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Curse of the NBA big man: Tough to find, tougher to keep healthy but some say worth the risk

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MIAMI - Greg Oden has had years to think about the plight of his knees, and still has no good answers.

The No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA draft is a poster child for big man bad luck, an epidemic that's been sweeping the league for years. The latest victim seems to be Joel Embiid, a 7-footer expected to be the No. 1 pick in Thursday's draft before a recently suffered stress fracture in his right foot almost certainly robbed the former Kansas star of that chance.

"My body did what it wanted," Oden said. "It didn't do what I wanted."

Oden a few weeks ago recalled the frustration of his situation. But he and Embiid are hardly alone. For every huge success story like the ones from Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon, there's been the cautionary tales of Sam Bowie, Pervis Ellison, Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown and Oden.

Big men, big risks and often, big problems.

NBA teams remain undeterred. That's good news for Embiid — after all, despite Oden's litany of problems, he's currently on an NBA roster.

Still, Embiid might lose some big money Thursday.

If he was the No. 1 pick, he would have been guaranteed about $14.4 million for his first three years in the NBA. If he slides to just No. 10, his rookie-deal salary for those first three years would be about $8.1 million less.

"Joel will be unable to participate in any additional workouts, and will not attend the draft in New York," agent Arn Tellem said.

Embiid already had some health questions, mostly regarding a balky back that affected him toward the end of his final college season with Kansas. Now he's had foot surgery and could be out for up to six months, likely ending his rookie season before it starts.

That doesn't make Embiid unique.

His situation could turn out to be similar to what former Kentucky star Nerlens Noel faced this past season. Noel was recovering from a torn knee ligament, an injury that ended his college career and quite probably cost him a chance to be the No. 1 pick. Despite the injury, he was still drafted No. 6 by New Orleans and traded to the Philadelphia 76ers.

And with the Philadelphia currently holding seven picks in this draft, it's easy to wonder if the 76ers would consider grabbing Embiid and giving him a year to recover in the same manner that they did with Noel.

"I feel for him," Noel told reporters in Kentucky after Embiid's injury was announced. "He's had all that pressure and all that expectation. He's just got to stay positive and keep working on himself ... do what he can do, because everything else is out of his control."

There's no shortage of big men who have buckled under the weight of big expectations.

Ellison was the No. 1 pick in 1989, got injured as a rookie and basically had only one great season as a pro. Kent Benson, the No. 1 pick in 1977, averaged 9.1 points per game in his career. Hasheem Thabeet was the No. 2 pick in 2009; he's averaged 2.2 points per game since. Olowokandi was an enormous bust at No. 1, slogging through an injury-plagued career and never averaging more than 12.3 points in a season.

And Michael Jordan will forever be tied to perhaps the two biggest big-man draft blunders: He was picked one spot after Sam Bowie went at No. 2 to Portland in 1984, and Jordan wound up taking Brown first overall in 2001. For as much as Bowie's career was derailed by injuries — and for as much as he was a punch line for years — he still scored 1,529 more NBA points than Brown did, despite playing 96 fewer games.

"When was the last time there was a great big?" Miami Heat President Pat Riley said last week. "Anthony Davis is a power forward. He's quite a talent. So there's a few guys that have made it but find the 7-foot centres, the prototype centre. I haven't seen one of those guys out there for a long time."

Riley had Oden on the Heat this past season. Oden's career has been plagued by injuries. And the guy taken immediately after him in the 2007 draft, Kevin Durant, is now the NBA's reigning MVP.

But Riley can't bring himself to say he's giving up on Oden.

After all, big men aren't found just anywhere. Such is the lure.

"You just don't want to walk away," Riley said, "from that kind of a talent."

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