Posted Oct 20 2009 10:53AM
This time, Greg Oden is the underdog, the gritty guy trying to unseat the incumbent and earn a place in the starting lineup, the focused hard worker who shifted direction in the offseason, the prospect showing a greater determination than ever to succeed.
In the latest Oden incarnation, because they tend to come annually and sometimes more than that, he is lighter and quicker after buying into the Trail Blazers' suggestions to lose weight. He's down about 15 pounds, moving well on the right knee that needed season-ending microfracture surgery in September 2007 and the left knee that cost him 14 games in 2008-09 because of bone chips, and that's a possible development in a lurching career.
The screaming disclaimer is that no one, not even the Blazers in a continued attempt to prop up his spirits, suggest this is the final step before the inevitable greatness. It is, though, a potentially impact-filled step forward for a team that won 54 games last season with the second-youngest opening night roster in the league and now needs to prove it can be a title contender.
In especially encouraging news for the Trail Blazers, they don't need Oden to be a superstar. Developing into a nonstop All-Star would save a lot of front-office people temple-rubbing decades of hearing about the missed call with the No. 1 pick in 2007, especially as Kevin Durant becomes the scoring machine everyone saw coming, but on the court, Portland reaches that championship level if Oden merely gets to dependably good.
This is the perfect time and place for him, it turns out, not the center of his crumbling universe. Among the many things that went right for the resurgent Trail Blazers last season, tying for the second-best record in the Western Conference alleviated an incalculable amount of pressure on Oden to be great already. Being good enough to start and put a lid on the basket makes him a difference maker and a potential hero. Strange given the '07 perspective, but true.
Defense is his game and defense is where Portland knows it needs to improve most this season. Opponents shot 46 percent against the Blazers, the No. 17-showing in the league. No one ever confused him for an all-around star coming out of Ohio State, but his potential at stopping the other team from scoring was unquestioned, an assessment that doesn't fly away when a 21-year-old big man struggles very early amid injuries.
That's where the weight loss comes in. Coach Nate McMillan said he and Oden talked about physique at the start of last season and that Oden wanted to be the kind of center that powered through people. Then Oden averaged seven rebounds (in just 21.5 minutes) and suffered another knee injury, and maybe burly wasn't better after all.
"I've been strong my whole entire life," he said. "It just took a whole entire year of going through the league for coaches to finally get it in my head that 'You're strong already.'"
The new Oden has gone from the 270s to the low-260s and yet is reporting no risk of getting hip-checked into the fourth row. The only difference is the one he wants, needing only a few weeks of training camp and exhibition games to notice a reduced strain on the knees and improved mobility.
"He's going to be powerful just because of who he is," McMillan said. "But when you add the power and explosiveness to a player like that, with his ability, it's going to be hard to control those guys."
It all goes out the window, of course, if he gets hurt again or continues to battle foul trouble, on-going concerns both. A more-agile, less-fragile Oden can still be a difference maker - not to where he turns the Durant-Oden debate, but to where he turns the course of the Western Conference the next six or eight years.
Maybe Oden remains in a reserve role this season. Maybe Joel Przybilla holds him off at least a little longer and stays in the opening lineup after posting 8.7 rebounds in just 23.8 minutes in 2008-09, which easily translates into double figures if he played starter's minutes. It would be disappointing to Oden and another public slap when he's already had enough, but it doesn't change the fact that you don't give up on promising young bigs before what would be their senior year of college and that Oden's approach and game are advancing.
"He's more determined this year," teammate Brandon Roy said. "I can tell in practices. He's pushing himself harder than I've ever seen him. With his offensive game, he's no longer trying to overpower you every play. He's doing moves. He's shooting right-handed jump hooks, he's facing up. He's added some things to his game that's going to help and that's going to relieve some of the pressure on referees always calling fouls on him. He's added that finesse to his game."
It's the new Oden. The latest new Oden.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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