EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 7, 2012

Injuries have robbed NBA of a generation of gifted big men

NBA reeling from premature loss of generation of super-sized centers

Pro Basketball
Michael Muldoon

---- — It’s gotten so bad, it almost doesn’t seem terribly surprising that Andrew Bynum’s NBA career could be ended by an injury.

A bowling injury!

With his series of knee injuries and several other freak injuries to highly-touted prospects, elite NBA big men are a dying breed.

These are the giants who define the sport: George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan.

The League has to be sweating this fact like Ewing in overtime.

Great big men come along maybe once every 5-10 years. Perennial All-Stars maybe every couple years. But every “Next Great Big Man” seems to be hobbled or just finished due to a freakish run of bad luck and bad injuries.

Shaq, all 7-foot-1, 325-plus pounds of him, had his last 20 points, 10 rebounds season in 2004-05. The great Duncan is wrapping up his Hall of Fame career.

The Lakers’ Dwight Howard is the throwback big man. Big and strong and agile, he puts the fear of God in you. After him? Nobody.

The Rockets’ 7-6, 310-pound giant Yao Ming would have gone down with the legends. But foot and ankle injuries had the modern-day Walton playing just five games after age 28.

So big, so gifted with the Chinese roots, the premature demise of the Ming Dynasty undoubtedly cost the NBA billions of dollars worldwide.

At least Greg Oden was on the way. High school experts ranked him perhaps just an eyelash behind LeBron James as the top schoolboy player since Shaq in the late ‘80s.

But a series of knee injuries may have ended the career of the 7-foot, 285-pounder, who at the age of 19 was taken No. 1 ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007. He’s played 82 games (the equivalent of one full season). Chances are he’ll never play in the league again.

A not insignificant group claimed Bynum is, or at least could become, better than Howard. Light on his feet with some fine low post moves, the 7-foot, 270-pound Bynum was an emerging force still in his early 20s. Celtic fans learned that the hard way in the 2010 NBA finals.

But he, too, has been dogged by injuries. When you suffer a serious injury bowling, well, that’s never a good sign. The ex-Laker star is now with the 76ers and the disconcerting reports keep on coming.

Give him another month and another month. Didn’t we hear this with Oden and Walton and Ming?

The NBA losing Yao Ming, Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum would be like the NFL losing Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in their early 20s.

The buzz around Darko Milicic was deafening. Some even said Cleveland might take him No. 1 over prodigal son LeBron. He went No. 2 ... but that was over guys like Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.

The 7-foot Serb was nothing more than a journeyman, leaving fans wondering for the last decade what all the hype was about.

A series of other projected All-Star types never panned out

Take your pick on the reason. Injuries, over-inflated egos, greed, impatience, poor coaching, poor work ethic, bad luck, just plain overrated, spoiled by the cesspool of bigtime AAU basketball, victims of a system that pushes them into the pros before they are ready.

The 2001 draft was being touted as a once-in-a-lifetime group of gifted young big men. Towering and talented high schoolers Kwame Brown (No. 1), Tyson Chandler (No. 2) and Eddy Curry (No. 4) didn’t have to wait long to shake David Stern’s hand.

But it was 20-year-old 7-footer Spaniard Pau Gasol, taken No. 3, who has been the best of the Can’t Miss Kids. Chandler hasn’t lived up to the press clippings but he’s one of the NBA’s top big men, nonetheless. Curry has all but eaten himself out of the game, a classic case of wasted potential. Some say Brown was too psychologically fragile, and playing with the hyper-competitive Michael Jordan may have been the worst thing in the world for him. He, too, has been a bust of epic proportions. Never a full-time starter, he’s now with Golden State, his sixth NBA team.

It goes on and on and on.

Young big men DeMarcus Cousins, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche will get by on talent. But they are all major head cases. Pistons 19-year-old rookie Andre Drummond from UConn has all the talent in the world, enough to be a slightly bigger version of Dwight Howard. But like many of them, the 6-10, 270-pounder doesn’t seem to have the love of the game to harness his prodigious gifts.

Blame the US kids’ problems on AAU ball, sneaker companies, heck, global warming, but it extends overseas, too.

Darko, Englishman Michael Olowakandi and 7-3 Tanzanian Hasheem Thabeet have all been colossal disappointments. Italian sharpshooter Andrea Bargnani has done well, but again, for the No. 1 overall pick, you’re hoping for more than a (very) poor man’s Dirk Nowitzki.

Another former No. 1 pick, Aussie Andrew Bogut, is on the injured list again. Like Bargnani, He’s very good, but his greatest accomplishment in seven years is once being named All-NBA third team.

The future doesn’t look terribly bright either. Top pick Anthony Davis is a keeper, but he’s more a finesse big man/power forward in the Kevin Garnett mold.

At this point, nobody is being projected as the next Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan. College stars like Indiana sophomore Cody Zeller and Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel of Everett could go No. 1 this year and/or next but they aren’t being billed as future NBA greats. Same holds true with the high school ranks. For the young guys, maybe 6-11 New Jersey sophomore Karl Towns Jr. could be the Next Big thing.

But as we’ve found out, when it comes to big men, there is no such thing as a sure thing.

E-mail Michael Muldoon at mmuldoon@eagletribune.com. Follow him on Twitter under the screen name @MullyET.

What might have Been

Recent major center disappointments:

Name Ht. Drafted Comment

Kwame Brown 6-11 1st, 2001 Overwhelmed by playing with Michael Jordan

*Eddy Curry 7-0 4th, 2001 Enjoyed eating more than playing

*Yao Ming 7-6 1st, 2002 Early retirement cost NBA billions

*Darko Milicic 7-0 2nd, 2003 Taken before Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony

Andrew Bynum 7-0 10th, 2005 Rehabbing another severe knee injury

*Greg Oden 7-0 1st, 2007 As hyped as LeBron James

* Out of basketball