The signs were always there. It's just that nobody ever wanted to believe them.
Hyped up to be biggest, baddest thing since Hakeem, Ewing and Mutombo combined, Gregory Wayne Oden Jr., the crown jewel of the markedly talented 2006 recruiting class, started his career at the Ohio State University and was ready to embark on the long, fulfilling road towards basketball greatness.
There was only one problem: He was injured.
The signs were always there. It's just that not everyone wanted to believe them. Not yet, at least.
A product of the greater Washington, D.C. area, Kevin Durant emerged king of one of basketball's most fertile developmental regions. Still growing into his spidery 6'9" frame, the Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year boldly stepped into the national spotlight as a McDonald's All-American. At the time, he was not the most physically imposing player. Not by a long shot.
There's no doubt, however, that Durant left quite an imprint on the minds of scouts, fans and general managers everywhere as his brilliant performance in the McDonald's All-American game (25 points in only 18 minutes) earned him Co-MVP honors.
The 2006-07 NCAA basketball season proved to be quite fruitful for both these young men. Oden, who had formed a superstar tandem with his high school point guard, Mike Conley Jr., sent shockwaves throughout the rest of the country with his stellar gameplay at Ohio State when he recovered from injury.
His debut, in which he came off the bench, resulted in a 14-point, 10-rebound and five-block performance. Almost immediately, Oden became a double-double machine, easily becoming one of the most feared big man in college basketball.
As efficient as coach Thad Matta's well-oiled Buckeyes machine may have been, they were constantly being overshadowed by one story. A story that, no matter how hard opposing defenses tried to prevent it from appearing in headlines, had absolutely no interest in shying away from a front-page thunderstorm.
January 6th, 2007: Texas freshman Kevin Durant scores 37 points, grabs 16 boards in win against Colorado.
January 16th, 2007: 37 points, 12 rebounds. Is this routine or something?
January 31st, 2007: Durant puts up yet another 37-spot, scoring half his team's points as Texas narrowly defeats Texas Tech, 76-74. Oh yeah, he also had 23 rebounds.
Durant would go on to have 11 30-plus point games. Which, if you've forgotten your manners, is downright uncalled for.
That year, Oden never had a 30-point game, nor did he ever eclipse 20 rebounds.
Enter NCAA Tournament.
Oden, the monster of the midway, was the perceived leader of the title-contending Buckeyes squad whose season-long onslaught of the Big 10 merited Matta's team a No. 1 seed. The Texas Durants (I mean, Longhorns) were a fourth seed.
In the second round against USC, Durant had a pretty good game: 30 points on 11-of-24 shooting and nine boards. Texas still lost by 20.
Many of us remember what happened to the Ohio State Buckeyes in their second-round bout vs. the ninth-seeded Xavier Musketeers. Coach Matta's former squad capitalized on Ohio State's sloppy play, ably handling Oden and company throughout the game. As the game drew to a close, Xavier found themselves up by three points with a chance to put the game out of reach at the free-throw line.
Miraculously, the prayers of the Buckeyes fans were answered. (If anything, watch it for the Gus Johnson factor.) OSU forced overtime and won a classic against a heartbroken Musketeer squad.
I'm pretty sure whoever picked that upset is still extremely, extremely bitter. I know my brother is, at least.
For all of this, Oden was not on the floor. He had fouled out. Rather, it was Conley, Washington and Daequan Cook who carried the Ohio State load.
Oden continued to be "half there, half amazing" during the Buckeye's Final Four run, putting up some gaudy statistics when he was there.
Then came the draft. Both players, All-Americans, declared eligibility. Durant was named to the first team. Oden was named to the second team.
Durant, who had put up arguably one of the most impressive single seasons in college basketball history, averaged 25.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg and also became the first freshman ever to win the Naismith Award.
Still, there were doubters.
Durant's body still hadn't caught up to him. Was he physically mature enough to bruise with the NBA's behemoths? The pre-draft combine didn't suggest so. There, the Durantula was unable to complete a single rep of 185 pounds on the bench press. The only player in the combine unable to do so.
If you watch the NFL, you'll know that bad combine numbers mean everything in April. If you watch the NFL, you'll know that bad combine numbers mean very little come October.
If the city of Portland had had a football franchise, maybe things would have turned out differently.
As we all know, the Blazers selected Oden No. 1, the prospect with a future brighter than a Las Vegas neon sign reading "Can't Miss." The Supersonics, a struggling franchise in more ways than there are rainy Seattle days, were forced to settle with the leftovers.
Like refrigerated next-day Chinese food, the leftovers, we would later learn, were actually better. Much, much, ever so "muchly-much" better.
The tragedy of Oden originates here. Perceived to be the savior of Portland, the gentle giant arrived in the Northwest ready to make a difference, ready to reinvigorate a franchise of players who, in the previous half-decade, had spent almost as much time in police custody as they did winning basketball games. Oden, a man of nearly flawless character, represented the complete antithesis of that sort of sculduggery. He was the complete package.
Yet, the Blazers ignored something. In very fine print, this package was labeled, "Fragile: Handle with Care."
Meanwhile, Durant arrived in Seattle with a reception not all too far removed from that befitting an Olympic silver medalist. I don't think he noticed, or cared. He just played.
During the 2007-08 season, Durant broke the Supersonics' 40-year-old single-season rookie scoring record by averaging 20.3 points per contest. He was named Rookie of the Year. It wasn't even close.
During the 2007-08 season, Oden did not play a single game. He was injured.
We all know the rest of the story from here. The Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City, where Durant would completely turn around the formerly irrelevant franchise within two years, earning an NBA scoring title to boot. He entered this season as the MVP front-runner. He's now in the same conversations as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade. Or rather, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are in the same conversations as Kevin Durant. Too soon? Maybe not.
In 2008-09, Oden's rookie season, the big man averaged 8.9 points, 7.0 boards and 1.1 blocks. His formidability was still intact. After all, he was still Greg Oden. That season, Oden missed 21 games due to injury.
Last season, Oden's numbers improved, averaging 11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. On December 5th, Oden suffered a knee injury and has not played a game since.
Now out for the season yet again, Oden will have played a grand total of one NBA season since entering the league.
Durant has missed a grand total of 10 games in three-plus years in the NBA.
Kevin Durant's career statline: 25.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, .9 bpg, All-Rookie First Team, Rookie of the Year, 2009-2010 All-Star, 2009-10 Scoring Champion, 2009-10 All-NBA First Team, 2010 FIBA World Championship MVP.
Greg Oden's career statline: 9.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, .6 apg, 1.4 bpg.
How could two top picks go in such different directions?
They say that hindsight is 20/20. Only thing is, I cannot seem to find Greg Oden.