Originally written on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 7/22/13
05

When you think of the greatest centers of all time, which names pop into your head? Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Hakeem, Shaq, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Patrick Ewing, Timofey Mozgov (kidding… just seeing if you were paying attention), and David Robinson are among the rare few. There was one fundamental ability that each of these guys had that allowed them to be great. What was it? Their incredible offensive production? Their huge rebounding outputs? No, it doesn’t have much to do with their knack for putting up big numbers. Their leadership skills? Can’t be… look at Wilt and O’Neal, two of the worst teammates of all time. How about their affinity for winning championships? They were all able to lead their respective teams to the Promised Land, except for Ewing. It’s not the rings, though—it’s more basic than that. Perhaps their height? Getting closer, but still no. The answer I was looking for was their abilities to stay healthy. This notion may seem rather simple, but remaining relatively injury-free over the course of a career is an extremely difficult task for these types of mammoth athletes. Teams put a premium on having a legitimate threat at the center position. The widely accepted belief throughout NBA history is that having one will automatically put you in contention for an NBA championship. This is why teams will take such extreme risks on draft night to select the next franchise center. The potential reward is through the roof. The risk is an injury-plagued bust who would have more use cleaning the gutters than on the basketball court. Teams are willing to look past that if it means striking gold. That is why, when the Portland Trail Blazers were given Jacks Sparrows's magical compass in 2007 (the No. 1 pick of the year’s draft), giving them the directions to find what they wanted most in this world, the needle arrow thingy pointed towards Ohio. Even before Greg Oden played one year at Ohio State, he had been deemed the next great center. He was a 19-year-old, seven-foot tall phenom who towered over and dominated everyone he played against. Oden, after missing the first seven games of his lone collegiate season due to a wrist injury he suffered in high school, burst on to the scene and tallied 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocks off of the bench. Oden finished the season averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks on 62% shooting. As a freshman! Not to mention he was First Team All-Big Ten and a consensus All-American (again, as a freshman). His Buckeyes lost the NCAA championship game to Joakim Noah and the Florida Gators, but Oden was well on his way to becoming an NBA superstar. Oden promptly declared for the 2007 NBA draft, after only one season at school. It wasn’t a matter of when Oden was going to be picked, since nearly everyone penciled him in as being taken No. 1 overall, but which team he would play for. Portland had the first pick and desperately needed a center. They already had a promising young shooting guard in 2006 rookie of the year Brandon Roy, who was looking for a partner to lead the team back into contention, and Oden would be the perfect complement. Could anything stop the Blazers from selecting Oden? Kevin Durant from the University of Texas had also entered the NBA draft. Durant was the Naismith College Player of the Year, but people around the league claimed that he did not have the NBA build. His high volume scoring ability was noted (he averaged 26 points per game, also as a freshman), but he was far too lanky, and would most definitely be pushed around by bigger guys. Plus, Oden was just too good to pass up. Potential franchise centers come around once every decade or so, and the Blazers weren’t going to let his opportunity slide. What about mistakes from the past? Could those have prevented the Blazers from taking Oden? When I say “mistakes,” I am referring to the single most colossal mistake in NBA history that changed the complexion of the league forever. With the second pick of the 1984 NBA draft, Portland selected an injury-prone center by the name of Sam Bowie. Bowie was a promising college player, yet missed two seasons with a mysterious shin bone injury. The Blazers had no problem picking him, and Bowie found himself constantly on the bench in a suit and tie. He played in 76 games his first year, but never in more than 38 in the rest of his tenure with the Blazers. From '86-'89, he managed to suit up only 25 times, and was traded after five years with the team. Bowie’s injuries, as well as the development of the guy whom the Blazers had decided to pass up (Michael Jordan, who was well on his way to becoming the greatest player of all time), effectively made him the biggest bust in NBA history. You would think (and hope) the Blazers took this into consideration when deciding who to draft in 2007, but their weakness for centers got the best of them. They selected Oden, bad health history and all. Everyone in Portland and around the NBA couldn’t wait to see Oden take the floor for the first time. However, their excitement would be put on hold due to a knee injury that Oden suffered in the pre-season, forcing him to have surgery and miss the entire season. Fans were certainly disappointed. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant tore it up and won Rookie of the Year honors for the Seattle SuperSonics. All Oden could do was watch from the sidelines. After his failed rookie season, Oden was determined to come back strong and prove wrong all of those people questioning whether or not he should have been selected number one the previous year. In the first game of the year, Oden got his first career minutes of NBA action under his belt. However, his debut was cut short when he injured his toe. Oden returned in November of the same season and scored his first two official points against the Miami Heat. In January of 2009, Oden put up his career high in scoring as he dropped a 24-15 line against the Milwaukee Bucks. He certainly caught the attention of the league, and you can only imagine how much SportsCenter talked about him the next day. It appeared as though Oden was finally living up to his expectations. However, those thoughts were put on hold when Oden chipped a bone in his kneecap in February, forcing him to miss three weeks. Oden ended up averaging 8.9 points, 7 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks during the 2008-2009 season. He played 61 games, which constitutes almost three-fourths of his time on an NBA court. Oden looked to build on his solid 2008-2009 “rookie season,” and in a game in early December 2009, he set a personal record for rebounds with 20. Perhaps a window was opening for Oden again. However, four days later, he severely injured his left knee, fracturing his patella tendon. He missed the remainder of the 2009-2010 season, and for Oden, another year went down the drain. Since 2009, Greg Oden has not played a single NBA game. He has been relegated to 'Good Dude, Awful Situation' status. He is remembered, at least in my mind, as the 40-year old looking teenager who took college basketball by storm and was anointed a future NBA star. After college, there aren't many memories of Oden, except his constant injuries, a hilarious ESPN Magazine commercial, his pitch to host the ESPY’s, and images of him sitting in a suit and tie on the bench. More importantly, and unfortunately, he is a bust, no different than the other former No. 1 overall pick centers who have suffered the same fate. He’s a Michael Owolokandi, Andrea Bargnani, Kwame Brown, or even a Sam Bowie. He fits the Bowie bill more than the rest since he was chosen over one of the best players in basketball (Kevin Durant). Now Oden's trying to make a comeback, and teams around the league are taking notice, as so far the Spurs, Heat, Mavs, Kings and Pelicans have all expressed interest. Nobody can really be certain how healthy he is, but for the chance to get a potential franchise center like Oden, teams are willing to take the risk. I don’t think this comeback is going to work, but I believe it is possible that he can have a significant impact as a role player on a team like the Miami Heat. His minutes need to be limited and his role can't stretch beyond occasional defense and energy guy, but if used correctly, he could still have an NBA impact. Greg Oden, like Sam Bowie, was once considered the future of the NBA. Instead, he became a piece of history designated for players whose expectations fell way short (which is not his fault at all, since injuries and not ability slowed him down). Oden deserves a career in the NBA that exceeds 82 games, the amount he has played in over five years in the league. Hopefully the 2013-2014 season will give Oden a new beginning—one that is not overwhelmed with expectations and money, but one that allows him to play the game he loves for an extended period of time. By: Macklin Stern

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