The NBA has long been a league populated by immensely talented players. There have been players who have radically changed the league through their unique skillsets or overwhelming physical gifts, and there have certainly been countless players with tremendous talents who have been able to deliver on that promise by leading their teams to championships while collecting plenty of individual accolades.
While the list of NBA greats is lengthy, there are also many examples of players whose promise was never quite realized due to a serious injury. In many cases, these talented players were able to still enjoy productive careers in the NBA, but just never quite reached the level of stardom that seemed all but assured before the injury. In other cases, serious injuries effectively ended the careers of potential superstars before they could ever have a meaningful impact on the league.
Injuries are undoubtedly a part of the game, and some players have even knowingly mortgaged their future to play through an injury while others have exhibited caution and still had to endure setback after setback. Great players have seen their careers shortened by many seasons, and a number of budding superstars have been reduced to role players rather than franchise cornerstones. Unfortunately for the following 15 NBA players, the injuries they encountered in their NBA careers were enough to alter their abilities or to cut their time in the league short by far too many seasons.
15 Brandon Roy
Roy was off to a spectacular start to his NBA career when a degenerative knee condition forced him into retirement at the age of 26. As a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, Roy was named Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team in three of his first four seasons, averaging 20.2 points, 5.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game during that time. After tearing his meniscus, doctors noticed that Roy’s knees were lacking in cartilage, forcing Roy to retire after just five seasons in the NBA. He attempted a short-lived comeback in 2012, but lasted just five games with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
14 Shaun Livingston
Livingston has enjoyed quite the resurgence in his ongoing pro career, carving out a nice role during the Golden State Warriors’ 67-win season. That Livingston is even playing in the NBA after the knee injury he suffered is a testament to his work ethic and his dedication to the game of basketball, as there were very few who believed Livingston would be able to play in the league following the injury. In just his third season after being drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Clippers, Livingston had already become an important contributor and was averaging 9.3 points, 5.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game during his age-21 season.
That season, however, ended in February when Livingston suffered one of the most severe injuries in recent memory, as the point guard tore his ACL, PCL, and lateral meniscus, while also dislocating his tibio-fibular joint and patella. The injury was so devastating that the doctor who saw Livingston upon his arrival at the hospital told him there was a chance his leg would need to be amputated. He sat out all of the 2007-08 season, and then played in just 48 games over the following two seasons.
After bouncing around the league -- Livingston has played for nine different franchises during his NBA career -- the point guard many believed was destined for greatness must now be content to play a limited role. He averaged 18.8 minutes per game with Golden State in 2014-15, and while his role coming off the bench has been undeniably important to his team’s success, Livingston’s pro career could have been very different if not for the knee injury that came so early in his career.
13 Jay Williams
The second overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, Williams was considered a surefire future star after an outstanding collegiate career at Duke University. Following a rookie season in which Williams showed some promise for the Chicago Bulls while averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 assists, the point guard crashed his motorcycle into a utility pole. The accident was quite serious, as Williams severed a nerve, dislocated his knee, fractured his pelvis and endured internal bleeding, leading to 13 surgeries. Though he tried to make a comeback in 2006 with the Nets and then through the D-League, Williams was never quite able to recapture the talent and skill he showed while at Duke and never played another NBA game.
12 Larry Johnson
Johnson came into the league as an athletic and undersized power forward, using his explosiveness to exploit bigger defenders while playing for the Charlotte Hornets. He earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1992 and was named to All-Star teams in 1993 and 1995, but a back injury suffered during the 1993-94 season forced him to radically alter his style of play. He remained a very successful pro after adapting his game, but his ailing back ultimately forced him into retirement following his age-31 season in 2001. In the two full seasons before his back injury, Johnson was one of the most dominant players in the league, averaging 20.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
11 Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway
A four-time All-Star, Hardaway paired with Shaquille O’Neal early in his career while both still played for the Orlando Magic, leading the franchise to its first trip to the NBA Finals in 1995. Over his first four seasons, Hardaway averaged 19.7 points, 6.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game and looked poised to become a superstar point guard in the mold of Magic Johnson. Chronic knee issues, however, led to four major surgeries that deprived “Penny” of his athleticism and forced him to alter the way he played the game. Over his last 10 NBA seasons, Hardaway averaged just 40 games per year (one of the seasons was shortened due to the lockout) and averaged 11.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
10 Bernard King
When Bernard King tore his ACL in 1985, he was in the midst of a season in which he led the league in scoring by averaging 32.9 points per game. A three-time All-Star at that point, he missed all of the 1985-86 season and played in only 6 more games with the New York Knicks toward the end of the 1986-87 season. King was still a very good pro after that and he even made his fourth All-Star team in 1991 at the age of 34, but he was simply not the same and his prime years were greatly affected by the knee injury.
The Knicks legend was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame, but there are many in New York who saw the 1984-85 season as King’s breakout year and still wonder what he could have accomplished had it not been for the knee injury hampering him and causing the small forward to miss so much of his prime. King had become a dominant force, but his reign was cut short due to the ACL tear and the lengthy recovery time.
9 Pete Maravich
One of the most decorated scorers in the history of the NCAA, Maravich’s pro career was not nearly as successful as his collegiate career. After setting numerous NCAA records at LSU --many of which still stand -- Maravich entered the NBA and continued to show off his scoring prowess. In his seventh season as a pro, Maravich led the league in scoring (31.1 points per game), but a knee injury during the following season would stall his career.
Maravich tore his meniscus and strained his ACL while throwing a 40-foot, between-the-legs pass to a teammate streaking downcourt, and rather than undergo surgery right away, Maravich tried to play through it at first. When that didn’t work, he attempted to heal it by adopting a high-protein diet while undergoing frequent massage. It was three months after the injury that he finally had surgery on the knee, and while he made his fifth and final All-Star team the following season, he was never the same player and retired after a 26-game stint with the Boston Celtics in the 1979-80 season at the age of 32.
8 Sam Bowie
Bowie, famously selected ahead of Michael Jordan as the second overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, was a promising center whose injuries robbed him of his significant potential. After averaging 10 points and 8.6 rebounds per game as a rookie, Bowie broke his tibia early in his second season, beginning a run of leg injuries that undermined the 7-1 center’s pro career. Bowie retired after his tenth season in the league, and though he had a nice run with New Jersey (12.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks over four seasons), he will always be remembered for failing to live up to expectations in Portland and for being selected ahead of the player many consider to be the best to ever play the game.
7 Greg Oden
Drafted with the top overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, Oden was taken ahead of Kevin Durant and Al Horford, though there were not many in NBA circles who believed that Oden would face as many injury issues as he has throughout his career. During the preseason of what would have been his rookie year, Oden suffered a right knee injury that led to microfracture surgery. After missing all of the 2007-08 season, Oden was injured again in his debut in the 2008-09 season. Even though he missed time due to the injury, Oden’s 61 games that year would be the most of his career, the result of a litany of injury-related setbacks, including a chipped kneecap, a fractured patella and two more microfracture surgeries.
Despite sitting out for three full seasons, teams are still intrigued by Oden’s talent and potential. The Miami Heat brought Oden in for part of the 2013-14 season, and the Memphis Grizzlies have recently expressed interest in bringing Oden to a free-agent camp. Once considered a generational talent, Oden’s injury-plagued career is very likely to inspire many “what if?” questions, and even Steve Kerr, then writing for Yahoo! Sports, called Oden a “once-in-a-decade type player.”
6 Tracy McGrady
After three seasons in Toronto, McGrady flourished into a perennial All-Star in Orlando, leading the NBA in scoring in back-to-back seasons and beginning a streak of seven consecutive All-Star selections. After several years with the Houston Rockets, however, McGrady began dealing with chronic back issues and eventually needed microfracture surgery on his left knee.
McGrady played just three more seasons after the surgery, averaging just 7.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3 assists per game in limited minutes, and retired following a brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs in which he joined the team just before the playoffs. Though he played in parts of 15 seasons, McGrady retired at the age of 33 and was robbed of part of his prime due to the back, knee and shoulder issues he dealt with.
5 Andrew Toney
During Toney’s first five seasons in the NBA, the shooting guard averaged 17.5 points and 4.3 assists while playing in a Philadelphia 76ers lineup that included Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and, at times, Daryl Dawkins and Moses Malone. When Charles Barkley joined the mix, he believed that Toney was the most talented player the 76ers had, not the future Hall of Famers that were also on the roster. Barkley asserted this fact to Jackie MacMullan of the Boston Globe in 1991, saying, "Andrew Toney is the best player I ever played with. When I first got to Philadelphia, everyone kept asking me, 'How's Dr. J? What's Moses like? How about Maurice Cheeks?' I told them, 'They're all fine, but wait until you see Andrew.'"
Unfortunately for Toney, undiagnosed stress fractures in his feet derailed his career and forced him into retirement at the age of 30. Toney was able to make two All-Star teams early in his eight-year NBA career, and he still managed to leave quite an impression on the league, with Danny Ainge agreeing with Barkley’s assessment of Toney’s ability, saying, "He was the toughest guy I ever guarded.
4 Ralph Sampson
Coming out of the University of Virginia, Sampson was supposed to be the next great big man, and the 7-4 center lived up to the lofty expectations during the first three years of his pro career, making the All-Star team in each season while averaging 20.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2 blocks per game for the Houston Rockets. While he would earn another All-Star selection the following season, Sampson also missed significant time for the first time in his career.
Plagued by injuries to his back and hip, Sampson altered his gait, which the Hall of Fame center believes contributed to the knee injuries that led to three surgeries. After three magnificent seasons to start his NBA career, Sampson spent the next six years averaging just 9.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while struggling to stay on the court. The injuries forced him to retire following his age-31 season, one in which he played sparingly for a floundering Washington Bullets team.
3 Bill Walton
One of the most dominant collegiate players of all-time while playing under John Wooden at UCLA, Walton’s dominance was never truly realized as a pro due to recurring stress fractures in his foot. He enjoyed a great deal of success of course, as he won NBA championships with both the Portland Trail Blazers (1977) and Boston Celtics (1986), and he won an MVP Award in Portland and a Sixth Man of the Year Award in Boston.
The foot injuries, however, forced him to miss the 1978-79 season, the 1980-81 season and the 1981-82 season entirely, and it was not until after joining Boston that he would play 80 games in a season at the age of 33. His best seasons were undoubtedly in Portland, and the season he won the MVP he averaged 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5 assists and 2.5 blocks per game.
2 Yao Ming
Foot and ankle injuries are often disastrous for big men, and it was a stress fracture to Ming’s foot that started the troubles that led to the end of his NBA career at the age of 30. At 7-6, Ming was one of the best centers in the league and helped lead Houston – along with Tracy McGrady – to four 50-win seasons during his first seven years with the Rockets. The regular season success never led to postseason success, and Ming’s career ended in the midst of his prime due to the repeated stress fractures to his foot and the ankle surgery that ultimately ended his career. During his relatively brief time in the NBA, Ming averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, making the All-Star team in each of the eight seasons he played.
1 Grant Hill
At the time of Hill’s ankle injury, he was one of the most well-rounded players in the league and was just entering his prime at the age of 27. Through his first six seasons in Detroit, Hill had averaged 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, but things began to fall apart for Hill after departing for Orlando. According to Hill, the team had him doing on-court activity far too soon based on the recovery timetable set forth by the doctor who performed his surgery, and over the next four seasons Hill would only play in a total of 47 games, missing the 2003-04 season in its entirety.
Hill enjoyed a bit of a late-career resurgence in Phoenix, but he was never the same player he had been in Detroit and clearly had his prime years robbed from him by injury. The fact that he played to the age of 40 is quite an accomplishment, but Hill’s first six seasons seemed to be the beginning of a surefire Hall of Fame career. Despite all his injury troubles, Hill was still a seven-time All-Star and an Olympic Gold Medalist who managed to put up a very solid career line of 16.7 points, 6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.
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