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Chet Holmgren isn't the first NBA lottery pick to miss rookie season

Chet Holmgren isn't the first NBA lottery pick to miss rookie season

Young players who enter the NBA go through an adjustment period. The competition is highly skilled and uber-athletic, and their lifestyle changes drastically. As a result, it usually takes a season (or two) for top picks to get acclimated. 

So, when a top pick suffers a season-ending injury before their rookie campaign begins, it’s obviously less than ideal. At best, it costs their team a year of development. At worst, it’s an omen of things to come.

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s prized rookie, Chet Holmgren, recently suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot while defending LeBron James on a fastbreak at The CrawsOver Pro-Am in Seattle. Holmgren doesn't have an alarming injury history, but any seven-footer who weighs less than 200 pounds is going to raise certain red flags.

While we’ve yet to see Holmgren compete regularly against NBA players, he certainly looked like the real deal last season at Gonzaga and in this year's Summer League. He’s fluid on the offensive end, where he can handle the ball and shoot from just about anywhere. And defensively, Holmgren is a menace. His absurd 7-foot-6 inch wingspan enables him to erase shots that are launched anywhere in his vicinity.

To summarize, Holmgren’s injury is a real bummer for everyone involved. Sure, the Thunder will suffer – and maybe get into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. (Wouldn’t that be something?!) But alas, it’s always darkest before dawn. Holmgren is not the first lottery pick to miss his entire rookie season, and there are numerous examples of these players returning to their dominant pre-injury form.

While guys like Larry Bird, Jerry Lucas and David Robinson all missed their rookie seasons for non-injury reasons, we're focusing on players who were sidelined after getting hurt. Julius Randle was also left off this list since he technically played 14 minutes prior to his season-ending injury as a rookie.

Let’s look back at several high-end lottery picks who had to postpone their NBA debut for a full year.

Joel Embiid

Embiid is the most obvious example. His foot injury cost him his first two seasons in the NBA. He underwent surgery prior to the 2014 NBA Draft and had another surgery on that same foot the following offseason.

The Philadelphia 76ers were patient with Embiid, allowing him to miss the 2014-15 season and 2015-16 season. Once he was healthy, Embiid returned for 31 games in 2016-17, averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. He also connected on 36.7% of his three-point attempts.

Now, Embiid's injury issues are mostly behind him. He played in 68 games this past season, leading the league in scoring (30.6 points) while also averaging 11.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.

While he’s suffered a few injuries in recent years, he’s been far more durable than expected. Embiid is a five-time All-Star who has been named to four All-NBA teams and three All-Defensive teams.

Blake Griffin

Griffin’s pre-rookie-year injury was tough to stomach because he fractured his kneecap in the final preseason game, meaning it wouldn’t have happened had he sat out that last exhibition game.

Like Embiid, Griffin hit the ground running once he returned. He was a refreshing mix of power, skill, size and speed not seen since Shawn Kemp or Dominique Wilkins. He averaged 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game in his first NBA season, winning Rookie of the Year and never looking back.

Griffin is a six-time All-Star, and he’s been named to five All-NBA teams. He managed to revamp his game after his athleticism dwindled, making an impressive transformation.

Ben Simmons

Simmons was the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, and he entered the league with plenty of hype. 

Simmons' career got off to a slow start thanks to a broken foot suffered before his rookie season. The nature of Simmons' injury was less concerning than that of Embiid or Griffin. However, the 76ers' fan base was still awaiting the return of Embiid from his pre-rookie-year injury, so they were understandably frustrated when another top prospect was sidelined.

Fortunately for all involved, Simmons came back with a vengeance. He averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game in his rookie season, teasing fans with his unique mix of size and speed. While he's yet to completely reach his full potential, Simmons was obviously unaffected by his foot injury. He won Rookie of the Year in 2017-18, and he's now a three-time All-Star.

Nerlens Noel

Before Embiid landed in Philadelphia, there was Noel. Noel was projected to be a top-three pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, but then a collision with the basket cost him the end of his freshman season at Kentucky. Noel was ultimately drafted No. 6 overall by New Orleans, with the understanding that he'd miss a considerable amount of time. Noel was eventually dealt to Philadelphia as part of the Jrue Holiday trade, which was Sam Hinkie's first move in Philadelphia.

Noel rehabbed his torn ACL with the 76ers and missed the 2013-14 campaign. The following year, he returned and played 75 games. While Noel lacked a jump shot, he made an immediate impact, averaging 9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 30.8 minutes for the 18-64 76ers.

Noel's career never reached the heights that some hoped, but that has little to do with his ACL injury. He's grown into an impactful backup center, capable of starting for stretches for a playoff-caliber team. 

Michael Porter Jr.

After being ranked the top high school player in the country, Porter suffered a back injury that required spinal surgeries in 2017 and 2018. Despite only playing three games at the collegiate level, Porter was still selected No. 14 in the 2018 NBA Draft based on his high-school dominance and potential.

Porter was viewed as a risky selection for the Denver Nuggets. After all, the Los Angeles Clippers' team doctor had written a report projecting that Porter may never play again.

After missing the entirety of the 2018-19 season, Porter returned the following year and played 55 games. In 2020-21, he had a breakout campaign, averaging 19.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 threes per game.

Unfortunately, his back issues would surface again last season, as he needed another back surgery that caused him to miss all but nine games. 

Greg Oden

Oden's story is the saddest of the bunch. He was projected by many to be a generational talent. He was taken No. 1 overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, one pick before Kevin Durant.

After one Summer League game, his knees were already a problem. He underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee before the season began. At the time, he was the first No. 1 pick to miss his entire rookie year since David Robinson in 1987.

Oden played in only 105 games across three NBA seasons, suffering season-ending injuries in 2007-08, 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13. He retired with career averages of 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. 

***

Lottery picks are supposed to play. They are young and vibrant, and they represent hope for a team’s future. While incredibly scary, season-ending injuries can be more of a bump in the road than a demolition. Holmgren seems to have a very bright future, so let’s hope his injury is more of the former.

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