After playing last season in China, former NBA No. 1 pick Greg Oden officially retired from professional basketball. You would be forgiven if you are not overly familiar with Oden’s career — because calling his tenure in the NBA a career would be a generous use of the word.
By all accounts — especially those of the Portland Trail Blazers — Oden’s career was a disappointment, especially considering who the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft was: Kevin Durant. Oden recently admitted he would probably go down as the biggest bust in NBA history, but Durant rebuked that notion, saying Oden did not get a fair shot given his injury-plagued tenure.
From 2007 to 2015, Oden played in just over 100 games and spent three consecutive years, 2010-2013, recovering from various knee injuries. This entire saga raises the question of what constitutes a bust.
Busts undoubtedly exist in all sports, predominately the NBA and the NFL, and some are less controversial than others. Ultimately, I agree with Durant: Oden is not a bust, because the factors that contributed to his lack of success were beyond his control — he was not healthy for a long enough period to prove himself.
In Oden’s defense, he did show promise when he was on the court during his first two seasons. On a per game basis, Oden averaged nine points and seven rebounds during his rookie season, and those figures increased to 11 points and 8.5 rebounds his second season, before injuries began to take hold. This shows that Oden was at least making progress and had the ability to learn and improve over time.
Some telltale signs of a bust are the player’s inability to improve over time or an irretrievable, fatal flaw. For example, Kwame Brown is widely regarded as a major bust, because he lacked mental toughness. Even though it is almost a joke — almost being the key word — in basketball circles that Michael Jordan’s merciless taunting essentially ruined his career before it began, it did expose a fatal flaw from which Brown could never really recover.
Another example from the NFL is Rick Mirer. At Notre Dame, Mirer was essentially labeled the next Joe Montana as he oversaw the last great era of Fighting Irish success. He was drafted with the second pick in the 1993 draft by Seattle, and then teams discovered his Achilles’ heel: Mirer couldn’t throw to his left. Defenses stacked the box and pressured him from the right, and Mirer’s career was never even close to justifying the hype he received coming out of college.
Oden had no such flaw that he could control. Before he could play his first NBA game, Oden had to have season-ending microfracture surgery on his right knee, and, for any center, that would be a career-threatening injury. NBA history is clear in that, when a center’s knees begin to go, the end of his career is near. It happened to David Robinson; it happened to Patrick Ewing, and it happened to Greg Oden. The only obvious difference is that Robinson and Ewing were already hall of famers at that point, while Oden had yet to play a game. Microfractures are also notoriously difficult to overcome, especially in the NBA, considering the amount of consistent stress that is placed on the knees.
A medical study reported that around 20 percent of NBA players who underwent microfracture surgery never played another full season. Oden underwent his second microfracture operation in November of 2010. Essentially, Oden was one of the 20 percent, which is not necessarily his fault, but he was just the unfortunate victim of recurring bad luck.
From a much more cynical perspective, it is still possible to consider Oden a bust. That is if being a bust simply means that a player never lived up to the hype coming out of high school or college and did not have a career that justified a high draft pick.
To be sure, there are many busts who fit into this category precisely. Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russell and Sam Bowie come to mind from the NFL and NBA. Injuries, however, must be treated differently.
Sports are inherently risky, and there is only so much control a player can have over what happens to him on the court or on the field. Rehabilitation from injury is never a guaranteed process, and some players, like Oden, are just unfortunate victims of the process failing.
Hindsight is always 20-20, but, at the time, no one could fault Portland for taking Oden over Durant. What the Trail Blazers saw in Oden’s college play was on display early in his career, but injuries and sheer luck prevented him from reaching his full potential. There will always be players who will be considered busts, but Greg Oden should not be counted among them.
Michael Ippolito is a senior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.
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