Believing in “analytics” is a very basic idea that faces tons of scrutiny from old school basketball minds both well-respected (Phil Jackson) and not (Charles Barkley). But the idea behind it is “more information will lead to better results.” It’s pretty simple. Still, the buzzword is controversial. But dig a little deeper below the surface and you’ll find a less-frequently discussed practice that is equally contentious: Sports science.
The Sixers have bought into both ideas fully. And last year, they hired a couple of new staffers to help with the latter. There’s Head of Strength and Conditioning Todd Wright (the guy in the picture above who looks like the love child of Popeye and Kurt Angle), and there’s Dr. David Martin. Martin came to the Sixers from Australia, where he mainly used sports science to help cyclists. In Philly, he is tasked with fixing Joel Embiid.
In a fantastic piece from ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, Martin’s hiring was detailed:
The Sixers hired Martin in July as part of a three-year agreement to join the team. Within a few days, he was dispatched to come to Embiid’s rescue. The Sixers found out about Embiid’s troublesome MRI on Friday afternoon and by Saturday morning, Martin and Hinkie were on a flight from Philadelphia to LAX to meet with the doctor who diagnosed it. In the next few weeks, Embiid, Martin and the Sixers spoke with about a dozen doctors to decide which would be best for his full recovery. After Martin whittled the list down to two surgeons, Embiid made the final call to go with Dr. Martin O’Malley, who replaced two existing screws and performed a bone graft using bone from Embiid’s hip.
He was thrown right to the wolves, but he loved it. The day of Embiid’s prognosis “was a day that was very … exciting,” he told Haberstroh. “It was disappointing for Joel; I don’t want anyone to get hurt. But I kind of went home with the feeling like I had been preparing my whole life to help this guy.”
The sports science isn’t just for JoJo though. Okafor, Stauskas, and others rave about it. Ish Smith told Haberstroh he feels like “the Sixers are adding years onto [his] career.” Elton Brand said that he wishes teams had this technology when he came into the league.
The team uses Catapult tracking devices in practice, and combines that data with “algorithms from Second Spectrum to account for in-game workloads,” to determine if players need minute restrictions, rest, or are ready to go. It was “all powerlifting and squats [when I came into the league],” Brand says. “It was basically Gold’s Gym.”
But while all of these players are benefiting from the science of it all, Martin has a special focus on Embiid. Joel told Martin about his preference for Shirley Temples, but the doctor has “never seen him drink a Shirley Temple … never seen him weigh 300 pounds.” And they’re feeding him food that would make Chip Kelly proud:
Martin notes that Embiid has a personal chef now who has curated a healthier menu with a dietician specifically catering to Embiid’s taste and nutritional needs during rehab. The diet is enriched with proline, an amino acid that promotes bone and connective tissue growth. To get his Vitamin C, the Sixers had given him orange juice. Turns out, Embiid doesn’t like orange juice, but he loves mango juice. Now, the Sixers squeeze their own mangos in-house.
Embiid may never have a long and successful NBA career. Hell, he may never even play a game. But while he’s under their care, Dr. David Martin and the Sixers are gonna pump him full of vitamins and mango juice until all that’s left to do is cross their fingers.