Zeller Details Physical, Mental Toll of Recent Knee Injury

By Sam Perley

The trajectory of an NBA season – even a player’s career – can change swiftly and suddenly with an injury. An off-balance landing, stepping on another player’s foot or an inadvertent elbow sometimes appear subtle in games, although they are happenings that end up having long-term consequences.

For Cody Zeller, it was a driving layup late in the third quarter of a home game against the Golden State Warriors back on Dec. 6. The play looked innocent enough, but as Zeller came down, his legs got twisted around and the reaction on his face and ensuing limp clearly indicated something had gone wrong.

Unable to quickly get back on defense or exit the game immediately, Zeller stayed near the Golden State end before converting a long pass from Nic Batum into an uncontested dunk (depicted in the picture above). The quarter and Zeller’s night ended 36.1 seconds later, although little did he know that would be the last basket he would make for a while.

“I knew I kind of tweaked it, but I didn’t know if it had just sprained. I didn’t imagine it’d be something that needed surgery,” Zeller recalled. “I didn’t know right away, but the next day, when I was having a tough time walking on it or putting pressure on it, I knew it was going to be a little while.”

The official diagnosis was a torn meniscus in his left knee, an ailment that would require reconstructive surgery and a recovery timetable of roughly 6-8 weeks. Zeller soon flew to Los Angeles to have a specialist perform the operation before returning to Charlotte about a week later to start the lengthy rehabilitation journey.

What exactly does this aforementioned process for professional athletes really entail, though? For one thing, it’s certainly not a whole lot of sitting around waiting for the injury to just simply heal on its own.

“I don’t think I’ve had an off day since I got hurt,” Zeller said after practice in Atlanta on Jan. 30. “It’s rehab, lifting, shooting on the court. My days are a lot longer than the guys that are playing right now. It’s hours a day working out as compared to them, they’re kind of resting up for the next game. Definitely long days.”

Over the previous month and a half or so, Zeller had undergone rigorous, daily activities specifically designed to restore, amongst other things, his lower-body strength, jumping ability, conditioning and overall maneuvering. Recovering from this particular injury differed significantly compared to a shoulder issue he had back in 2015, which sidelined him for all but one of the team’s final 20 games of the year.

“[I’ve never had] anything this long of a recovery. It’s my first knee injury of any sort – knock on wood. It is a big difference [from an upper-body injury] because you have to have your knees healthy to be able to run, jump. When I had my shoulder injury, it was my right shoulder, so it affected how I was able to shoot. The biggest deal was being able to shoot, but I was able to stay in running shape as I was recovering from my shoulder. This has been a big difference. Trying to keep my cardio up has been a big deal,” Zeller described.

In a perfect world, all NBA players would be immune from injuries. The league is at its best when the competition level is at its highest and that means everybody staying healthy. Obviously, it’s unrealistic and lately, it seems like this dream scenario couldn’t be any further from a reality.

Over the past couple weeks, fans have seen some dramatic season-ending injuries strike players like four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans (torn Achilles’ tendon) and one of the league’s elite wing defenders in Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson (ruptured patellar tendon).

Gordon Hayward saw his inaugural season with the Boston Celtics end in the first quarter on opening night after suffering a gruesome left leg injury. Former-Hornet Jeremy Lin – plagued by hamstring issues much of last season – also ruptured his patellar tendon in the Brooklyn Nets’ first game of the year as well.

In Charlotte, Nicolas Batum tore the UCL in his left elbow in a preseason game in early October and missed six weeks. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sat out all but seven games in the 2015-16 season after tearing the labrum in his right shoulder twice.

Like Zeller’s torn meniscus, all these ailments happened in the blink of an eye and left the respective teams with immediate short and long-term uncertainty.

Injuries are cruel, unfair, sometimes devastating and forever part of the game. There have been a lot of advancements with regards to modern medicine, but doctors haven’t necessarily figured out a way to make them any less emotionally taxing for players, teams or fans.

“It’s tough mentally because you’re away from the team, you’re doing a lot of lifting, conditioning. The games are the fun part and that’s what I’m missing out on. It’s tough mentally as well,” says Zeller.

The Hornets center finally returned to action on Feb. 2, putting up 6.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists across 15.7 minutes in his first three appearances since going down. Although the sample size is relatively small (and thus needs to be taken with a grain of salt), Zeller’s value is clearly evident based on an average plus-minus of +11.0 during this time frame.

One of the primary reasons people love sports so much is that anything can happen. It could be a huge upset, an unforeseen comeback, a spectacular play or a last-second shot to win the game that highlights the true beauty in their unpredictability.

When significant injuries or setbacks occur, it’s important to remember that it’s something that just comes with the territory. Everybody knows it, but that doesn’t really make it any easier. While Cody Zeller’s injury, thankfully, wasn’t as serious as some of the others in the NBA this season, it’s best to look on the bright side and hope his lengthy absence is merely setting the stage for an inspiring comeback.