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How do NBA players avoid injuries when they jump 4 feet in the air?

  • Tue, 14 Nov 2017 21:39

Why proper landing form can make the difference between a long career and one that fizzles out due to injury.

DALLAS — Dennis Smith Jr. is flying, several feet above the court. It’s the Dallas Mavericks season opener, a sold-out affair at the American Airlines Center, and the rookie point guard with volcanic hops has picked this moment in the second quarter to show off his 48-inch vertical leap.

Smith had just baited his defender, Atlanta’s Taurean Prince, into a screen, only to blow by him the opposite direction. He plants with his left foot, just inside the line that separates the second player from the third on free throw attempts, and rises with the ball in the right hand. He’s barely 12 minutes into his professional career, and he’s attempting a dunk that would be remembered for the rest of it.

Prince is behind Smith and another Hawk, John Collins, is ahead of him. They’re both sensational athletes whose max verticals measured at 36 and 38 inches, respectively, at the draft combine. The top one percent of the one percent, you could say in your best Bernie Sanders accent. All three rise up together like a Hollywood action section.

Smith first absorbs contact from Collins, and then Prince. The ball flies off one way as the baseline official calls a foul. Smith’s body twists at the waist, his torso parallel with the ground and his legs flailing beneath him. His left knee bends at a 45 degree angle, and he sinks back to the ground awkwardly.

Though Smith pops up instantly, he purposefully takes a foul to head to the locker room. The Mavericks call it an ankle injury, but Smith plays normal minutes in the second half.

“It was just a rough collision, or whatnot,” Smith says after the game. “I just took a quick breather.”

Smith misses the next two games with swelling on the same left knee reconstructed from ACL surgery his senior year of high school. The Mavericks have invested their future in Smith, and he’s a case study for a massive undertaking.

How do you make sure an explosive, franchise-changing talent stays that way?


We tend to view injuries as a cosmic dice roll, only talking about them after they’ve happened. It’s a backwards facing approach. Much more goes into injury prevention than what’s seen on the surface.

Dr. Jeff Taylor, an expert in biomechanics and injury prevention at High Point University, is trying to change that. Taylor has helped author 10 different studies on these topics in an effort to raise awareness in the public sphere.

Why? Because what happens before an injury, he said, is infinitely more important.

“If you start looking at rehabbing after an injury, it’s already too late,” he told SB Nation. “From an injury prevention standpoint, if we can prevent that initial injury, we’re going to prevent all of the financial and psychological and physical after-effects.”

The NBA increasingly understands injury prevention. Training staffs treat every ailment for cause nowadays, not just effect. A symptom like back tightness, for example, could actually be due to a hip problem.

“A preventative approach, in terms of training and preparation for a season, it’s what the NBA is now,” said seven-time NBA All-Star Grant Hill, now a Turner sports analyst. “So it’s a lot different than it was 20 years ago.”

Hill is the most famous example of an injury-prone player shedding his label. He played in just 47 games from age 28 to 31 due to severe ankle injuries, but had a career renaissance as a role player in Phoenix, one of the first training staffs to adopt holistic medical practices.

Injury prevention is now a “big science,” Mavericks trainer Casey Smith told me. Mavericks players all have biomechanical screenings that help find what Smith calls “movement inefficiencies.” These often point to asymmetric weaknesses in the body -- if one leg is stronger than the other, it can lead to debilitating physical problems. Athletes are particularly susceptible to repeated problems once they have a history.

“The biggest predictor of injury in the NBA is previous injury,” Smith said.

Dennis Smith Jr. is the Mavericks’ most important patient, and much of that work will happen behind the scenes. But laypeople like us need visible examples that Smith displays on the court to get a clue into the Mavericks’ larger plan.

You should have already noticed the most prominent one. It’s the way Smith lands.

Smith’s titanic clash against Atlanta is, in a sense, the worst-case scenario when a player jumps into the air. Every jump requires a landing, and every landing comes with physical force that must be distributed somewhere. The concern with incredible leapers like Smith? The higher up they go, the harder they must come down. It’s simple science.

Taylor, the doctor who has studied these situations, pointed out two clear dangers. First is when they land with their feet outside of their shoulders, or his “trunk.” The second is when the leg hits the ground relatively straight, rather than angled at the knee. Both actions put additional force directly on the joints.

“Something we certainly try to do with our athletes is teach them how to land,” Taylor said. “Land differently, land better, land more safely.”

Vince Carter regretted not learning this sooner. He didn’t really figure it out, and didn’t care to, until he was in his 30’s. “I’m paying for it now,” he told me.

“I would recommend learning how to land because, shoot, I came into the league in the era where if you fly like that, you were allowed to knock guys out of the air and there was no ejection,” Carter told SB Nation. “These guys have it good, to be honest with you. They can say what they want, but back then, you were trying to fly through the air and Alonzo Mourning and [Charles] Oakley could knock you out of the air. It is what it is, but you’d better learn how to fall.”

The best way for a player to realize the importance of falling properly is through bad experiences that expose poor technique.

By then, though, it’s usually too late. The most obvious case study is Derrick Rose.

Even when not bothered by defenders, Rose often landed with his legs too straight. His biomechanical tendencies caused his legs to flail in the air, too. Because Rose failed to sink into his landings, his joints absorbed far too much force.

Those examples originally showed up on By Any Means Basketball, a YouTube channel that analyzes potential causes of injury. The man behind it is Coleman Ayers, who runs an athletic performance training organization. He harped on another factor that can help explosive players avoid injuries: falling.

“Some players have something against falling down when they land,” Ayers said. “They land in an awkward position, because a lot of landings in the NBA, it’s such a high speed game, it’s impossible to land in a perfect position every time. When you land in a vulnerable position, a lot of players try to absorb that force in the wrong way, rather than falling down.”

Rose was one of those players, and his knees have paid for it. And one player who draws comparisons to Rose — a player who has even compared himself to Rose — is Dennis Smith Jr.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The good news for Mavericks fans: Smith’s mechanics bear few similarities to the former MVP. He generally lands correctly and on both feet when unhindered by opponents or contact. He’ll sometimes smooth his landing by taking two or three quick steps when he comes back to the ground, another natural way to reduce the force that comes with flying so high.

Take this dunk from Smith, his own variation on Rose’s reverse dunk above. Smith’s legs don’t flail like Rose’s did, and his legs are much less straight upon landing.

Still, anytime a player flies that high, there are dangers.

“His landings are a little more severe,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle admitted.

No one can land perfectly every time. Grizzlies center Brandan Wright told SB Nation that he was taught how to land from an early age to take impact off his body. He has still suffered from various lower body injuries that have combined with other ailments to limit him to 40 games the past two years.

“I used to be, early in my career, a one-foot jumper, but for safety reasons I started jumping off two feet a lot more,” Wright said. “I can land a little bit stronger, I can take contact better in the air. I can prevent more injuries.”

He’s not the only player to change his style for health reasons. Clippers star Blake Griffin wrote an article on The Player’s Tribune titled “Why Ain’t He Dunkin?” explaining why went from about 200 dunks each of his first four seasons to just 68 last year. Minnesota point guard Jeff Teague, now 29, said he stopped dunking entirely.

Smith’s worst landings come from his most audacious dunk attempts, such as the ones at the Las Vegas Summer League and that show-stopping attempt in the regular-season opener. So far, the only consequence has been the two missed games, but every improper Smith landing adds additional stress and opens up the possibility for catastrophe.

Ayers and Taylor both suggested that the nature of the dunk attempts are Smith’s problem. While Smith declined to talk about his landings for this story, Mark Cuban told SB Nation that Smith is aware of the concerns about the way he lands.

This isn’t to suggest Smith should stop dunking, but not everything can be dunked. Dallas has every incentive to keep its young, future star healthy for the next decade, whatever it takes.

“He's been working extremely hard to do a lot of things with our guys, with balance, with core, with all those things,” Carlisle said. “All those things help strengthen the joints. He's been doing that stuff from day one since he got here. He's made great strides in every area. Look, we've got to watch it, and he's got to keep working.”

The science of injury prevention is just that -- preventative. No one can land perfectly every time, and it isn’t a panacea for violent collisions several feet in the air, like Smith’s aerobatics in the season opener.

Eight teams passed on Smith in the draft, and the possibility of serious injury in the future may explain why. The Mavericks benefitted from those teams’ decisions, because Smith is the kind of player that can shepherd this franchise into a post-Dirk Nowitzki era.

But that will only happen if his body holds up, something the Mavericks and Smith are working towards every day.

“Can we prevent every injury? No,” Taylor said. “But the non-contact injuries certainly can be prevented.”

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