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November 4, 2008
Under the Knife
The Greg Oden Injury

by Will Carroll

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That gasp you heard on Opening Night was Portland's front office, seeing another injury to Greg Oden, though at least this time it happened on the floor. After missing his rookie year (or, if you're the NBA, "redshirting" and leaving the marketable big man eligible for ROY hardware) to knee problems, Oden hobbled off the floor with what was diagnosed as a mid-lateral foot sprain. Before you go calling him a bust, let's figure out what's wrong with Oden's foot and how it factors into Oden's future.

First, let's understand the foot sprain itself. First, the diagnosis is a mid-lateral foot sprain and multiple avulsion fractures. That sounds bad, but isn't as bad as it sounds. According to Dr. Philip Kwong of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles, one of the top foot specialists in the world, Oden will miss two to four weeks, matching up with the reports. This could have been a lot worse. Dr. Kwong reminds us just how bad when he says "the injury is caused by excessive twisting of the joints (talonavicular and calcaneocuboid) situated in front of the ankle connecting the ankle/heel to the front part of the foot. It is the same inversion mechanism causing the common ankle sprain. This is not the dreaded Lisfranc injury which occurs even more toward the front of the foot." If you want that in English, he said that it's closer to a simple ankle sprain more than a serious foot problem. Given the mechanism of injury - stepping on another player's foot when coming down from a jump - this makes sense.

How will this affect Oden? Once he gets back, he'll have some limitations. Dr. Kwong told me "the latent result of this injury is less mobility at these joints when the foot needs to twist. In basketball, quick change of direction and especially the first step is affected; playing defense is more a liability when reacting to an offensive players moves." Of course, Oden's game is not a quick, lateral game. He's a big man who will mostly stand in the middle and post up. While he'll obviously need some level of quickness and lateral motion, you can see why this injury will affect Oden less than it would Monta Ellis or Bruce Bowen.

The bigger concern is whether this is related to Oden's knee surgery or whether this, along with the knee injury, is related to Oden's weight. Oden burst onto the scene in Indianapolis as a manchild, a fully developed player who's body and features led many on first sight to question his true age. Comparing him to the average high school player was very literally man among boys, but then the tales started coming about his workouts with pro players such as Jermaine O'Neal. While he was outclassing high school competition, he wasn't thought to have an "NBA-ready" body. Most questioned his upper body strength and it appears that the Blazers did as well. Several people I spoke with, including Chris May of Hoosier Authority, a basketball publication that covers Indiana high school sports, believe he's put on significant muscle mass. "He's put on a ton of weight," May told me. "I've most noticed it since he left Ohio State, with the vast majority in his upper body." In fact, the official stats themselves bear this out. Listed at 7'0", 245 at Ohio State in his one season there, Oden is now listed at 7'0", 285. While any listed weight must be taken with a grain of salt, a 40-pound gain is massive and one that will put additional stress on both his knees and his feet.

The biggest concern for Oden and the Blazers, then, is not the injury itself, but the contributing factors. Whether those are weight, shoes, or just being patient enough to let the injury heal remain to be seen and will involve all levels of the organization. While there's an easy comparison here with Bill Walton, another #1 pick of the Blazers who, while hardly a bust, is as remembered for the time he missed as his titles, Oden is far from that level, both as an NBA success or as an NBA bust. Walton, while best remembered for the foot injury that led to his leaving the Blazers, actually had a series of injuries, including leg injuries that might conjure up more comparisons to Oden. If anything, they should be a cautionary tale to be patient, to avoid painkillers and to allow Oden to heal. Aside from that, the comparison is just superficial. Walton's problems were fractures nearer the ankle, rather than the mid-foot as with Oden's recent injury. It's also important to note that Walton played at a listed 6'11", 210. I don't think he could venture inside on today's NBA post men.

Many are also conjuring up images of Sam Bowie, but let's be clear: Oden doesn't have a chronic foot problem, the type that ended or altered the course of the careers of Walton and Bowie. This is closer to a simple ankle sprain, the single most common injury in the NBA, and one that happens most often when a player lands on another player's foot, though many would guess it comes more from this type of thing. No one seems to panicked about the fortunes of Michael Redd, Peja Stojakovic or Carmelo Anthony, All-Star-level players currently out with ankle sprains of varying severity.

It's difficult enough to project what a player will do over the course of a season, let alone a career. The pressure of being a number-one pick is one thing, but Oden is also considered the heir to the Big Man Throne held by Shaquille O'Neal for the past decade, reaching back to Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and George Mikan. Like Walton, he's considered the savior of a franchise that's been more known for arrests than wins. It may be that Oden never meets any of the lofty expectations put on him, but by calling him a bust after less than a full game and a fluky injury that could have happened to anyone who happened to land on another player's foot, we're doing ourselves more of a disservice than we are to Oden. He may end up being injury-prone, but as with everything else surrounding his NBA career, it's just too early to know whether he's the next Shaq or Wilt or the next Walton or Bowie.

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NBA Season Preview 200... (11/03)
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Big Deal (11/04)

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