Johnny Dawkins’ Injury Problem: Hobbling Stanford Basketball

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Note: While readers enjoy the jubilation of a second Pac-12 Championship and Rose Bowl berth, let’s take a moment to look at the sobering state of the basketball program.

Stanford basketball has an injury epidemic.

Recently, Aaron Bright became the third Cardinal player to be sidelined this year with a season-ending injury, joined by Andy Brown and Christian Sanders. A fourth key contributor, Rosco Allen, hasn’t yet played this season, and two more players, John Gage and Grant Verhoeven, have seen their minutes reduced due to injury. Stanford’s depleted bench has increasingly leaned on two walk-ons (Lemons and Ryan) and three freshmen (Rimmer and the Allen twins) for playing time.

Viewed in isolation, one may argue that Stanford has experienced a few bad breaks with the "injury bug;" however, in the context of the last four seasons, a disturbing trend emerges around Dawkins’ inability to keep his players healthy. In contrast to the injury-reduction success of the football team under Shannon Turley, Dawkins’ strength and conditioning program has struggled, playing a key role in the basketball program’s continued underachievement.

Consider the injuries from the past four seasons:

Stanford Injuries, 2010-2014

2010-2011 Season

Stefan Nastic: Missed most of season due to stress fracture

Andrew Zimmerman: Stress fracture reduced playing time, missed six games

Andy Brown: Missed season due to 2nd torn ACL

2011-2012 Season

Dwight Powell: Nagging heel/ankle injuries reduced production and playing time

Anthony Brown: Tendinitis throughout season reduced production and playing time

Andrew Zimmerman: Hip injury reduced playing time, missed four games

Andy Brown: Missed most of season due to ACL recovery

Gabriel Harris: Missed most of season due to knee injury

2012-2013 Season

Aaron Bright: Nagging ankle/shoulder injuries reduced production and playing time, missed four games

Anthony Brown: Missed season with hip injury

2013-2014 Season

Andy Brown: Missed season with 3rd torn ACL, medically retired

Christian Sanders: Missed season with hip injury

Aaron Bright: Missed most of season with shoulder injury

Rosco Allen: Hasn’t played yet (undisclosed injury)

John Gage: Nagging injury has reduced playing time thus far, missed one game

Grant Verhoeven: Recent injury has reduced playing time, missed one game

Let me make this clear: Stanford has not had a healthy roster at any point over the past four seasons (the closest Stanford has come was likely during the 2012 NIT Championship run—coincidence?). Translated into football terms—since nobody seems to pay attention to basketball anymore—nagging injuries to Powell, Brown, and Bright over the past two years affected their performance like injuries to Ty Montgomery last season or Devon Cajuste the second half of this season: they were not the same players. Missing Andy Brown, a leader, gutty defender, and all-around glue guy, has affected the team’s chemistry like Shayne Skov’s absence did in 2011. Moreover, in basketball, the impact of these injuries is magnified—Brown, Sanders, Bright, and Allen accounted for 34% of the team’s playing time last season; those minutes aren’t easily replaceable.

To place these injuries in further context: in Dawkins’ five and a half seasons, there have been eight season-ending injuries; in the six seasons prior to Dawkins’ arrival, there were three.

This frequency of both season-ending and nagging injuries shouldn’t happen to 18-22 year olds at one of the world’s top universities for sports medicine. For goodness sake, Tim Duncan has been playing pro/college basketball for longer than anyone on the team has been alive, and he’s still in better health than 1/3 of Stanford’s roster.

So what is causing this injury trend over the past three seasons? Dawkins has been very good at physically developing his players—guys like Dwight Powell are visibly stronger than they were entering the program. But it appears that Dawkins’ training program hasn’t emphasized flexibility, functional strength, and injury resilience like Shannon Turley’s program has.

At the same time, Dawkins has responded to criticism for his team’s lack of toughness with increasingly long, punishing practices over the past four seasons. The team even underwent a Navy Seals training session immediately before the season. This has proved a lethal combination: poor injury resilience and grueling practices have led to over a dozen stress-induced injuries over the past four years. Long, tough practices are fine during the offseason (like the notorious 6 am winter football workouts) but after too many during preseason or in-season, guys start to physically break down. Even seemingly healthy players like Chasson Randle looked gassed for most of last season because so much energy is exerted "building toughness" in practice (toughness that has still not translated to games).

Dawkins’ injury problem has fundamentally changed the course of the last few seasons. Healthy rosters in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 would have produced NCAA tournament berths, and probably a few tournament wins. Instead, Andy Brown, Anthony Brown, and Dwight Powell were not factors during the 2011-2012 season and only showed glimpses of their full potential during the NIT Championship run. Anthony Brown’s injury last season left a major hole in the team’s shooting abilities, while Bright always seemed to be hurting and out of rhythm.

This season, it’s clear that the team already has significant problems on both offense and defense without Andy Brown. Depth is thin without Christian Sanders and Rosco Allen. Gage is clearly not 100% and has played sparingly as a result. With few bench players ready and able to play, Dawkins will lean heavily on his starters and hope they too do not break down as the season progresses.

Injuries happen to every program, and sometimes players like Andy Brown are tragically cursed. But taken as a whole, few programs have been so severely hampered by a demonstrated pattern of injuries like Stanford over the past 4+ years.

Coach Dawkins is absolutely responsible for the health of his players; their continued physical breakdown represents one of his biggest failures as a coach and calls into question both his coaching methods and his strength and conditioning program. Dawkins owes it to his players to put them in the best position to succeed, but often his players haven’t even been able to make it on the court.

Now, with only five healthy scholarship players with real game experience, can Dawkins live up to his NCAA Tournament ultimatum and compete in the Pac-12? We’ll see.

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