COLUMBIA, S.C.—A mere 13 days ago, Marques Bolden came clattering to the ground on a fruitless block attempt. After his left knee collided squarely with the stanchion under the basket, the pain was visible as Bolden lay on the hardwood.
If not for the the help of Justin Robinson and Antonio Vrankovic, Bolden might not have made it off the Dean Dome floor on his feet.
"It’s scary," Bolden said when asked what he was thinking in the moment just after getting injured. "It’s a knee—you can never really tell how bad it’s going to be."
Clearly, the junior's MCL sprain wasn't as severe as initially thought.
Bolden returned to the Duke lineup Friday night for the Blue Devils' NCAA tournament opener at Colonial Life Arena, playing 17 minutes in a comfortable win. Although the DeSoto, Texas, native was not particularly impactful on either end—Bolden scored just two points, hitting only one of his three shots from the field, and collected three boards—it was clear he was just happy to be back.
"It was kind of tough because I had played every game this season," Bolden said. "For me to get hurt, it was just something that hadn’t happened this year, but it’s happened in past years, so I just tried to stay positive myself and my teammates stepped up."
Bolden is no stranger to the injury bug. As a freshman, he didn't play until December, dealing with a lingering leg issue. And after coming to Durham as a five-star center, Bolden played more than 20 minutes just once during his rookie season.
Last year, Bolden missed nearly a month with a right knee injury, sitting out seven games during the first half of ACC play. When he came back, he never scored double-figure points and also played more than 20 minutes just once.
"Sad to say, it wasn’t anything that I’m not used to," Bolden said.
Injuries aren't anything unfamiliar to Duke this season, either. Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and Zion Williamson have all missed games, each with different ailments.
A common thread, though, has been the recovery time.
Jones' separated shoulder looked to be a multi-week absence—he returned to the floor 12 days later. Williamson's knee was certainly scary, and could have been much worse given the 285 pounds of force—the Blue Devils' superstar missed less than a month.
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Watching Bolden hobble to the locker room three games ago, one could have very easily thought his season was done. The thought of him being back for the first game of the NCAA tournament? Very unlikely.
"Even the next day, how sore he was, I was still nervous about when he was going to be able to come back," Jones said.
Much of the credit for Bolden's return goes to the Duke medical staff, led by head trainer Jose Fonseca and Nick Potter, assistant director of athletic rehab. Jones, who underwent several different treatments with Potter, knows the value of the guys that helped get him back on the floor.
"[Nick] sacrifices his time just to make sure we’re good, so just the amount of time and how much they care about us and our well-being is what truly matters," Jones said. "It’s tough being out. You start to feel a little pressure from everyone asking and waiting for you to come back, but Duke does a great job not pressuring you to come back and making sure you just focus on your health and come back 100 percent."
Of course, it wasn't all positive news on the injury front. Just as Bolden was healing up during the ACC tournament, classmate Jack White tweaked his hamstring, relegating the Australian to the sidelines for the final 10 minutes of the title game and the entirety of the Blue Devils' NCAA opener.
"It was midway through the second half. I was just a bit tired and I went to stretch my hamstring, and I bent down and heard a pop," White said. "I’d never had an injury like that before. But as soon as I heard the pop, it was pretty apparent something was wrong."
The junior said that a postgame ultrasound showed a slight tear, but nothing severe.
"It’s getting better every day. It’s one of those things you have to monitor and look after and worry about," White said.
With White not yet able to sprint fully, it's unlikely he'll be ready for Duke's second-round matchup Sunday.
But as Jones explained, there's always opportunity to grow, even when in sweats.
"I hate sitting out," Jones said. "I always want to be out there with my guys, helping them. So you get the itch, but when you’re out, you also get to learn the game from a different angle."