Who's Right In the Juancho Hernangómez Injury Saga?

Photo Credit: Chris Nicoll (USA TODAY Sports)

News has broken that Juancho Hernangómez is upset with Gersson Rosas and the Minnesota Timberwolves over his shoulder injury and availability in the 2020 Olympics.

If you aren’t fully caught up, the timeline goes like this:

  • Hernangómez is a member of the Spanish National Basketball team.
  • On July 8th, Hernangómez dislocated his shoulder during an exhibition match against France. Due to the severity of the injury, the expectation was that Juancho would be sidelined four to six weeks and not be included on the 12-man Spanish Olympic roster.
  • Spain says that Hernangómez’s situation has “improved,” and he was feeling better.
  • Hernangómez is included on Spain’s 12-man roster.
  • Gersson Rosas pulls Hernangómez back from contention, citing that he never received clearance from Minnesota’s medical staff to play in the Olympics.

This is the abbreviated version of events, of course. The reality of the situation is more complicated than a simple miscommunication between Rosas and Jorje Garbajosa, the president of the Spanish Basketball Federation. The injury itself has to be considered, as well as the perspectives of Rosas, Garbajosa, and Hernangómez himself.

The Injury

While the exact nature and extent of the injury are murky, we know for sure that Hernangómez suffered a dislocated shoulder.

To visualize what a non-dislocated shoulder looks like, either take a look down at one of your shoulders or read this excerpt from In Street Clothes:

“An injury classified as a dislocation generally refers to an injury to the alignment of the glenohumeral joint. The glenohumeral is the ball and socket joint of the shoulder and loosely resembles a golf ball sitting on a tee. The joint is made up of the head of the humerus (the golf ball) articulating in a groove of the shoulder blade known as the glenoid cavity (the tee). The ball (head of the humerus) can freely pivot on the tee (glenoid) allowing for a large degree of motion.”

Basically, when that golf ball gets yanked off of the tee, you have yourself a dislocated shoulder. The above excerpt is from an article that outlines the severity of Kevin Love’s dislocated shoulder, incurred during a playoff series against the Boston Celtics in 2015. Kelly Olynyk yoinked Love’s arm a bit too hard while battling for a rebound, and the tall Canadian ripped Love’s arm out of its socket. Love would undergo surgery and spend well over half a year rehabbing his injury.

If Hernangómez fully dislocated his shoulder, the early return to basketball action would not be in his, Spain’s, or the Timberwolves’ best interests. While Hernangómez has been rehabbing his injury in the two and a half weeks since it happened, no surgery has been reported; the lack of reporting will become important in the next segment. Surgery for a dislocated shoulder is not always necessary, though surgery and the subsequent rehab process would drastically reduce the risk of re-injury. The chance of re-injuring a dislocation is high if it is not given proper time to heal.

Regardless, Hernangómez would be slated to miss a sizable chunk of time that would prohibit him from participating in the Olympics anyway. According to a 2019 study done by Lu, Okoroha, et al. at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, NBA players “…who sustained shoulder subluxations returned after an average of 3.6 weeks, compared with 7.6 weeks in those who sustained a shoulder dislocation. Players who underwent operative management returned after an average of 19 weeks. Athletes treated operatively were found to have a longer time interval between a recurrent instability event.” 

A subluxation is a partial dislocation. If Hernangómez fully dislocated his shoulder, he would be looking at an average of almost eight weeks sidelined without surgery. This prognosis would not see him returning to basketball activities until the beginning of September. The study concluded that players that undergo surgery are less likely to suffer another dislocation to the same joint. The NHS states that a dislocated shoulder can take around 12-16 weeks to heal. Even if Juancho does not need surgery, it seems apparent that holding him out of the Olympics is in the best interest of the Timberwolves and Hernangómez’s long-term health.

The Timberwolves’ Side

The valor of representing one’s country should not be lost on Rosas, the NBA’s first Latino president. But Rosas has a business to run, and he is opting to go the safe route with Hernangómez.

By restricting Hernangómez from playing with the Spanish National Team, Rosas is doing everything he can to ensure that Minnesota gets a fully healthy Hernangómez back in time for the 2021-22 regular season. For a Timberwolves team that had pronounced problems at the 4 last season, Hernangómez’s presence is a must unless other roster moves are made.

During his first 14 games in Minnesota in the 2019-20 season, Hernangómez was a regular starter, played nearly 30 minutes per game, and shot 42% from three. But that form would never be recaptured in last season. Hernangómez showed up to camp out of shape, had a bout with COVID-19, and struggled to find consistent minutes on what was the worst team in basketball for a large chunk of the season. Many scoffed when Hernangómez was re-signed to a three-year, $21 million contract in the 2020 offseason. Juancho did not do much to ease concerns from his critics.

With a team bereft of picks in the impending 2021 NBA Draft, Rosas needs to have all hands on deck with a fully stacked roster of assets that can be flipped for other players or a draft pick. While Hernangómez has not lived up to his current contract so far, he still provides outside shooting on an affordable contract that contending teams may have interest in. If Hernangómez’s health is jeopardized, that asset goes bye-bye; the Timberwolves already do not have many tradable assets at their disposal. Hernangómez’s health is paramount to both his return to form and his value in the eyes of NBA executives across the league.

Despite the scrutiny and Olympics, Rosas is making the only move he can with the hand he has been dealt. In a make-or-break year for the franchise, Rosas cannot afford to slip up in any way. Playing this injury situation carefully is the right choice from his and Minnesota’s perspective.

Spain’s Side

Jorge Garbajosa, president of the Spanish Basketball Federation and the artist formerly known as “The Garbage Man,” went off on Rosas in an incendiary interview before the start of Spain’s Olympic campaign:

We’ve had countless medical meetings and we’ve never received a ‘no.’ We have received a ‘yes.’ We don’t have a problem with the Minnesota Timberwolves or the NBA. It’s a problem of people – not medical personnel – who have personally decided that Juancho couldn’t play. I’m talking about their president of basketball operations.

Rosas and the Timberwolves then issued this statement on the matter:

This devolved into a slew of finger-pointing that leaves spectators wondering who, if anyone, is telling the whole truth. Garbajosa then expresses that this apparent “change of opinion” by the Timberwolves doctors happened when they were not actively examining Hernangómez’s injury. “There were a series of facts,” said Garbajosa, “that showed that the decision isn’t of medical nature.”

To point the finger at Rosas here seems to imply that Garbajosa has done his homework on Minnesota’s situation and why the Wolves absolutely need Juancho at 100% for the upcoming season. To call Rosas and the Timberwolves selfish here isn’t exactly off-base. The Olympics are a big deal and certainly seem to matter more to non-US players. However, Garbajosa has a muddy history of his own with the NBA meddling in national team eligibility.

Garbajosa played in the NBA for two seasons from 2006 to 2008. His sophomore season was cut short after seven games due to a second surgery stemming from a “gruesome” leg and ankle injury earlier that year at the end of his rookie season. Garbajosa would never play in the NBA again.

However, Garbajosa and the Spanish Basketball Federation may hold a grudge against the United States. Before the FIBA European Championships in 2007, Garbajosa was in the middle of a lawsuit between the Toronto Raptors and the Spanish Basketball Federation regarding insurance money and whether or not Garbajosa would be allowed to play for the Spanish National Team. An agreement between the two sides was eventually reached, and Garbajosa was allowed to play. However, seven games into the following season he re-aggravated his injury and opted to have another surgery.

This situation would seem to draw some parallels between that and the current matter with Hernangómez. At a minimum, it adds personal conviction on the side of Garbajosa in regards to Hernangómez’s eligibility to play for Spain. Life is unfortunately burdened by long-standing personal vendettas. This 2007 squabble may explain some of the language used by Garbajosa when expressing his frustration.

Ultimately, Spain has replaced Hernangómez on their Olympic roster and is electing not to pursue the situation any further. While this situation is surely less than ideal for both Rosas and Garbajosa, Hernangómez lies in the middle of it all and is, understandably, not happy.

Juancho’s Side

Obviously, Hernangómez wants to play.

Any athlete with an ounce of competitive drive wants to play through injury if at all possible. This sensationalism is magnified when it comes to the Olympics. I think about how devastated soccer players must be to miss the World Cup; I believe that comparison applies here, albeit to a lesser degree.

Hernangómez has yet to publicly say anything on the matter besides retweeting a couple of tweets from his brother, Willy Hernangómez, and Pau Gasol.

It will be fascinating to watch just how exactly Hernangómez’s frustration with Rosas and the Timberwolves plays out as we head into the regular season. Despite spurts of reliability, Hernangómez is not a star player. And if last season was any indicator, he was hardly even a role player for the Timberwolves. He does not have any leverage with the franchise, and a holdout or a trade request would almost be welcomed in some fan circles.

Regardless, Hernangómez’s Olympic dream is over. It is unfortunate, but the injury bug holds out for no man. Hopefully, his frustration simmers by the time the next NBA season rolls around. The Timberwolves need the best version of Hernangómez they can get.

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