Greg Oden Still Has a Future

Have you ever sprained an ankle? A couple weeks ago, I did playing some pickup hoops. I felt it immediately and, while I knew it wasn’t broken, I knew it was going to be a while before it healed. It sucked. It still sucks. Injuries are always awful, whether you’re an athlete or not. It still hasn’t healed completely and I feel weak because of it. It was tough enough for the first few weeks when I was crutching and hopping everywhere I went, but now, more than three weeks later, I thought I’d be doing just fine – and I’m not; and, to be honest, I don’t feel like myself because of it.

You probably know Greg Oden’s name by now. Even if you’ve never watched him play a minute of action, you probably know him as the injury-prone bust that was drafted out of Ohio State ahead of Kevin Durant in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. A week after my ankle sprain, it was announced that Oden would not be making his much anticipated return to the court this season and is instead scheduled to have micro-fracture surgery on his left knee. This is af­ter nearly a year’s worth of rehab to heal his broken left patella.

It happened December of last year. Oden went up to contest a layup against the Rockets, and collapsed in a heap on the floor. Going back further, his rookie season was derailed before it had even begun because of right knee surgery. Oden showed great promise in his 2008-2009 season. Statistically, he was showing the type of potential worthy of a first round pick. Sure he had some assorted health issues: some missed games due to foot problems, and a few weeks missed fol­lowing a bumped knee with Cory Magette. But the fact is, he was showing what he might some day become.

He followed up that season with a hot start to the 2009-2010 season, but it was quickly cut short by the left knee fracture mentioned earlier. He then spent nearly a year rehabbing, only to be hit again with more need for surgery a few weeks ago.

It’s unfortunate for Blazers fans and for NBA fans in general but, more importantly, it’s unfor­tunate for Oden. What can Greg do, besides hop around his house on crutches like I have been for weeks now, feeling bad for himself? I thought it was rough for me nursing a sprained ankle for a few weeks. Try doing that with the weight of a franchise and a city on your shoulders. When Oden went down in December of ‘09, he appar­ently immediately looked up at Brandon Roy, the leader of the team, the type of floor general Oden was supposed to be for the Blazers, and said, “I’m sorry.” … As if it was in any way his fault. If any­one doesn’t want Greg Oden to be a bust, it’s not any of us. It’s Greg Oden.

Now, try imagining nursing your knees for three years through injury after injury, when your athleticism and health is your livelihood, hob­bling around your empty, lonely house wishing you were playing the game you love, the sport you have committed your life to and the game that you are paid to play. Realize, with the rev­elation of his most recent knee issue, Oden lost at least $10 million dollars off his next contract, probably more.

But, it’s not just the weight of a city and a franchise he carries on his broad shoulders, it’s the weight of the sporting world. Listen to some of the blowhards on ESPN or ESPN Radio dis­cuss Oden’s situation, and you’ll understand what I mean. Before going off on a rant about what a total draft bust he was, let’s get some of the facts straight.

First of all, did Oden deserve to be picked #1 overall? The answer: without question. Doc Riv­ers, coach of the Boston Celtics recently addressed this issue. “Even though everybody changes now, we were all for Oden, and I think 98 percent of the league,” Rivers said. “But now I hear it all over our staff, I hear it everywhere, ‘Oh, no, we were Durant guys.’ I don’t believe that. I think we would have drafted Oden.” Having been com­pared to everyone from Shaq, to David Robin­son, even to Bill Russell, the hype was undeniably inflated, but what scout’s saw in Oden was real.

Some also have gotten mixed up about wheth­er Oden has been good in the 82 games he’s spent on the court. Is he good? Again, without ques­tion, yes. Without all of his injuries, he could be as talented as Durant is right now. In 2008-2009, Oden posted a PER (player efficiency rating – that is, the most complete stat for judging a play­er’s overall value) of 18.13. Tim Duncan, the con­sensus best power forward of all time, is currently posting a PER of about 20 for this season, an off year for him no doubt. But that was in Oden’s first year. In the 21 games he played his second year in the league, Oden posted a PER of 23.14. I’ll ask it again: is he good? This time, consider it rhetorical.

Don’t get me wrong; Oden has a lot of flaws to his game. He fouls too much, his offensive game needs polish, and he is still figuring a lot of things out. Hey, you know who else didn’t quite “get it” at first? Kevin Durant didn’t. While im­pressive, and deserving of Rookie of the Year his first season, Durant, the new golden child of the NBA, had atrocious shot selection as a rookie. It was really, really bad. It just goes to show, it takes some time to figure out the NBA. Oden, due to unfavorable circumstances, still hasn’t gotten that chance.

But is he a bust? Is he injury-prone and a bit unlucky? Yes, probably. But, a lot of peo­ple don’t know Greg’s brother, cut from the same genetic cloth, is a D-1 offensive lineman for Arkansas. I bet those guys take a few hits and persevere.

The fact is, Greg Oden is still 22. His knee problems are recoverable. Ask some NBA play­ers like Amar’e Stoudamire, Grant Hill, Kenyon Martin or Vince Carter and they’ll tell you it’s possible to overcome micro-fracture surgery. I’m not saying not to be critical of sports icons. I’m just saying that declaring a guy a disappointment, when he really hasn’t ever gotten a chance as a re­sult of factors out of his control, might be a bit unfair. And in what little chances he has gotten, Oden has excelled.

Andrew Bogut, a former #1 draft pick and a big man once considered a bust, but now one of the best centers in the league, has some impor­tant things to say about Oden: “He hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do for an extended period of time. It must be frustrating for him … But there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”