By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jan 15 2009 6:34PM
PHILADELPHIA -- Greg Oden's coach has some quiet, unassuming advice to pass along to his rookie center.
"You've basically got to say, 'F everyone, F everything,'" Nate McMillan says.
Which means: Lighten up, big man. The world is not on your shoulders.
It's a message that McMillan and the rest of the Portland Trail Blazers have been trying to impart on the 20-year-old Oden, who's trudging through his first season in the NBA, seemingly feeling like he's letting everyone down on a nightly basis. He accepts the words of well-wishers who've seen more than he has -- this night, it's Sonny Hill, the legendary player and pioneering broadcaster who now works for the 76ers -- with a sad smile.
"Your time is coming," Hill tells him.
It takes time, I tell him.
But Oden's hands must be sore, for he continues to beat himself up.
"I didn't really have an envisioned stage of where I was going to be at right now," Oden says. "But I figured I'd be doing a lot better than I am now, being more consistent ... just being able to come in every game and do what I need to do. It's more like for me, I'll have two good games, then I'll have two or three bad games. I'm just trying to be a guy that you can count on, that can bring it every night."
I saw Oden in Boston almost a year ago, when he was recovering from microfracture surgery on his right knee and missing all of what should have been his rookie season. He was disappointed that he wasn't playing, but he was the same kid you saw in all those stories and commercials featuring him before and after the 2007 draft --funny, curious, self-deprecating. He was going to spend part of his afternoon in a bookstore, he told me.
That guy is now buried somewhere deep inside Oden. The burden he seems to feel at being the No. 1 pick, the cornerstone of what the Blazers hope will be numerous championships and the next great center in the NBA, is grinding him down -- or at least that's what a few minutes with him before Wednesday's game with the 76ers appeared to show. The fact that he's having the kind of rookie season that 90 to 95 percent of NBA players have does not seem to give him much solace.
He spends most of his off-court time, he says, at home. Which is great. Except if you're the brooding type.
"Lot of pressure on the big fella," says the Blazers' All-Star guard, Brandon Roy. "I can't imagine. There's more pressure on him (now) than on me, and I've been in the league for three years."
But it's not coming from within. Portland has a terrific group of young players, both in abilities and character. They are on the rise, the Miles Follies notwithstanding, and they know that their development as a team is a long-term project. They have a star in Roy, a rising power forward in LaMarcus Aldridge and another "rookie" guard, Rudy Fernandez, who'd be starting for half of the teams in the league. There isn't a better situation in which Oden can grow than Portland, with its good team, good coach and small media contingent.
No one with a brain -- and this, of course, excludes many of us the media --expected Oden to step in and dominate at this level, especially considering he's played about five months of organized, competitive basketball the past two years, with the broken wrist during his one season at Ohio State, and the knee surgery, and the sprained foot he suffered on opening night in November that shelved him another six games. The injuries, of course, are what everyone talks about first, making facile comparisons between Oden and Sam Bowie, another first-round Portland pick a generation ago and the poster child for a career unfulfilled.
Entering play Thursday, Oden's 8.1 points per game ranked 15th among rookies. He was tied for third in rebounds, at 7.1 per game, with Memphis' Marc Gasol. He was second among rookies in blocked shots at 1.09 per game, behind New Jersey's Brook Lopez. And he was shooting 53.1 percent from the floor. Not earth-shattering numbers, but decent.
Oden doesn't think so. He believes he's not doing what he should be.
"It's easy to notice," Oden says. "You know the coaches are obviously thinking it, 'cause I see it myself, even though I am a lot more critical of myself. I know I have to step it up and play better."
For Oden, it's simple: His numbers aren't anywhere near the numbers of other first-year franchise centers like Shaquille O'Neal (23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds for Orlando in 1992-93) or Hakeem Olajuwon (20.6 points and 11.9 rebounds for Houston in 1984-85). He brings up Dwight Howard, though Howard's rookie numbers, while slightly better than Oden's (12 points, 10 rebounds in 2004), didn't change the game as we know it. (Please, don't anybody tell him about Wilt's first year in Philly: 37.6 points, 27 rebounds. Every night. If Oden hears those stats, he may never put on a uniform again.)
And it does not matter to him that many top-pick centers of recent vintage, like Kwame Brown (gaaack!) and Yao Ming and Andrew Bogut and Andrea Bargnani all struggled during their first seasons.
"I mean, I understand that, but then there are some that have come in and started dominating right away," Oden said. "Those are the guys you look up to and who you see. You don't really hear about the people who don't really dominate that much, but you do hear, and you do hear the comparisons about the people you have. So that's who you're compared to your whole career."
Well, there is another center with whom we can compare Oden, because his first-year averages were almost exactly what Oden's are now. This guy, like Oden, was quiet much of the time. And while he wasn't the first pick overall the year he was drafted, expectations on him were just as high as they are for Oden.
The center averaged 9.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and shot. 503 from the floor as a rookie. Over four seasons, his numbers got a little better. By that fourth season, he was averaging 17 points and 10.9 boards. But he never "dominated," and his team gave up on him after that fourth season. His team was so anxious to get rid of him, it threw in a first-round pick in a trade.
For which the Celtics were grateful.
Because the center was Robert Parish.
The first-round pick became Kevin McHale.
And they already had Larry Bird.
Portland fans, ask yourself: Would you take 12 years or so of Parish to go along with Roy and Aldridge and Fernandez?
McMillan just wants Oden to give himself a break.
"We talk about 'unwrapping' yourself," McMillan said. "Let loose. You're going to make mistakes. He has a real fear of letting people down. And we tell him, go out and play. This is the year for you to do that, to make mistakes ... don't worry about the hype and the media. Learn how to play the game. If you know how to set a screen and when to set a screen, you're going to get good low post position and you're going to score."
Right now, Oden plays like a typical rookie. Monday in Chicago, he had 17 points and 13 rebounds in 27 minutes. Wednesday in Philadelphia, he had two points and three rebounds in 18 minutes, as he struggled with Samuel Dalembert, whose length and quickness kept Oden from being comfortable in the paint.
"It's the first time he saw a guy like Dalembert, who's a defender and long," McMillan said.
Everything is the first time for Oden.
For now, Roy just wants him to smile.
"I try to say some funny stuff to him," Roy said. "Even on the court, when we're warming up, I run over there and mess with him. I just try to make him relax. It's basketball. And I can see it coming around. Every once in a while, he jokes with me first now. So that's letting me know he's trying to have fun with it. It's going to be good. When it clicks, it's going to be good."
Some time soon -- sooner than he knows -- Oden will laugh at how he tied himself up in knots, how he worried about his game and whether he'd ever live up to all of the noise. He'll wonder why he didn't just tell everyone to ... well, what McMillan said. He'll be more comfortable in his skin and more confident on the court. He'll know what he's doing.
Next week, he turns 21.
"It's definitely going to come with experience," Oden says. "I know it's out there for me. I know I have to go out there and go get it and keep it that way."
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