One of the saddest things in pro basketball is the prospect of a talented player’s career ending, or going to waste with one serious injury. We’ve seen more than our fair share of players who once had such great promise, or had actually lived up to that promise and enjoyed success in the NBA early on, only for those players to wash out due to injuries. What could have been a sure trip to Springfield often turns out to be repeated trips to injured reserve, en route to a career ending well before its time.
But there have also been many players who were seemingly finished after they suffered career-threatening injuries, but came back as good or almost as good as they used to be, reinvented their games to extend their stay in the NBA, or lasted much longer than anyone would have expected. These are truly inspirational players who prove that it isn't necessarily over, even if doctors, basketball pundits, and other experts suggest that it is.
Who are those players whose injuries got the better of them, and who are those who defied the odds and had long and successful NBA careers after all? We shall find out in this new list. And keeping in mind the recent case of Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid, for whom the jury is still out on, let us hope that he ends up on the latter list at some point in the future.
15 JOEL PRZYBILLA (DIDN’T)
A product of the abysmal draft class of 2000, Joel Przybilla actually had one of the better, longer careers among that draft’s lottery players, even if calling his offense limited is one of basketball’s great understatements. Still, he was a ferocious rebounder and effective shot blocker at 7’1”, and was in the middle of his tenth pro season when his Portland Trail Blazers faced the Dallas Mavericks on December 22, 2009. During that game, he landed awkwardly after a rebound play, and ended up rupturing his patella. Videos of that play show the big man in great pain as teammates and officials tend to him soon after.
Przybilla missed the rest of the 2009-10 season, and while he played three more seasons after that gruesome injury, he only played a total of 75 games in those three seasons combined, most of them as a reserve.
14 RUDY TOMJANOVICH (DID)
Before he gained fame with more contemporary fans as an NBA championship-winning coach, Rudy Tomjanovich was one of the NBA’s top-scoring forwards of the ‘70s, playing his entire career for the Houston Rockets. But his career was at risk of grinding to a halt in 1977, when he attempted to break up a fight between teammate Kevin Kunnert and Los Angeles Lakers forward Kermit Washington. Thinking Rudy T was trying to insert himself in the brawl, Washington landed a furious punch that shattered Tomjanovich’s face and resulted in career- and life-threatening injuries to his head.
“The Punch” was so controversial that it inspired a best-selling book from John Feinstein, and it should have ended Tomjanovich’s career right then and there. But he came back to play three more seasons, and while he wasn’t quite the same player anymore, he still remained productive enough to score in double figures right until his retirement in 1981.
13 BARON DAVIS (DIDN’T)
The reason Baron Davis ranks so low is because he was already past his prime when the injury happened. But as he had just turned 33 at the time, he could have spent at least two more years in the NBA, even in a reserve role.
The injury took place in May 2012, in Game 4 of the New York Knicks’ playoff series against the Miami Heat. As Davis was streaking down the court on a fastbreak play, the two-time All-Star point guard crumpled to the floor, almost folding like an accordion as he had torn his right ACL and MCL. He was expected to miss the entire 2012-13 season after undergoing surgery, but that playoff game against the Heat turned out to be his last so far. He did attempt a D-League comeback earlier this year, which lasted all of six games.
12 SAM BOWIE (DID)
This writer has always maintained that Sam Bowie, for all the talk of him being selected right before Michael Jordan, is not the biggest NBA draft bust of all time, and may not even be in the top ten. In fact, he had a pretty solid career – not worthy of a second-overall selection, but better than what most first-rounders have achieved. That career, however, came close to flaming out due to left and right tibia fractures early on in his NBA run. The left tibia had cost him two full seasons in college and most of his sophomore pro season in 1985-86, while the right one limited him to just five games in 1986-87 and forced him to miss all of the following season.
Bowie joined the New Jersey Nets in 1989, and he finally got healthy for the first time since his rookie season. And for three seasons, he played the best basketball of his career, regularly posting double-doubles and blocking close to two shots a game. And while his leg injuries resurfaced upon joining the Lakers in 1993, his peaking after, and not before his tibia issues as a pro is quite a worthy achievement.
11 CLARK KELLOGG (DIDN’T)
Fans of today know Clark Kellogg as a basketball analyst, and gamers may know him as one of the voices on commentary in the NBA 2K series. But once upon a time, “Special K” was a 6’7” power forward who averaged a 20-10 in points and rebounds in his rookie season in 1982-83. And while his performance did tail off a bit in the 1984 and 1985 NBA seasons, it still felt like it would be a matter of time before he’d play in an All-Star Game.
That never happened, as knee problems took Kellogg out for most of the next two seasons. His NBA career was over in 1987 at only 26 years of age, but instead of hitting bottom like many early washouts do, he embarked on a new, and ultimately successful career as a basketball analyst.
10 AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE (DID)
In just his third NBA season, Amar’e Stoudemire had become the next great NBA superstar never to play a game of college basketball, averaging 26 points and 8.9 rebounds for the Phoenix Suns. Then microfracture surgery on his gimpy left knee took him out for all but three games of the 2005-06 season, leaving fans to wonder if he’d regain his deadly form at some time in the future.
As it turned out, his return to form came very quickly, as he averaged 20.4 points and 9.6 rebounds in 2006-07, and was well above the 20 ppg mark from 2007 to 2011. A variety of injuries had eventually relegated him to a bench role by the time 2013 rolled around, but the fact that he regained his All-Star form so quickly more than qualifies him as someone who overcame serious injuries with great success.
9 JAY WILLIAMS (DIDN'T)
For a time, it looked like it was a foregone conclusion — Duke point guard Jay (formerly Jason) Williams was going to be better than his "White Chocolate" namesake in the NBA. He was picked second in the 2002 NBA draft behind Yao Ming, and joined a Chicago Bulls team that had two promising young bigs in Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, veteran guard Jalen Rose, and versatile forward Donyell Marshall. And while his rookie year wasn't as good as hoped for the blue-chip point guard, he did show some nice signs of improvement toward the end of the season.
Then June 19, 2003 came, and he suffered a series of injuries in a motorcycle accident, including a damaged ACL. The injuries, as well as an addiction to painkillers, ended Williams’ NBA career after one season, and an attempt to crack the hometown New Jersey Nets for the 2006-07 season turned out to be a failure. He now works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
8 BERNARD KING (DID)
Early in 1985, Bernard King was enjoying one of the best-scoring seasons to that point from someone who wasn’t named Wilt Chamberlain. He was averaging almost 33 points as an explosive small forward for the New York Knicks, but on March 23, 1985, he suffered career-threatening knee and leg injuries while attempting to block Kansas City Kings guard Reggie Theus’ dunk. That took him out of action until the homestretch of the 1986-87 season, though he looked sharp enough upon his return.
Moving from the Knicks to the Washington Bullets in 1987-88, King’s athleticism was severely compromised by his injuries. But he still knew how to score in bunches, and he even averaged over 28 points per game and made the All-Star team in 1990-91. His injuries flared up again right after that season, but he managed one more year off the bench for the Nets in 1992-93 before retiring at the age of 36.
7 BOBBY HURLEY (DIDN'T)
And we've got another Duke point guard who entered the NBA with great expectations, but saw his career jeopardized by a vehicular injury. Unlike his fellow Duke blue-chippers Grant Hill and Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley didn’t enjoy much success in the NBA, debuting in 1993-94 as the Sacramento Kings’ seventh-overall pick. Despite some ugly shooting, his career was starting off on a promising note, though his rookie year ended after just 19 games following a car accident where he was thrown from his SUV.
Though Hurley suffered life-threatening injuries, he recovered quickly enough to play in the 1994-95 season. His game, unfortunately, failed to recover. He was no longer the same player as he rode the bench for the Kings, then the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies before leaving the NBA in 1998 with career averages of 3.8 points, 3.3 assists, and 35.3 percent shooting from the field.
6 ANTONIO MCDYESS (DID)
For most of the late-‘90s, Antonio McDyess was a top-flight power forward, an athletic dunker who could go 20-10 on a regular basis, and add a block or two while at it. Knee injuries, however, began to hamper his play in 2001, and in the 2002 preseason, he was a much-hyped addition to the New York Knicks, hoping to make a comeback after playing just ten games in 2001-02. Alas, he ended up reinjuring his bum knee while trying to dunk in a rebound, and missed the entire 2002-03 season as a result.
Looking at the numbers alone, one may think Dice failed to make a successful comeback from his injuries. But he actually played eight more seasons in the NBA before retiring in 2011. While he lost most of his explosiveness and turned into a role player for the most part, the fact he lasted so long and played key roles for winning teams qualifies his comeback from injury as a success.
5 BILL WALTON (DIDN’T)
Five years after Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) took the NBA by storm as a rookie in 1969-70, another UCLA center joined the NBA with extremely high expectations. We’re referring to none other than Bill Walton, who was already injury-prone as it is when he entered the NBA, but nonetheless made an immediate impact, and won an NBA championship and the MVP award in succeeding seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers. In case you’re counting, that’s two Blazers draftees (following Sam Bowie) in this list, and we’ve got a couple more to follow in later entries.
Strangely enough, Walton missing the 1978-79 season following his MVP campaign wasn’t on account of his own medical woes – he was holding out due to his unhappiness with Blazers management and how they dealt with injuries in general. But the broken foot that had ailed him in Portland ruined his tenure with the San Diego Clippers, and he ended up playing just 47 games in 1980 and 1983, and missing the two seasons in between. And while he did get healthy enough (by Walton standards) in 1983-84 and won Sixth Man of the Year honors with the Celtics in 1985-86, he was a mere shadow of his old MVP self at that time. He officially retired in 1990, three years after playing his last NBA game.
4 SHAUN LIVINGSTON (DID)
Midway through his third NBA season, preps-to-pros stud Shaun Livingston seemed to be very close to putting it together after disappointing in his first two seasons. But in February 2007, a bad landing following a missed layup almost completely damaged his left knee. Video clips show his knee folding in the most twisted of angles, and up to this day, it’s still extremely difficult to watch. He missed the rest of 2006-07, all of 2007-08, and all but 12 games in 2008-09 as a result of that injury.
Similar to the aforementioned Antonio McDyess, Livingston’s comeback can be deemed successful because he’s lasted so long after what seemed like a career-ending injury. Sure, he bounced from team to team before joining Golden State and finding his most permanent home since his Clippers days. And sure, he’s mostly come off the bench. But almost a decade has passed since his injury, and Livingston’s still in the NBA, cuffing opposing guards and proving that the Warriors aren’t all about their explosive offense.
3 GREG ODEN (DIDN’T)
Unlike everyone else in this list, Greg Oden’s (first) severe injury happened before the fact, as microfracture surgery on his right knee robbed the top pick of the 2007 draft of what would have been his rookie season. With his right knee slowing him down, he had a tepid rookie season in 2008-09, though 2009-10 seemed to start out far more promising. Then he injured his left knee just 21 games into his sophomore campaign, ending it right then and there. Surgery on that knee and multiple setbacks then followed, and fans didn’t see Oden suit up until 2013-14, when he played less than ten minutes a game for the Miami Heat.
Earlier this month, Oden commented that his basketball career, for all intents and purposes, is “over.” Once expected to be the next David Robinson, Oden is instead remembered as one of those classic cases of what could have been if not for injuries.
2 PAUL GEORGE (DID)
Our most recent example in this list, Paul George was fresh off a career season when he was named to Team USA’s training camp squad for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. He had just emerged as the Indiana Pacers’ franchise player, and had a very bright future ahead of him. But on August 1, 2014, he suffered a compound fracture in his lower right leg during a tune-up game, making a very bad landing as he fouled James Harden. That injury, and the subsequent surgery, gave him a very good chance of missing the entire 2014-15 NBA season, and many feared he would never be the same player again.
Instead of regressing, PG-13 actually became better when he returned healthy for the 2015-16 season, after coming off the bench in six games in 2014-15. He averaged 23.1 points. 7.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.9 steals, all career highs except his rebounding clip, and is arguably the best two-way forward in present-day NBA as we speak.
1 BRANDON ROY (DIDN’T)
The 2006-07 NBA Rookie of the Year, Brandon Roy was a legitimate superstar, making the All-Star Team his next three years, and excelling in most facets of the game. It looked like the Portland Trail Blazers wingman was headed to a long, Hall of Fame-worthy career. Sadly, the long history of talented Blazers youngsters and career-altering injuries (see previous entries on Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden) reared its ugly head when Roy’s knees, a problem since his college days in Washington, began to bother him as his fourth season drew to a close.
Take note that we said “knees” in plural form, because it was a lack of cartilage on both his left and his right knee that hampered Roy’s productivity in his fifth season, requiring him to undergo surgery on both knees. Due to the severity of his injuries, Roy retired during the 2011 NBA lockout at only 27 years of age. And while he attempted a brief comeback with Minnesota in 2012-13, that lasted only five games, and his career was officially done after he underwent yet another round of right knee surgery.
Up to now, it's still sad to think of how much Brandon Roy could have accomplished had his knees not given in so early into his career.