In this piece, I’ll briefly explain the injury, how it happened, when to expect Powell back on the court, and if he’ll be the same player after returning.
What is the Achilles tendon?
The Achilles tendon connects the calf complex to the heel and is the strongest tendon in the body.
It’s involved in many movements including walking and running but comes under particular stress during explosive movements such as jumping or first-step acceleration.
How was it ruptured?
Powell’s injury occurred when he did a hesitation into a left-handed drive, stepping back with his right foot to push off and accelerate.
Replay of Dwight Powell's injury shows the shockwave go up his leg pic.twitter.com/yliNQpKTWO— The Render (@TheRenderNBA2) January 22, 2020
This motion puts a significant double stress on the Achilles tendon. It’s contracting while lengthening—known as eccentric contraction—to control the heel coming to the ground while storing elastic energy and contracting while shortening—known as concentric contraction—to push off the forefoot.
That stress was too high for the tendon to handle and it ruptured. This first step-acceleration mechanism of injury is a common culprit in Achilles ruptures with examples like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and Wesley Matthews rupturing their respective Achilles in the same manner.
When will Dwight be back?
The average return to play timeline after an Achilles rupture in professional athletes is roughly nine months but there tends to be some variance depending on contextual factors.
For example, recent examples include San Antonio Spurs wing Rudy Gay who came back in eight months whereas then Golden State Warrior DeMarcus Cousins took nearly a year to the day. Most recently, current Nets wing Kevin Durant will likely be held out the entire 2019-20 season after famously rupturing his Achilles against the Raptors in the 2019 Finals.
Considering Powell’s injury occurred in the middle of the season, he’s locked into a four-year, $37.3 million extension, and the Mavericks are focused on winning, I’d expect his recovery to fall more in line with Rudy Gay’s on an eight to ten month timetable.
Can he be the same player as before?
The research on pre- vs post- injury performance in professional athletes tells us that the the two year post-injury mark is the key. That’s the point at which pre- and post- injury levels of performance begin to resemble one another.
Therefore with Powell, I see next season as a re-acclimation period where I’d expect him to continue to regain fitness and confidence as the season wears on and then really begin to see the Powell we’ve become accustomed to in late 2021 into early 2022.
All along the way, Powell and the Mavs’ staff will have guard against him developing compensatory injuries and really focus on regaining side to side symmetry in his lower body, especially calf strength.
All in all, Powell can get back to being the same player, but it’s an extended, methodical process and we won’t have a clear answer until at least the 2021-22 season.
Dr. Rajpal Brar has a doctorate in physical therapy from Northern Arizona University, and runs his own sports medicine, mindfulness, and performance business, 3CB Performance, in West LA and Valencia, CA. Brar is additionally training at UCLA’s mindful awareness research center (MARC).