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Dr. Riley Williams, Nets medical director, confident in NBA and Nets protocols

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2019 USA Basketball Men’s National Team Training Camp - Las Vegas Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Dr. Riley Williams III is the medical director of the Nets and the Red Bulls, both of which are playing in “bubbles” at Walt Disney World. The Hospital for Special Surgery orthopedist won’t be there, instead staying behind in New York using tele-health to communicate with both clubs’ trainers and performance teams.

And he’s fine with it ... and fine with the NBA and MLS protocols governing the return-to-play as he told Sports Illustrated recently.

“Now that I’ve got two teams in the bubble, our plan is to do a Zoom call and basically a remote-based training room encounter with the athletic trainers in the bubble and the PT staff and with the athletes. And I’ll be honest with you, it all feels quite natural. We’ve been re-acculturated and re-focused over these past three months to now accept these remote health encounters much more than we were back in March.”

Williams, who’s been Nets medical director for the last 16 seasons, told SI that he’s telling athletes that because of the leagues’ protocols —and their age and general health— the risk of them getting sick is limited...

“We seem to learn a lot more every week I’d say just from a pure safety standpoint. I’m fairly confident in the plan, which basically features social distancing and mask wearing off-court and off-pitch and 24/7 mask wearing by all ancillary staff. Then, the only real exposures are during play. It doesn’t eliminate risks, but, in both circumstances, I think it satisfactorily ameliorates risk to a point where I can look a player in the face and say, ‘Hey, you know, as long as you’re healthy and you got no predisposing conditions that you should be fine...’

“It’s really if these are really the asymptomatic carriers, it’s really family members, older family members at home that they could potentially affect in an open situation, which is then basically handled by keeping them in a bubble.”

And Williams emphasized that while he is employed by the professional teams, having a relationship with the players is critical to doing his job. As SI notes, Williams acted quickly and performed surgery on Paul George when he suffered a gruesome leg injury when playing for Team USA back in 2014. For his efforts, George has previously referred to Williams as, “My Hero.”

“It’s a multifaceted arrangement, right? Cause you’re often times working with a team relies upon you to help manage these athletes through injury. But at the same token, you have to approach it in such a way that inspires confidence in the individual athlete. I’m very fortunate to work with organizations that put a high priority on player health, and just prioritizing player health as a sound kind of long-term strategy with regards to their players.”

Williams performed Kyrie Irving’s shoulder impingement surgery back in March.

The Yale grad (who overlapped in New Haven with Joe Tsai) spoke as well about how the Nets have embraced the performance culture that integrates a variety of data in hopes of keeping players healthy and getting them back on the court when they do get hurt...

People hear about analytics and to me that’s just a fancy way of saying we’re much more outcomes-driven, data-driven, science-driven now then we were back then. There’s been a migration in all sports away from the athletic trainer-centric model, which was effective, it just wasn’t data driven. Now you have sports scientists and nutritionists and strength and conditioning, all sort of tied together under this umbrella of performance. It’s been amazing, over the past I’d say five to seven years, to see what a high-functioning performance team can do. They can concretely create value in players as well as, in a very significant way, design protocols and approaches that help to prevent injury. It’s been fascinating. It’s real. It’s not made up.”

Indeed, the Nets have Directors of Sports Science and Sports Medicine as well as a Physical Performance Coach, a Strength and Conditioning Coach, trainers and medical staff. The NBA and MLS have embraced data as well and it shows now that they’re in “bubbles”...

“The NBA and MLS again, kudos to them. They are very data-driven and it’s a minute-to-minute assessments of what’s happening on the ground. Day-to-day, I get memos from both leagues, pretty much once, sometimes, twice a day with regards to how they’re handling, what they’re observing. We’re learning, and I think that the experience here will help to frame what we’re able to do with sports down the line, collegiate and high school as well.”

Williams speaks as well as about amateur athletes and how they’re both similar and different from his professional patients.