Bottom line: Full return to pre-injury performance levels are expected, with athleticism tending to improve with increased time after surgery. However, we have significant concerns about Zion’s durability based on studies finding decreased games played and career lengths in pro athletes.
Injury: Lateral meniscus tear (knee)
Surgery: Partial meniscectomy to remove torn part of meniscus
Date of Injury: 10/18/19
Date of Surgery: 10/22/19
Compare to: Dwayne Wade.
Wade had a partial meniscectomy in 2002, and experienced knee pain throughout his pro career, particularly in seasons ~9-12. He underwent re-operation in 2012, and states that he regretted the choice to have his tear removed - rather than repaired - back in 2002. Notably, Wade describes this as a decision made to prioritize faster return to play, suggesting that his tear may have been repairable. Not all tears are repairable (depending on size, location, and shape). Zion’s return from surgery was handled relatively conservatively, with over twice as much time missed as average (13 weeks for Zion vs 6 weeks average for NBA players). This indicates that time missed was not a critical factor, and his tear was probably not repairable.
Return to Play: Zion has already returned to play. In general, return rate amongst NBA players is 82% at an average time of 6 weeks postoperatively. Zion returned in 13 weeks.
Performance: Full return to performance based on comparisons of pre and post-injury PER (player efficiency rating), sprint speed, and agility drill performance. Studies have found that vertical jump and agility improve with increased time removed from surgery, which may correlate with return of quad strength to pre-injury levels (likely over the first 6-12 months).
Durability: NBA players tend to play fewer games annually for at least the first 3 years after surgery. NFL players experience decreases in both number of games played and career lengths. One study found BMI (Body Mass Index) >25 to be a risk factor for lateral meniscus tears; Zion’s BMI is 33. Additionally, studies have associated Zion’s injury and surgery with earlier development of knee arthritis. Overall, there is strong evidence to support durability concerns.
Image Source: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0