By Ross Kelly
It’s no secret that NBA teams salivate over the big man; a notion that is encapsulated by the quote, “You can’t teach size.” However, that’s not just a saying but the numbers back it up as well. Over the past 40 years (1974-2014) there have been 26 players drafted within the top three picks who stand at least seven feet tall. From Walton (’74) to Embiid (’14) and everyone in between, these are the guys that front offices thought would be transcendent players who were worthy of their high selections. But this number also doesn’t lie: exactly one half of those 26 players have had career-ending or career-shortening injuries, primarily to their legs.
Some of these injuries are well known – we all know about Bill Walton’s feet (missed three entire seasons) and Greg Oden’s knees (also missed three seasons). We also know that Yao Ming retired early due to recurring foot injuries as did Sam Bowie due to stress fractures in both legs. But there are others that aren’t talked about as much; Ralph Sampson missed about 40% of the possible games over his nine year career. Rik Smits left the game early due to nerve damage to his feet, in addition to knee, ankle, and back operations. Even current players Andrew Bogut and Andrea Bargnani have had recurring injuries and have missed nearly 30% of their possible NBA games. With both of those players on the wrong side of 30 once next season rolls around, it’s not likely they’ll suddenly get healthier so that percentage missed should increase.
Now the latest casualty is Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers. GM Sam Hinkie released a statement saying that the big man has suffered a setback in his recovery from the broken foot which kept him out all of last season. Whether the term “setback” means just a couple of missed weeks or another entire season, Embiid appears to be the latest victim of this trend. This situation with Embiid is sounding eerily similar to Greg Oden’s. Both suffered injuries in college that shortened their one season on campus. Then they got hurt again prior to their rookie years forcing them to basically medically redshirt on an NBA bench. Then came the numerous “setbacks” for Oden which always ended up in him re-injuring himself once he actually played. For what it’s worth, Kansas coach Bill Self said Embiid told him that “he hasn’t re-injured anything” but that phrase could also mean that there’s been no progress in the healing of the foot. Shortly after Hinkie released the statement on Embiid’s setback, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Embiid could indeed miss the entire 2015-2016 season. With all due respect to Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, and whomever the Sixers draft this year; the team’s brass viewed Embiid as “the guy” and the face of the franchise. Now there multi-year, revolutionary, rebuilding plan could fall apart because of the risk they made in drafting Embiid.
Just think about simple physics: the average human being running and jumping repeatedly is more prone to injury than the layperson. A seven-foot, 250+lb person doing the same is even more susceptible to getting hurt. Despite all of the advancements in sports medicine and nutrition, injuries will always be a huge part of sports. It’s the risk vs. reward argument that NBA front offices must debate whenever they eye that prized seven footer. The rewards are obvious and are recognizable by one name: Shaq, Duncan, Robinson, Olajuwon, and Ewing were all successes. These seven foot giants can make or break your franchise, no pun intended, and are both literally and figuratively huge risks.
Missed 1 entire season: J. Embiid, Y. Ming, B. Cartwright
Missed >25% of games: A. Bogut, A. Bargnani
Missed >40% of games: B. Walton, G. Oden, R. Sampson, S. Bowie
Retired Early: B. Daugherty, R. Smits, M. Olowokandi, T. Burleson
Relatively Healthy: S. O’Neal, T. Duncan, D. Robinson, H. Olajuwon, P. Ewing, P. Gasol, T. Chandler, J. Carroll, B. Benjamin, M. Webster, S. Bradley, D. Milicic, H. Thabeet