Last week’s NBA draft introduced a three-word phrase into sports lexicon that is sure to evoke anxiety for players, agents, and teams. These three words turned players thought to be sure things into huge question marks. The phrase? Medical red flag.

In a recent article for The Post and Courier, Travis Sawchik explained how rumors of cartilage damage in the knee of former Clemson standout Da’Quan Bowers caused his NFL draft stock to plummet. Two college basketball stars might have been similarly hurt in the NBA draft.

BasketballIn his two years at Ohio State, Jared Sullinger was a first-team All-American. In March, he led the Buckeyes to the NCAA East Regional championship and a berth in the Final Four. Perry Jones III, a star at Baylor, was a McDonald’s and Parade All-American out of high school in Dallas.

Both Sullinger and Jones were thought to be top-five draft picks prior to this season. So why did these can’t-miss prospects tumble down the draft board?

In the week leading up to the draft, rumors spread that the Ohio State sophomore had been medically red flagged. While Sullinger had missed only two games in his final season due to back spasms, teams speculated that his back condition could shorten his career. He fell to the 21st pick by the Boston Celtics.

Danny Ainge, President of Basketball Operations for the Celtics, acknowledged that Sullinger’s back does bring risk. Ainge said, “We did our research on the back issues and felt comfortable, but there are some issues there and our medical staff thinks that short term and long term, there may be some maintenance issues with the back.”

Jones dropped even further, down to the 28th pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Teams feared that he had a meniscus issue in his knee that might require surgery. Thunder general manager Sam Presti liked enough of what he saw from Jones at the NBA draft combine in Chicago to take a chance, even if he needs surgery. “We’ve looked at all the information that we’ve had available and we wouldn’t have selected him unless we felt comfortable with all of the information,” Presti said.

The financial implications to the players are huge. Under the collective bargaining agreement, the rookie salary scale is mostly determined by draft position. Darren Rovell, CNBC’s sports business reporter, tweeted during the draft that Sullinger’s injury would cost him about $2 million over two seasons. And if a player falls out of the first round, the impact is more significant. Second-round picks are not guaranteed contracts at all.

But the risks to the teams are enormous as well. Fans only need to look to the Portland Trail Blazers for evidence. Fans remember how the team infamously picked Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984. Instead of drafting the player who arguably would become the best ever, the team selected one who missed two entire seasons at Kentucky due to injury. Bowie went on to have a lackluster, injury-filled career. Not surprisingly, ESPN refers to it as the worst draft pick in the history of North American sports.

Basketballs on rackIn recent years, the Blazers chose Greg Oden with the number one pick in the 2007 draft ahead of superstar Kevin Durant. Oden underwent the first of his four knee surgeries before he ever played in an NBA game. After five seasons where he only played 82 games, the team released him. While Brandon Roy, the Blazers’ sixth pick in 2006, did become an All-Star, he retired after five years due to bone-on-bone arthritis in his knee.

But teams and their doctors who try to predict the future are often wrong. In 2009, Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair dropped all the way into the second round because of concerns that both of his knees lacked functional anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs). He has been a consistent starter for the San Antonio Spurs in his three seasons in the league.

In my opinion, we are witnessing the future of professional sports, as teams will work to make player evaluations a science. Teams soon could use statistical models and new technology to decrease their risk. Maybe they would obtain MRIs of every body part, even if the player has never been injured. Maybe doctors would perform thorough heart studies or genetic testing to identify silent cardiac conditions. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I don’t think we have seen the last “medical red flag.”

Note: This post appears as my sports medicine column in the July 5, 2012 issue of The Post and Courier.