After already drawing comparisons to former Portland Trail Blazers draft pick Sam Bowie, the career arc of Greg Oden may end up looking extremely similar to that of the ill-fated center who worked his way back from injury to make a respectable career.
Bowie was the second pick of the 1984 draft following three years of solid, yet injury-plagued, ball at Kentucky where he averaged 13.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. He was taken a pick ahead of Michael Jordan, mainly due to the Blazers' need of a center and the fact that they already had a promising young shooting guard in Clyde Drexler.
Fast forward 23 years later and the Blazers are once again gifted with a high pick. This time, however, it was the No. 1 selection in what turned out to be a solid draft. They were left with the choice of taking a walking double-double that led his school to the national championship, Greg Oden, or a spindly shooter from Texas in Kevin Durant.
Aware of the injuries he had suffered prior to his drafting, the Blazers took a shot at Oden, while the Seattle Sonics selected Durant with the next pick. Also going within the first nine picks were Al Horford and Joakim Noah, two talented frontcourt players who were utterly demolished by Oden in the championship game they played a few months prior.
Once again, the Blazers had no need for a perimeter player. They had drafted Brandon Roy, the 2007 Rookie of the Year, the year before. Oden was going to help form one of the most volatile trios in the league playing alongside Roy and fellow 2006 draft pick LaMarcus Aldridge and returning this franchise to championship contention status.
We all know the story by now. That never happened. Oden sat out his entire rookie year due to microfracture surgery on his right knee. He made his NBA debut the following year and it would represent the most we have seen of his career.
Oden sporadically played 61 games, finishing with averages of 8.9 points, seven rebounds and 1.1 blocks per in nearly 22 minutes worth of action per game. He even managed to get in some playoff games, playing six games against the Houston Rockets and debuting with 15 points and five rebounds in a Game 1 loss.
He would start in Portland's season debut the next season, showcasing his size as he finished with 12 rebounds and five blocks in a nine-point victory over Houston. It would be against that same Houston team where we'd see Oden play his last regular-season game, needing surgery on his left patella, only a few nights after dropping 19 points and 20 rebounds in a loss to Miami.
It's been nothing but surgeries and setbacks since. He's only just made his return back to participating in full workouts and five-on-fives in practice. He has actually suited up and played, scoring two points on a dunk and grabbing two rebounds in four minutes in a Heat preseason game against New Orleans.
There have been no signs of a comeback occurring soon. Despite ranking dead last in rebounding, mainly because Miami doesn't miss many shots, the Heat have shown no signs of urgency in getting Oden on the court.
There's not any sort of need for it. It's entirely possible the Heat are saving Oden for a time where they may actually need him, possibly in a postseason series that features Roy Hibbert or Brook Lopez for seven games, but don't expect him on the court until there are absolutely no red flags.
At some point this season, Greg Oden is going to play in a regular-season basketball game for the first time since December 5, 2009. We will rejoice and speak highly of his ability to conquer adversity and the hunger he has to stage such an improbable comeback, albeit at the current age of 25, and then we will proceed to watch every second of the rest of his career holding our breath at the edge of our seat.
Imagine how tough it's going to be on Oden. As badly as he wants to play, the reason why he's gone to such great lengths for such a significant risk to his physical well-being, there's always going to be that threat looming in the back of his mind of what could possibly happen with one tweak or one wrong landing.
It's the mental instability that Oden will have to fight through. He's already proven that he can play, and for longer stretches on account of rigorous workouts that have helped him lose a great deal of weight, but his toughest competitor in the long run will be his mind.
Oden has only been signed for a year with the Heat, despite receiving offers elsewhere that would have granted him longer deals. When he made his choice, it was the prospect of playing with LeBron James and for coach Erik Spoelstra that truly enticed Oden into making his return with a Heat team that could reward him with his first championship, despite playing only 82 games since 2007.
What will be far more rewarding than a championship to Oden would be a chance to make a name for himself, other than the what-could-have-been stories or drawing such eerie comparisons to Bowie, the 7'1" center whose career was also plagued with injuries and thoughts of what could have been.
What most people don't realize about Bowie is that injuries only prevented him from becoming the player he could have been, which was possibly a perennial 20-10 guy helping Clyde Drexler lead the Blazers to a championships. Just like Bowie, that possibility of Oden's career is over, simply because there's too much of a risk in playing him the minutes needed to have such significant impacts.
It started in Bowie's second year when injuries began to ravage his career. After playing 76 games his rookie season, he only got in 38 games his second year due to a broken leg. His career started spiraling, featuring a third year where he played only five games and a fifth where he played only 20.
He missed his entire fourth year due to a right tibia injury that occurred before the game he was supposed to play in even started.
Bowie would be traded to the New Jersey Nets in the 1989 offseason and would surprisingly flourish. He started in 54 out of 68 games in his first year and averaged the lone double-double of his career following averages of 14.7 points and 10.1 boards per game.
Perhaps the most intriguing number in the second half of his career was the fact that he averaged at least 30 minutes of playing time per game for three consecutive seasons, while still playing at least 62 games.
In the four years he spent with the Nets, he played in at least 68 games of each season and started in at least 51 games each year, as well. It wasn't until he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers when his injuries became a problem again. He played only 25 games in 1994 and 67 in 1995, before retiring at the age of 33.
This is the type of career we're going to expect from Oden once he departs from the Heat, that is if he first proves himself durable and still capable of providing. He's going to get offers if he can run because he's a 7-footer who can eat up space and possibly provide more if healthy.
Just look at what happened this offseason. Oden hadn't played an actual NBA game in nearly four years and was getting multiple offers; even offers that were longer than the veteran's minimum deal he ended up taking.
As long as Oden can walk through that door, he'll be accepted from any team in need of a deterrent. After all, Oden only turns 26 years old in January, and there are plenty of teams out there with great medical staffs (Looking at you, Phoenix) and high hopes that would be willing to give him a shot.
Consider this year with Miami as an audition. If Oden proves anything at all, he'll be receiving lucrative offers that the Heat won't be able to bid on, unless he really wants to stay. Miami will have far larger problems in having to lure back their Big Three, which will leave the priority in re-signing Oden on the back burner.
It's going to be completely up to whichever team that signs him and their medical staff in just how much wear-and-tear Oden can withstand on a nightly basis. Even after so many surgeries and years of waiting, the Heat, who have a well-revered medical and training staff, are still cautious in having Oden play at all.
If Miami wanted to play him, it could have. There have been plenty of opportunities where a big man would have helped and the team refuses to even list him as active. He still has a long way to go before this team even thinks about giving him playing time.
It's November. The regular season in Miami doesn't even begin to pick up until February.
After this year, however, there is a significant chance Oden will be playing on a team that will play him in a rotation. Whether or not he'll end up playing 30 minutes per game and starting on a consistent basis as Bowie did decades ago will be completely up to the forces that decide when a player should get injured.
Until then, grit your teeth, shield your eyes and try to find a way to enjoy the ride.
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