The Role of an NBA Team Physician

In any major sport, ensuring a team’s athletes are healthy and in top condition to perform at the highest level is of the utmost importance. That responsibility falls under that of the Team Physician. This individual must possess a unique set of skills and have the appropriate education and experience in order to qualify to provide the best medical care possible for elite athletes.

HSS orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Riley Williams, is the Medical Director and Head Team Physician for the Brooklyn Nets. We sat down with him to learn more about his role in helping keep players healthy and get them back on the court quickly following injury.

Can you share how the opportunity with the Nets came about?

I worked as a fellow with the New York Giants and Dr. Russell Warren, where I was able to work directly with, and treat professional athletes. After my fellowship had ended, I had an opportunity to work with Dr. David Altchek and the New York Mets in a similar capacity, and from there I was approached by the Nets to take on the role of medical director and head team physician. I grew up as a sports fan, especially basketball, and I was flattered and excited to be presented this opportunity and have been proud to work with the team since 2005.

What is a typical day in the life of a team physician? What are you responsible for?

With 82 games in a regular season, there is a lot that you are responsible for in-season, during the offseason, and prior to a new season beginning. At the beginning of training camp, I’ll conduct entrance physicals in early September and monitor the players’ health throughout the month as we lead in to the pre-season. The season then begins in late October and I will attend all of the home games and be available to evaluate and treat both the home and visiting teams. I receive daily player reports from the medical staff, review them for team communications, and maintain regular dialogue with both the coaches and players. At the end of the season, we’ll conduct exit interviews and physicals, and any player who needs surgery will typically have it performed immediately after the season ends to ensure they have enough time to rehab and recover before the start of the next season.

What are the most common injuries you see?

Throughout the course of the season we see many injuries, particularly non-operative ones such as ankle and foot sprains and strains. It’s also common for players to sustain hand and shoulder injuries, as well as knee injuries such as meniscus tears. For those players who are in the latter stages of their career, or are just working back to get into game shape following the offseason, it’s not uncommon to have to address spine-related issues for pain associated with the lower back.

How can these athletes best prevent injuries?

Focusing on your diet, strength & conditioning, and position-specific requirements can help prepare you for a long season, but it’s very hard to prevent an injury from ever occurring. What we are seeing, though, is an expansion of how analytics is being used to help provide useful insights both pre-injury and post-injury. For example, we will look at the amount of minutes a player spends on the court, how they perform over that time, and analyze how these statistics change if a player stayed on the court and played through pain versus how they perform post-surgery.

How is working with professional athletes similar to treating non-professionals?

Whether you are a professional or non-professional athlete, it’s important to provide the same level of care for each patient. Every individual case presents a different set of variables, whether it be their height, weight, type of injury sustained, and medical history, among others. All of these factors come into play when evaluating a condition and determining the appropriate treatment, but the quality of the care I provide is to the best of my ability regardless of who the patient may be.

Any particular moment as a team physician that stands out more than others?

Having the opportunity to treat Paul George was a huge, seminal moment. Within minutes of his injury, you have a clear management and understanding of the injury and what’s required from a rehab standpoint. It’s satisfying to see him back with no issues. He’s seen me a few times since surgery and he’s been a very good and gracious patient.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

Growing up, I played football and baseball, followed basketball, and even now I try to work out every day. Sports has always been a big part of my life, and my practice. I’m a sports guy, and it makes life easy when you love what you do.

Riley Williams Headshot

Dr. Riley J. Williams III is the Medical Director & Head Team Physician for the Brooklyn Nets & New York Red Bulls. He is also the Team Physician for USA Basketball and works as the Team Physician for the Iona College Department of Athletics.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.