Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski overcame staph infection in a bulging disk that threatened his life

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — He’s the second-leading scorer and rebounder for Gonzaga, a 7-foot-1 rim protector who the Zags run offense through that doubles as the most important player on the roster not named Nigel Williams-Goss.

And 15 months ago that there were doubts about whether or not Karnowski would be able to walk again, whether or not he would be able to keep his left leg.

It all started on Dec. 1st of 2015. During a practice the day before Gonzaga was scheduled to play Washington State. Karnowski was knocked off balance while in the air and landed squarely on his back. He ended up sitting out the game against the Cougars, and within days, it got to the point that he was bedridden, struggling to fold his frame into the shower, let alone get into a car or walk around campus and go to class.

“It was mostly my lower back, maybe a little bit going to my legs, but basically any movement that made my disc have pressure was painful,” Karnowski said. “I don’t wish any of that happen to my worst enemy, it was that kind of pain.”

The staff initially thought that Karnowski would miss a week or two, certainly on schedule to make it back before the end of the season, but Karnowski kept getting worse.

“It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “He’s dropping a bunch of weight and profusely sweating in his bedroom. It’s bizarre. They do another test a couple weeks later, another MRI, and the doctor came out and was like, ‘This can’t even be the same guy. From two weeks ago until now, how is this so different?'”

Turns out, ‘Przemmy’ had a staph infection.

In his back.

“Nobody knew,” Lloyd said. “He had a staph infection inside a bulged disc. The staph ate through the disc, and it looked like [an] oyster, that’s what the disc looked like. It was totally fried. Gone. That’s what was causing the illness, the weight loss.”

The medical staff discovered the staph infection when Karnowski showed them an abscess that had developed on his left calf. By the time the Gonzaga team doctor got a glimpse of it, the abscess was 10 centimeters long, three centimeters wide, four centimeters deep and hot to the touch.

“It was a nasty puss pocket,” Lloyd said.

It was staph.

The scar on Karnowski’s leg. (Rob Dauster/NBC Sports)

That’s when they knew that Karnowski needed surgery, and quickly. Within a day, Karnowski was going under the knife. By the time the surgery was done, Karnowski was down from 310 pounds to 238 pounds, including the two titanium plates that are now fused to his spine. The concern for Karnowski was no longer whether or not he would be back before the end of the season. Not only was his basketball career potentially over, the presence of staph meant that Karnowski could lose his leg, if not his life.

“Obviously it wasn’t the most fun time of my life,” Karnowski said.

The surgery went as well as could have been hoped, but that was only the start of the battle.

Karnowski had lost more than 70 pounds. He was bedridden for a month before he underwent invasive surgery on his back.

“He went on a nine month deal of heavy antibiotics,” Lloyd said. “He was literally on an IV bag for four months, carrying around an IV bag. They had a nurse come to his house and do fluid stuff with him. They were pumping antibiotics directly into him.”

By the time Karnowski was ready to start rehab, it was still unclear whether or not he would be able to continue his basketball career.

“The doctor was confident,” Lloyd said. “No guarantees, this isn’t normal, but he said the stuff I put in him, that ain’t gonna go wrong. Those brackets, they’re titanium. It’s how the rest of his body responds.”

And that’s where things got tricky.

“There really isn’t a protocol for a guy that’s 300 pounds and plays this level of basketball with metal plates in his back,” athletic trainer Travis Knight said. “There wasn’t a precedence.”

The process started with rehab on one or two days a week, whatever Karnowski was able to handle.

“We were just cautiously adding another thing each week and see if there’s a set back,” Knight said. “‘Rate your soreness, rate your back’. It’s OK if his soreness is a 6 or a 7 as long as his back is a 3 or a 4.”

From there, the next step was to slowly build up Karnowski’s core strength and flexibility, doing things as simple as re-teaching him how to stand up and pick things up off the ground. Karnowski is big enough that he didn’t need to use weight to start building strength — “If he’s doing a body weight exercise, that’s like other guys doing a crazy amount of weight,” Knight said — but he had to start from the beginning when it came to the form and technique on those lifts.

“He relearned how to lift better than he ever did before, because he couldn’t take those things for granted anymore,” Knight said. “When he learned how to stabilize, now all the other movements he made were better. then we got into jumping, jump rope and running, it was about two months for that.”

Eventually, Karnowski turned a corner no one expected him to. In June, he made a trip to the doctor who told him that not only could he start running and jumping, but he was cleared to play 5-on-5 if he needed to play 5-on-5.

That created another obstacle for Karnowski to work through: trusting his body. Would he still be willing to do box jumps? Would he still be willing to battle for position or dive on the floor for a loose ball?

“It took a while to trust my body because it’s been such a long surgery and a lot of stuff that impacted my body,” Karnowski said.

But he got there.

“He wasn’t going to be afraid of this thing. It wasn’t going to hold him back, he was going to go for it,” Knight said.

And it didn’t.

By October, Karnowski was going full court. By opening night, he was playing in college basketball games. Today, he’s prepping to play in the Final Four by notching 12.2 points and 5.8 boards while averaging 23 minutes a night.

In less then a year, he went from possibly losing his leg to starting at center for a team with a real shot to win a national title.

“What he went through last year, with his back injury where we didn’t think he was ever going to walk again normally and just function, I mean, getting in and out of a car and doing things like that, to now moving and playing the way he is?”

“It’s a miracle.”

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.

A record $439 million was bet on basketball in March in Las Vegas

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The month of March was quite friendly to Las Vegas.

According to ESPN, more money was bet on basketball during the month of March than in any month in the state’s regulated sports betting history.

And while the numbers produced by Las Vegas books don’t separate college and professional basketball betting, the money coming in on college hoops is pretty clear: $439 million was bet on basketball in March, more than double the $213 million bet on the sport in February.

It was profitable, too.

Those Vegas books kept more than $40 million dollars of the money that was gambled on basketball, which shattered the previous record of roughly $28 million in winnings.