Posted Nov 19 2009 11:12AM
He has moments. He has more flashes than a woman in her 50s. For him, this is progress. For the league's No. 1 pick of 2007, for the 7-footer who initially had folks cavalierly tossing around the names of "Russell" and "Ewing" like items in a discount bin, for the sake of the Trail Blazers, this is good news.
Greg Oden lives.
Now, can he grab more rebounds? And develop a go-to move? And stay away from silly fouls? And learn proper footwork? And shoot from short range? And show some passion? And gain the confidence of his teammates? And for goodness sake, stay healthy?
"It's not all going to come at once," cautioned Blazers coach Nate McMillan.
Yes. That should be the disclaimer for Oden, until further notice. As in: Warning, He's Trying, But He Ain't There Yet. The trouble with athletic big men who were stars in high school and raised hopes through the roof in college is that very few can do it all at once. Not right away, anyway. If ever. That doesn't stop their teams and fans from keeping expectations at enormous, and some might say unreasonable, levels. Some big men, targeted early for greatness, turn out to be average or one-dimensional. People don't want to hear this, but for every Patrick Ewing, there's a few Michael Olowokandis. Just sayin'.
Where Oden fits in that mix, we don't know yet. He barely played a half-season of college ball, then missed his entire rookie season, then missed 21 games in his second year. He's a work in progress, which everybody knows. We won't know for a while.
And that's the mystery: How do you define "for a while?"
A few times this season, Oden has actually looked more than functional, especially on the boards. Other times, he appeared pre-programmed, clumsy, astonishingly raw and clueless, mainly on offense. One member of the Blazers organization recently said the team is often better off with backup Joel Przybilla on the floor. Through three weeks of the season, Oden is averaging roughly 25 minutes a game, proof that either foul trouble or ineffective play is preventing him from getting healthy playing time. Or perhaps McMillan and the organization, wary of Oden's sensitivity, are just taking it slow.
Oden's most exhausting night was 34 minutes Tuesday in an overtime loss to the Hawks. It was yet another game in which Oden had flashes but not a complete game. He scored seven points in the first quarter. He finished with 11. He towered over Al Horford, the Hawks' center-in-name only, and yet Horford sparked a second-half Hawks rally. On one possession, Oden's shot was stuffed by Horford, who gives away four inches. He had rebounds wrestled away by Josh Smith, who grabbed 16.
A scout from a Western Conference team, who watches Portland often, recently said Oden may be like the economy, needing years to fix.
And what does Oden say?
"I'm just trying to work on my game and get better. That's all I can do. Keep working hard, keep trying."
Assuming that playing defense and blocking shots will be the least of his worries, Oden's biggest chore is clearly on offense. His points come from junk baskets. The Blazers don't call his number often, mainly because Oden hasn't looked comfortable with the ball in his hands in the half-court, unless he has a put-back. His footwork doesn't remind anyone of Astaire, or even Mark Cuban on "Dancing With The Stars." Nimble footwork is usually learned early; by now, you wonder how much Oden can pick up and lock into his reflex memory bank.
Until that happens, let's not even discuss a mid-range jumper.
At this point, what the Blazers want most is rebounding. That was an alarming weakness last season, when Oden averaged seven a night. He's more active on the glass now, but the increased contact also has resulted in foul trouble. By comparison, Przybilla grabs just as many rebounds per minute.
Until Oden starts commanding more playing time and giving more production, the Blazers will have their hands full trying to challenge the Spurs or Lakers or Mavericks for Western Conference supremacy. They don't have a low-post threat, since LaMarcus Aldridge is 6-foot-11 and allergic to paint. Brandon Roy goes after the glass as hard as any of the Blazers' big men. The tough baskets and boards are what Portland could use. They're tapping their fingers and toes while waiting for Oden to deliver.
At least there's some positive, encouraging news: He's healthy.
"I'm not thinking about my physical problems in the past," he said. "I'm just moving forward."
So are the Blazers. They had a successful road trip recently. Their remaining schedule in November is favorable. They're deep enough, more than most, to absorb the loss of Travis Outlaw. Andre Miller, their big free-agent signing last summer, is finally starting and warming up to his teammates. This team once again has the look of a 50-game winner.
If Oden somehow gets it together soon, the Blazers will have a license to think bigger. If not, they'll have to think about next season.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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