Greg Oden(notes) missed his first NBA season after having surgery on his right knee. He lasted 13 minutes into his second season before injuring his right foot. His third season was cut short after 21 games after he broke his left kneecap – an injury from which he's still recovering more than 10 months later.
So it's a fair question to ask: Is the Portland Trail Blazers' supposed franchise center simply prone to bad luck? Or is he on his way to becoming one of the league's biggest busts?
Oden has his own answer.
"I'm not worried about people believing in me. I believe in myself," he said. "If you're going to doubt me, doubt me. But I know what I can do, and I know I'm going to improve, and I know that I can bring a lot to this team."
If it were up to Oden, he would have already contributed plenty. After arriving as the No. 1 pick of the 2007 draft, he was expected to team with Brandon Roy(notes) and LaMarcus Aldridge(notes) to make the Blazers a contender in the Western Conference. But while Portland has improved – advancing to the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons – injuries have kept the team from reaching its full potential.
And no Blazer has struggled to stay healthy more than Oden, who's played in just 82 of a possible 246 games in the past three seasons. The frustration of Portland fans has been compounded by the fact that Kevin Durant(notes), who was selected one pick after Oden, has developed into the NBA's reigning scoring champion and an MVP candidate.
"He's been through a lot," Roy said of Oden. "He's had major injuries for a young kid to deal with who's had all these expectations. … I think more people would be more down than he's shown."
Oden had hoped to already be back playing after injuring his left knee on Dec. 5 while jumping in a game against the Houston Rockets. He is participating in half-court workouts with Blazers assistant Buck Williams, but has been limited to playing one-on-one as he tries to work through some tendinitis in the knee. Oden won't give a specific timetable for when he thinks he'll return, but Blazers coach Nate McMillan is optimistic it will be before the end of December.
"I do a little bit more each day," Oden said. "I keep on pushing it. But I'm not going to put myself out there until I can go and do the things I need to do."
Said Roy: "He's closer than I think people think."
Oden's repeated injuries have forced him to learn to become patient, though he still doesn't sound like a big fan of the concept. Staying positive is a challenge.
"It sucks," he said. "It's tough to deal with. You can have confidence all you want, but when a lot of time is going by, your confidence starts to die down."
Oden's contract situation also has weighed on him. He's eligible for an extension, but it's clear the Blazers want to use the full season to better assess his health before deciding to commit frontline money to him. Oden will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, which will still allow the Blazers to match any offer he receives.
"I'm really just trying to concentrate on getting my knee back," Oden said. "I would love for it to happen, but I got to prove it. I got to earn it."
Oden started to show some of his potential before he was injured last season. In the seven games before he went down, he averaged 15.6 points, 9.1 blocks and 2.4 blocks.
"I know I can play well in this league," Oden said. "I showed that the beginning of last [season] before I got hurt."
No one doubts the Blazers' talent. They have the depth and size to match up with the Lakers, provided they can get healthy. Joel Przybilla(notes), who will help Marcus Camby(notes) fill the center position until Oden returns, is recovering from an injury similar to Oden's and is expected back in the middle of November. Roy has become an All-Star, but he was also slowed last season by his own knee problems.
"People have often asked who are we and how good we are," McMillan said. "But we can't say because you haven't seen Brandon, LaMarcus or Greg for 50 games [together], and that's your foundation. That's your anchor, supposedly. We've been labeled as a team that can't rebound and we're not a physical team. Well, part of that is due to the fact that we haven't had our big guy with us.
"The potential is there when having everybody healthy. But over the last few years we haven't seen that because we've had major injuries."
Most of them have belonged to their young center. So go ahead and write off Oden. Just excuse him if he's not ready to do the same.