On Saturday night at Chase Center, Kevin Durant laced the ball between his legs, stepped back and drilled an 18-foot jumper over his defender. What was most remarkable about the play was not the precision with which Durant executed his move or the fact that, before jogging back on defense, he turned to the Warriors bench with a knowing grin.
It’s that Durant launched his jumper from almost the same spot that, nearly two years ago in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals, he suffered the devastating Achilles tear that threatened to derail the career of a future Hall of Famer.
As Durant’s shot dripped through the net during the third quarter of the Warriors’ 134-117 loss to the Nets, Klay Thompson held up his arm and pointed, acknowledging how far Durant had come.
A torn Achilles tendon is widely considered an injury that can detail careers. Players such as Isiah Thomas, Elgin Baylor and Kobe Bryant either had their careers ended, or were never the same after coming back. But 19 games into his comeback season, Durant looks every bit the player he was prior to missing all of last season while rehabbing.
In his first season since signing with Brooklyn in 2019, Durant is averaging 29 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in 35.7 minutes per game. How he’s doing it is more remarkable, with all of the explosiveness, quickness and precision that helped him win two championships in three seasons in Golden State.
So as Thompson, sidelined this season after rupturing his Achilles during a November workout in Los Angeles, nodded to Durant, he was also witnessing his best role model for his own recovery.
“Me and Klay talk pretty often, a couple times a week,” Durant said after the game. “It’s good to see him starting to walk, getting his boot. Obviously I know what that process is like, so he’s chomping at the bit to get out on the court and start shooting.
“Can’t wait to see him back out there.”
Thompson underwent successful surgery in November in Los Angeles. The procedure was performed by Dr. Richard Ferkel, an experienced physician who has worked on countless Achilles, including those of DeMarcus Cousins, Wesley Matthews and Rodney Hood.
Matthews returned after seven months and is still a useful player in the NBA. Cousins needed a year to come back from his own Achilles tear, but struggled to find his footing in Golden State. Two years later, he is carving out a role in Houston.
“The longer you’re out, probably the easier it is to get back,” Dr. Ferkel told TrueHoop.com’s Tom Haberstroh. “That might be why it’s a little easier for Durant and other people to get back at a high level because they had a longer period of time to rehab and work at it.”
Since 2005, there have been 29 Achilles tears in the NBA, according to the injury tracking website InStreetClothes.com. Players who returned to the NBA had an average recovery time of about one year. As medicine advances, recovery times have shortened and players have returned stronger.
However, players who had the best return were sidelined for closer to two years. Durant suffered his injury in June of 2019, and did not return until December 2020.
This is partially due to patience on the part of Durant and the Nets, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Durant could have returned last summer for the Disney World bubble, but he held off. Then the pandemic delayed the start of the 2020-21 season.
That’s nearly 18 months between games — eight more than Cousins, 10 more than Bryant and 11 more than Matthews.
(Another example: John Wall, after missing two seasons with his own Achilles injury, is having an extraordinary season for the Rockets.)
This isn’t to say that Thompson should wait until the 2021-22 season to return. Unlike Durant and Cousins, his ankle isn’t carrying a 7-foot body and, unlike Wall, his game doesn’t rely on explosiveness. Thompson, 31, is more like Matthews — a “3-and-D” wing who needs only a baseline of lateral mobility and relies mostly on his outside jumper.
If anything, the advances in medicine that helped Durant provide hope for Thompson. As good as Durant is now, he could be even better next season based on these timelines.
“We’ve always seen that when people get back, the following season they’re even better,” Dr. Ferkel told TrueHoop.com. “Because it just takes that long. You’re just not 100% when you get back.”
The lesson: However Thompson looks next season after 12 months of rehab, it’ll be important to remember that his best may be another year away. It helps that, in his bi-weekly chats with Durant, he has the best possible example to follow.
Contributed by local news sources