NEW ORLEANS • In the months before rookie phenomenon Zion Williamson made his belated and stirring National Basketball Association (NBA) debut last Wednesday, he spent his rehabilitation from knee surgery as a 1.98m, 129kg gymnast learning to stick the landing.
With guidance from the medical staff of the New Orleans Pelicans, the 19-year-old tried to correct bio-mechanical flaws suspected of contributing to a tear in his lateral meniscus.
The meniscus was trimmed during surgery last October. Then, said Williamson, who can leap so much higher and is so much more agile than one might expect of someone his size, it was time to learn how to run and jump more safely.
The forward trained himself to land with his knees bent, instead of straight-legged, as it helps disperse the pounding forces when playing basketball.
In his first game for New Orleans, Williamson scored 22 points in a 121-117 defeat by the San Antonio Spurs, including 17 over three minutes of the fourth quarter.
Still, he has already missed half of the season.
While his nascent professional career is full of luminous and generational possibility, it is also emblematic of growing worry among NBA officials about young players who have played basketball almost exclusively as teenagers and then enter the league more vulnerable to injuries than they should be.
It may seem logical that the best way to get better at basketball is to play it more often.
But specialisation and intense training of repetitive movements from a young age, researchers say, can leave muscles overstressed and prone to imbalance, subjecting players to the possibility of injuries and, eventually, shortened careers.
Last summer, NBA commissioner Adam Silver called addressing the rising injury rate of young players “the highest priority for the league”, with the league now recommending that players not begin specialising until age 14 or older.
The delayed start to Williamson’s campaign is “smoke in front of the fire” to Dr Neeru Jayanthi, director of sports medicine research and education at Emory University and a leading expert on youth sports and training patterns.
Early, intense training and specialisation in one sport can age young players’ bodies three or four years beyond their chronological age, he added.
This has led him and other medical experts to question whether Williamson, last year’s No. 1 draft pick, will be able to sustain a long professional career like greats LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
But David Griffin, the Pelicans’ executive vice-president of basketball operations, believes the post-rehab Williamson “is a radically improved physical version of himself” and, with more flexibility in his ankles and hips, he can now move with more agility on defence.
Williamson has also dismissed any concern over his decision to specialise in basketball since he was 13, saying: “My advice would be, if you love the sport, just play it.”