the loss? In the short term, it won't be as disastrous as many fans might think. No team is better suited to survive the loss of a starting center than Portland.
The Blazers picked up an insurance policy — and are now cashing in on it — when they acquired free agent Enes Kanter in February. Kanter, who had been waived by New York, is an outstanding scorer and rebounder who will fill the starting role ably. Behind him is second-year pro Zach Collins, who will offer the help at the defensive end that Kanter can't provide.
And it may even be a chance for the reappearance of Meyers Leonard, who has had a permanent spot on the bench since Kanter's acquisition. The 7-1 Leonard was playing some of the best ball of his career, shooting .539 from the field, .466 from 3-point range and .818 from the foul line this season.
The only team in the West that had an advantage over Portland in the post before the Nurkic injury was Denver with Nikola Jokic. Golden State's DeMarcus Cousins continues to try to regain his form after February 2018 Achilles tendon surgery. Utah's Rudy Gobert and Houston's Clint Cabela are excellent rebounders and defenders, but don't possess Nurkic's offensive skills.
But if guard CJ McCollum is able to return and play effectively from his knee injury, the Blazers' depth will kick into action and make up for much of what was lost with Nurkic's absence. They'll still likely have home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The sky is not falling on the Blazers. They'll still be capable of at least winning a first-round series. They'll just have to get things done in different ways.
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