Friday, September 14, 2007

Sam Bowie - The Next Generation?

If you're a sportswriter covering NBA basketball and haven't made this connection yet, you're brain dead. But when news that Greg Oden, the Portland Trailblazers' No. 1 pick in this past June's 2007 NBA Draft and No. 1 pick overall, will miss the ENTIRE 2007-08 season with microfracture surgery on his right knee.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with a guy named Sam Bowie, Bowie was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers as the No. 2 pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, behind a guy named (H)Akeem Olajuwon and right before a guy named Michael Jordan. Bowie was a 7-1 center out from Lebanon, PA, who was one of the most highly-recruited players ever. He was the last player ever chosen for the United States Olympic Men’s Basketball Team without any college or pro experience (he was a member of the 1980 squad). While playing at the University of Kentucky, Bowie had a serious leg fracture that led took most of his junior year and some of his senior year to rehabilitate, played in 76 games as a rookie with the Blazers, and then just 63 more over the course of the next four years. Over his 11-year NBA career, Bowie had five surgeries on his legs and missed two entire seasons. He was a good NBA center, but not the Greatest Player of All-Time.

I'll confess that I felt sure that Oden HAD to be the Trailblazers' pick, because you can't pass up an opportunity for a dominant big man. The point guard and center spots are the two hardest spots to fill on a basketball court, so if you’ve got an opportunity at a big, you have to go for a big. Too bad Oden wasn't dominant. Not that he had a horrible one-year stint as a college basketball player at Ohio State. He averaged 15.7 points and 9.6 rebounds, most of it while dealing with an injury to his right wrist (so much so that he shot free throws left-handed - yes, he's a righty - for a good portion of the year and ending with a respectable .628 FT%). The real issue is that Durant was incredibly dominant offensively. Durant is a rare offensive talent, Oden is a mobile big man with good defensive skills and some offensive limitations. Still, scoring forwards can be found. Mobile bigs are not. For a more cohesive argument, read this article by Bill Simmons on where Simmons lays out his reasons that the Blazers should’ve gone with Durant, even without recent developments.

Of course, beyond the wrist injury (which he had surgery for) and the current knee injury, Oden was also diagnosed with a bulging disk in his back just before the draft, tonsillitis that sidelined him after two games in the Las Vegas Summer League, and withdrew from the Olympic Team trials because of “fatigue.” He’s (supposedly) nineteen years old! Maybe the Blazers should’ve thought twice. But again, it was a sound basketball decision, if not a fantasy basketball decision.

So is Greg Oden Sam Bowie redux? It’s too early to tell. Bowie went through some seriously crazy and ridiculous injuries, while Oden just seems to be a nineteen-year-old going on fifty. The Phoenix Suns’ center, Amare Stoudamire, underwent similar surgery two years ago, and he returned this past season as an All-Star. So, there is hope.

I like Oden. He seems like a good kid and could be pretty good. I don’t necessarily think he’s a basketball player at heart, unlike Durant perhaps, but would’ve been great for the league and the Trailblazers from a marketing and fan perspective. Hopefully he’ll play in the 2008-09 season and we won’t have to talk about Oden-Durant like we do Bowie-Jordan.

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