NBA: Philadelphia 76ers-Media Day
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Is the Sixers’ Joel Embiid the next Hakeem Olajuwon or another Greg Oden?

Or Bill Walton? Sam Bowie? A history of star centers with careers derailed by injuries.

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Joel Embiid played 786 minutes in his rookie campaign, the third year the Sixers center has been in the NBA. For reference, there are 3,936 minutes in an NBA season, barring overtimes, so in the three seasons since he was drafted third overall by The Process-era 76ers, Embiid has played roughly 6.5 percent of the team’s minutes. We ran through Embiid’s injury timeline this season. Now let’s try to figure out how the rest of his career is going to go.

Hakeem Olajuwon, the player many of us have been comparing Embiid to in his nascent NBA career because of his defensive prowess and unbelievable ball skills for a man his size, played 44,222 minutes over 18 seasons, with an additional 5,749 minutes coming in the playoffs. Olajuwon played in 57 percent of the Houston Rockets’ — and for a year, the Toronto Raptors’ — possible minutes in his career.

Sorry, Sixers fans, but you know where this is going.

Greg Oden — like Embiid, seen as the future of the center position if he wasn’t always so damn hurt — was drafted in 2007, but didn’t play for Portland until the 2008-09 season. He played in 82 games in his first two years for the Blazers, logging 1,816 minutes in those two seasons. From the time he was drafted until the time he officially called it quits, Oden’s career spanned seven seasons. He played 105 games.

It’s unfair to even put a minutes percentage on that time, but for the first three seasons in the NBA, Oden played roughly 15 percent of the minutes for the Trailblazers. Sadly, it’s his career that may have more aptly blazed the trail for Embiid’s.

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The Sixers put out a new marketing slogan recently, telling fans Welcome to the Moment. They’re right, this is the moment. But it’s not exactly the moment the team was looking for right now.

Welcome to the moment we find out who Embiid is going to be. On the court, he’s as talented a big man as we’ve seen in this city since Moses Malone. Off the court, he’s a lovable, larger-than-life figure — think Jimmy Rollins standing on the shoulder pads of Brian Dawkins — but until the on-court Embiid is as reliable as the off-court version it’s hard to trust anything, Process included.

Embiid isn’t the first big man in NBA history to go through an injury-plagued career, and they haven’t all ended up like Oden, either. Here are a few other bigs, Oden included, that The Process could mirror.

Greg Oden

Oden’s career was destroyed by injuries. He played 105 games, starting 66, and averaged 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. For the Blazers, he played 22.1 minutes per game, averaging 9.4 points and 7.3 rebounds before missing three and a half seasons. He finished his career in 2014 with the Miami Heat.

Andrew Bynum

Okay, I’ll admit I included Bynum just to make Sixers fans even madder. Bynum actually played in 392 games for the Lakers over seven seasons. He played in just 46 games as a rookie, then 82 games his second season, before playing in 35, 50, 65, 54 and 60 games the rest of his Lakers career, respectively.

Then came the Sixers trade. Blergh.

Bynum bowled more than he hooped during his time in Philly — no dancing at a Meek Mill concert, sadly — and finished his career playing 26 games between Cleveland and Indiana in 2013-14. Most reports indicate the injury wasn’t what undid Bynum’s career. It was his lack of effort, ambition and, frankly, his disdain of the sport of professional basketball.

Sam Bowie

Bowie is most known as the guy who was drafted before Michael Jordan. He played in 76 games as a rookie, but saw time in just 38 his second year, then five the year after that.

Bowie missed the entire 1987-88 season, and played just 20 more games for the Blazers the following year, totaling 139 games — averaging 10.5 points and 8.1 rebounds — in four seasons. He moved to the Nets in 1989, and played in a respectable 280 games in four years, tallying 12.8 points and 8.2 rebounds, per game. He finished his career with the Lakers, playing in 92 games in two seasons off the bench. For all the talk of how injury-plagued his career was, he did end up playing 511 games, logging more than 14,000 minutes, but was never able to live up to the hype of being the guy taken before the greatest player of all time.

Jonathan Bender

Bender was the fifth overall pick in 1999 straight out of high school. He…wasn’t ready to be an NBA player, logging 24 games his first season and 59 his second before seeing a huge jump in minutes and games in his third season.

Bender only played in 46 games in 2002-03, though. Then he played in 21, then seven, then two. His knee troubles lingered until he was cut by the Pacers in 2006. He didn’t play from 2006-09, but tried to back in 2009-10 for 25 games with the Knicks.

Embiid played one year in college, so his career path won’t be identical to Bender’s, but the notion of a lingering injury hampering a star big man? Yeah…that sounds too familiar.

Ralph Sampson

If we’ve decided to stop comparing Embiid to Olajuwon, maybe we could compare him to Sampson.

Sampson was an All-Star his first four seasons, playing in 243 games his first three years, plus an additional 25 in the postseason.

He played in just 53 games in 1986-87 (including 10 in the playoffs), then split 48 games between Houston and Golden State the following year. That trade didn’t pan out for the Warriors, as Sampson only played in 93 games, including three in the playoffs, in his two seasons in Oakland.

The Warriors then traded him to Sacramento, where he played 51 games over two years, then ended his career with the Washington Bullets for 10 games in 1991, as back and knee injuries shortened what was a Hall of Fame career… but could have been something really, really special.

Brad Daugherty

Daugherty was the first overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft to Cleveland, who had traded with the Sixers to swap the first pick for Roy Hinson. Yep. Daugherty was a pretty dominant center, playing 548 games for the Cavs, averaging 19 points and 9.5 rebounds in 36.5 minutes per game. He was a five-time All-Star, too, but he only played until he was 28, as a back injury forced him into early retirement.

It sounds awful to say Sixers fans would wish Embiid to have a career that ends at age 28 because of injury if he was as productive as Daugherty until then. Still, wishing for that may be better than what we end up getting.

Yao Ming

Yao averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds in his career for Houston, one that was cut far too short because of a foot injury. One of the most skilled and, let’s face it, enormous bigs of his generation, Yao played 244 regular season games in his first three seasons — out of a possible 246 — adding 12 playoff games to his 7-foot, 6-inch frame.

In 2005 he played in just 57 games, then 48 the year after and 55 the year after that. Statistically, they were his best three seasons, averaging more than 23 points and 10 rebounds per game in that span, but he had just one season left of any productivity whatsoever, starting 77 games in 2008-09 before missing the following season entirely.

Yao played five more games in 2010, but called it quits that season. He was 30 years old, having played in 514 games, including playoffs.

Bill Walton

If we’re comparing Embiid to a Hall of Fame center, sadly, Walton might be the most apt comparison right now. Walton is a media maven, beloved by basketball fans around the world, and when he was on the court he was as dominant as anyone to ever play the game.

The first overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft to Portland — yes, they have something of a curse with drafting bigs early — Walton played 35 games his first season, averaging 12.8 points and 12.6 rebounds.

He logged 51 games his second year, then 65 his third and 58 his fourth, the year he won MVP, but a series of foot and back and — you name it, he had it — injuries derailed his career after that. Averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds for the Blazers, there was nobody quite like him on the floor, but Walton missed the entire 1978-79 season, played just 14 games for the Clippers in 1979-80, then missed the next two seasons as well.

Walton managed to play 155 more games for the Clippers, then 90 for the Celtics in a fourth-guy-off-the-bench role, never amounting to the kind of world-class professional he was expected to be after his remarkable college career.

So forget Olajuwon. Would you take Embiid as Walton? That might be the career we’re looking at, and, you know what…it’d be better than Oden’s.

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