What's with all the injuries to elite players?

The meat of the hoops season has yet to begin and already some of the elite high school players are already on the shelf. This week, power forward Julius Randle (Dallas/Prestonwood) announced he’d miss up to three months after fracturing his right foot in a game on November 24. Earlier in the fall, teammate Mickey Mitchell, a top-10 member of the sophomore class, tore his ACL in a football game, ending his season before it got underway. Prestonwood, which was supposed to one of the nation’s premier team’s, has been clobbered by injuries.

In mid-December, ESPN was set to televise Randle against Simeon’s Jabari Parker (Chicago/Simeon). It was to be one of the best individual matchups of the year, if not the past few. Well, that’s not going to happen and it’s not just due to Randle’s injury. Parker’s been on the shelf since June when he fractured the bone on the top of his right foot. His injury came while competing for Team USA in Lithuania.

In reality, Parker’s been banged up long before that. However, injuries are a part of the game and come with the turf. Regardless, I’ve always wondered if constant play, excessive games and long three-day AAU weekends are a contributing factor to the rash of injuries sustained by players. Could it be today’s player has less tread on his tires by the time he’s a senior in high school or freshman in college?

“They play one sport all year round with no time off or breaks,” said Sonny Parker, a former NBA player and Jabari’s father. “It’s a lot.”

The grind players undergo made Sonny contemplate shutting his son down before his injury last summer. “It crossed my mind,” Parker said. “We were going to shut him down anyway in (July). Today, they play and work hard at what they do. When we played, we played in the neighborhood against neighborhood kids. Now it’s camps and competition against good players. I think they play too much.”

As someone who travels for a living, let’s not underestimate the wear and tear those trips put on the body. Traveling sounds simple but for those who do it frequently, one understands the fatigue it brings. However, an extra plane ride isn’t necessarily the final culprit in these injuries. But also factor in the combination of playing extra games while getting minimal rest, and now you could be onto something.

In the Class of 2013 alone, we’ve seen Dakari Johnson (New York, N.Y./Montverde), Aaron Gordon (San Jose, Calif./Archbishop Mitty) and now Parker and Randle miss significant time. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Maybe not. Either way, it’s worth talking about.

The most famous high school injury was more freak than fatigue. In the summer leading up to his senior year, LeBron James broke his wrist when he fell in an AAU game in Chicago while playing against the Rising Stars. It wasn’t intentional; it was an accident. James missed the entire summer heading into his final prep year. I’ve always thought that wasn’t such a bad thing for him. The attention and games for a player of his status would have been a lot to handle. Instead, he was like a running back that didn’t start in college, was drafted in the late rounds and turned into a star. In the NFL, sometimes the running backs with less wear and tear wind up having big impacts (see Arian Foster, Peyton Hills), but that’s a discussion for another day.

LeBron’s people weren’t disappointed he couldn’t play in the summer. They were more concerned with keeping the LeBron brand strong. The less is more adage wound up working in his favor.

“The one thing we did with LeBron was to be very selective when he played,” St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce said. “You’re only remembered by your last performance. We wanted people to want to see him. We thought there was a thing called overexposure.”

Here’s my point on all this. The body can only take so much. In my opinion, today’s athlete is more fragile because of the sheer numbers of events and travel they must attend. I think the career spans of our high school to college to NBA players are about to be considerably shortened. Anyone who watched Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in high school or AAU wondered if he could hold up playing so hard for so long.

There’s no way to conclude that all these injuries are related to playing too much ball but it’s something to consider as these elite guys are on the shelf. With the changing basketball culture, there are effects that we may not discover for years to come. This year, a high number of elite players spent considerable time on the shelf. Is it coincidence or is there something more behind this outbreak of injuries to elite players?