"Right on time
Suns' Stoudemire poised to return on schedule
Posted: Thursday January 5, 2006 12:44PM; Updated: Thursday January 5, 2006 12:44PM
Amaré Stoudemire's return to the practice court recently raised hopes he might return to the court as more than an observer soon.
PHOENIX -- Amaré Stoudemire strolled onto the Suns practice court Wednesday, picked up a basketball from a rack and immediately started hoisting 15-footers.
Clad in orange practice shorts and a gray Suns T-shirt, Stoudemire knocked down a few shots flat-footed. He then stood under the basket and flipped in a few casual layups. Finally, after a little banter with team trainer Aaron Nelson, it was time to move to the foul line for his daily 100 free throw attempts.
Swish. Swish. Swish.
When he was finished, Stoudemire had sunk 88 of 100 free throws. Not bad. On the team's recent five-game road trip, according to Nelson, Stoudemire hit 88 (in Chicago) and 90 (New York).
OK, so maybe they were only free throws. But the fact that Stoudemire is back on the court at all -- just three months removed from microfracture knee surgery -- is encouraging nonetheless. The Suns won't say yet if their 6-foot-10 superstar power forward will be back by the All-Star break -- the team's original timetable -- but so far so good.
"I think I'm healing up pretty strong," Stoudemire said as his teammates straggled off the practice court. "I wouldn't say ahead of schedule. I think I'm right on schedule, and that's a great thing."
Since picking up a basketball two weeks ago, Stoudemire says he has had no pain in his injured left knee and that he's been moving better each day. On Wednesday team doctors looked at his most recent MRI, taken Tuesday, and declared the results positive. He has now had three MRIs since his surgery -- one per month -- and each has been encouraging.
On Wednesday Stoudemire began walking on a treadmill with an incline. On Thursday he starts light agility work. This weekend he will begin ball-handling drills. Next week he might begin shooting easy jump shots.
If all goes well, Stoudemire could be back on the court, running and absorbing contact, by the start of February. That would put him right on schedule for that hoped-for return after the All-Star break.
"I'm itching," he says. "But I'm still going to take my time and make sure I heal up before I get out there."
For the Suns, making sure Stoudemire is indeed 100 percent before coming back might be their biggest concern right now. Suns GM Bryan Colangelo and coach Mike D'Antoni both have stressed the need to take a cautious approach with their franchise player. "It's important he not only get to the right point physically," Colangelo notes. "There's also a mental and emotional process you need to overcome."
Suns guard Steve Nash says he believes Stoudemire understands the need to take a cautious route and not rush back. He also thinks the team's success -- the Suns were 20-11 after Wednesday's victory over the Sixers -- also should help alleviate some of the pressure.
"I think we've done a good job," Nash says. "We easily could have 23 wins right now. I think a lot of people thought we'd be long forgotten by now without Amaré but I think we're still leading our division.
"We're winning games so it's not like he has to rush back. I think he feels he can come back when he's ready."
It's possible that Stoudemire still might decide to take a cautious long-range approach and opt not to come back at all this season, but early indications are that he's anxious to return. He underwent surgery on Oct 11. The very next day, Nelson says, he began treatment. "It was hard for him at first because it's pretty monotonous, tedious, generic stuff," Nelson says.
But once he got into it, Nelson said Stoudemire attacked it like he does the rim. He was in at 10 a.m. every day, pretty much five days a week, for two or three hours at a time. He spent hours on a passive motion machine, restoring the strength in his legs, or wading with a life vest in the team's hydrotherapy pool, which features a 7-foot well.
Along the way Stoudemire tried his best to stay close to his teammates. He says he watched every game on TV ("from beginning to end") and jumped at the chance to travel with them on their recent five-game road trip. While injured players can sometimes feel like they're not a part of the team, he said the Suns' camaraderie made it easier.
"We've got a great group of guys," he says. "It was a lot of fun [being on the trip]. But I do want to get back out there. I'm a competitor so I want to play."
Nelson said Stoudemire's intensity and enthusiasm have picked up as he has continued to make progress. "Especially now, since he knows he's getting stronger," Nelson says. "He's feeling so much better about it. You can see the excitement building."
For NBA fans of course, Stoudemire's progress is big news. When he went down before the season, many felt the Suns' title hopes had gone down with him. Instead Phoenix has managed to remain among the league's elite and, as of Thursday, led the Pacific Division by two games.
In fact, Stoudemire is shaping up as an intriguing X-factor over the second half of the season. While he might still be a long way away from throwing down vicious dunks, his mere presence on the practice court these days is enough to make NBA fans in San Antonio nervous. If he returns to his All-Star form, it could elevate the Suns another notch, perhaps making them serious contenders to the Spurs in the West.
Especially if he's making his free throws. After all, Stoudemire was one of the NBA's leaders a year ago in free throw attempts. With him back in the lineup and cashing in at the stripe, the Suns -- already the NBA's highest-scoring team at 104.1 points per game -- could be even more potent offensively. Throw in a much-improved defense that currently ranks eighth in the NBA in field-goal percentage allowed (43.5), and it's no stretch to suggest a healthy Stoudemire could push Phoenix over the top.
"No doubt," Stoudemire says. "As soon as I get back, we're going for the title."