As LeBron James hints of an early return, medical experts say he’s not falling to Father Time yet

As he screamed in pain, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James no longer appeared indestructible.

Nearly three weeks ago, Atlanta Hawks guard Solomon Hill dove for a loose ball and struck James’ right ankle. Moments after staying on the floor and making a 3-pointer, James left the floor, limped toward the locker room and winced with every step. The Lakers diagnosed James with a high ankle sprain, and he has not played since.

Does this mean that Father Time has finally delivered a knockout punch to the 36-year-old James during his 18th NBA season? Some pundits suggested so immediately following James' injury. On Thursday, however, James posted a cryptic Instagram message with various weather metaphors possibly related to his eventual return, "the weatherman says the weather is changing soon and it predicts a thunderstorm."

USA TODAY Sports also talked to various outside medical experts that expressed more optimism than concern about James' injury.  

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“I expect when he completely heals, he should be just like who he was before he got hurt,” said Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist and author of ‘That’s Gotta Hurt: The injuries that changed sports forever.’  “So short term, bad news. Long term, good news.”

The Lakers have largely struggled without James on-court production and leadership. 

The Lakers (32-20) are No. 5 in the Western Conference and have gone 4-6 during James’ absence. That has coincided with Lakers forward Anthony Davis also missing the past 24 games after straining his right calf on Feb. 14. The Lakers have not offered an official timetable on when James and Davis will return.

Though the Lakers may lose home-court advantage for most or all of the playoffs, most NBA teams will only host games in front of limited fans because of ongoing restrictions with the coronavirus pandemic. With The Athletic reporting recently that James was expected to miss four to six weeks following his injury, medical experts considered that timeline as reasonable to heal his ankle.

“Once you rehab these injuries, there’s typically very little disability,” said Dr. Michael Castro, an orthopedic surgeon and foot/ankle specialist with Summit Orthopedics. “For the garden variety without any overlying instability, high ankle sprains can heal and not really result in any prolonged disability. The best you can do is give it adequate time to heal and for it to become stable.”

Granted, the medical experts that USA TODAY Sports spoke to have not worked with James or the Lakers and don’t have access to his medical records. The Lakers have not provided any detail about James’ progress with his rehab, either. But even if those outside medical experts stressed those caveats along with the uncertainties with healing from an injury, they mostly sounded bullish on James' return. 

“In the long run, players can usually come back and can eventually get back to their previous level of activity,” said Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, a foot and ankle surgeon with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute. “It’s not like an Achilles rupture where we would worry they may not be the same player. So with a high ankle sprain, I’m strongly optimistic he can get back and be highly skilled and talented to his previous level.”

The reason for the optimism? The medical experts mostly pointed to the Lakers’ long-term approach and James’ body of work.

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