When is it too soon to label someone a bust? Perhaps it is more to do with the standard of play rather than the length of their time in the league. The term “bust” is usually used to describe a high draft pick who fails to live up to the pre-draft hype surrounding him like a cloud of expectations. Their failures often live in the halls of infamy and serve as warnings to teams not to pick based entirely on hype and statistics.
Some are quick to cast decisions determining the bust worthiness of any number of players, and one of those most recent players is Greg Oden. The 7-foot towering terror spent his lone college season with the Buckeyes of Ohio State, advancing to the championship game and losing to the defending champion Florida Gators. He debated whether early entry into the NBA draft was the best path to take, opting to indeed enter the draft.
Then debates raged over which freshman phenom was worthy of the Portland Trailblazers’ first overall pick, Oden or the prolific scoring Kevin Durant. Behind Portland sat the soon to be former Seattle Supersonics, willing and eagerly waiting to snatch whichever potential stud player Portland left. Which did Portland prefer? The big man with tremendous potential to be a defensive machine with great athleticism enabling offensive prowess, or the scoring machine whose ease of putting the ball in the basket is otherworldly and only offset by his inability to bench press during workouts.
Portland, already set with Brandon Roy as their chief scoring option, decided to select the big man who was praised as a once-in-a-decade player who was reminiscent of Bill Russell. Keeping with his big man legacy, Oden was immediately bitten by the injury bug, missing the entirety of his initial season.
He fooled Portland, and more generally, us. His charming personality partnered with his jolly smile and his seemingly too-old facial features swindled all of us into believing he was Shaq reincarnate. Too good to pass up, he definitely had to be the next O’Neal, combining the goofball with the physical force to make a likeable player both on and off the court.
He was branded everything from a mistake to the next Sam Bowie (who was another injury plagued center for Portland drafted in front of Michael Jordan). He underwent surgery and continued to work out and add muscle to his frame that was not yet up to par with his professional brethren. The man that Portland passed up, Kevin Durant, scored over 20 PPG and earned himself ROY honors.
This most recent season was “technically” Oden’s rookie season because he wasn’t able to play in a single game after he was drafted. However, Portland was counting on him to make an impact mainly on the defensive side of the ball. His considerable potential needing to blossom on the court, he again suffered an injury and was unable to play much more than sixty games in his “rookie” season. His averages were near 9 PPG and 7 RPG as he adjusted to the speed and physicality of the NBA normally coming off the bench.
But some see his failing to become an immediate playmaker and impacting player on defense as worthy enough to label him as a bust. This is largely due to the fact that Kevin Durant was drafted immediately after him. Because he doesn’t average over twenty points and rebound in the double digits he is thought of as unworthy of the #1 pick. Durant has blossomed out West/Midwest while leading the struggling Sonics/Thunder to mediocrity in the heavily contested Western Conference. Oden has had to endure the steep learning curve as he is being slowly nursed into dominance by Portland’s coaching staff, teaching and instructing him how to efficiently use his tremendous athleticism and vision on the court.
It is far too early to already have cast a decision regarding the potential of Greg Oden. His career path may follow another struggling big man: Jermaine O’Neal. Drafted out of high school by, that’s right, the Portland Trailblazers, O’Neal struggled in idle on the bench as the flourishing Blazers contended for championships. He wouldn’t find his stride until he reached Indiana playing alongside Reggie Miller where he turned into an All-Pro caliber power forward who led Indiana into deep playoff runs. Unfortunately for Pacer and O’Neal fans, his career fizzled out and his ability to score slowly faded. He was bounced around this most recent year from Indiana to Toronto, then to Miami.
But Oden is an entirely different beast than Jermaine. O’Neal’s foremost ability was on the offensive side of the ball, able to create around the basket earning more than 20 points per game. Oden, in all likelihood, doesn’t contain the mindset or the lack of help around him to score over 20 points consistently. He is lucky enough to be surrounded by young talent who are more than capable of scoring enough to compete in the West (Roy, Aldridge, Fernandez, Miller). His greatest impact would be made on the defensive side of the ball, able to shift shots and create havoc with his long arms swinging like an aggressive bear.
His stats in his first year are comparable to those of another former lottery pick, Tyson Chandler. Assuming his play will not decay into Jonathan Bender territory, his worst play is comparable to a disinterested Chandler. His ceiling remains as tall as his height. The worry is that these past two injury-plagued seasons are more of the norm than aberrations. And there is some merit behind the anxiety; typically big men who attract injuries continue to do so (Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Yao Ming).
The reason behind the selection of Oden was his unique ability to play the center position with the spryness and motor of a guard. Scouts were amazed at his sideline-to-sideline sprinting ability, beating out forwards and some guards during the workouts. If only he could combine the two features of his universe, he could be the new-age Shaq without all of the extra weight. His offensive potential residing somewhere slightly above Dwight Howard, not quite relying exclusively on dunking the ball.
His play, while loaded with potential, is seemingly passive to the point of being shy. You would never know that by his commercials for ESPN the magazine or his pre-draft interviews. He is generally known as a “goofball” who loves to joke as much as grow his beard. His on-and-off the court goofiness made some scouts question his dedication to basketball. He refuted, as any potential #1 pick should do, claiming he played the game not because of his height, but because of his affection for the game.
If Oden can harness all of his animalistic potential, enabling his possible ability to be an intimidating force defensively harking to Dwight Howard and a rebounding machine, notching more than ten or eleven every game, then Oden can break the bust label and turn into everything Portland needs for a major championship run. Is that likely to happen? Only if he can stay healthy and progress and continue to understand Portland’s system.