LAMAR ODOM: SHAPESHIFTER

Early on in Lamar Odom’s career, Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley once said that the now Lakers forward is the only player that has come into the NBA that can match the ability of the legendary Magic Johnson.

Hailed from his first day on the court as a sure-fire star, Odom has been a case study in diversity, passion and flexibility in each of his three stops in the league. However, with such lofty declarations from coaching greats like Riley also come incredible expectations for greatness.

As a high schooler, Odom excelled at stepping into the spotlight as the marquee player for Saint Thomas Aquinas Prep in New Britain, CT. After an outstanding high school career, Lamar was rewarded with Parade Magazine’s Player of the Year Award in 1997, solidifying his status as the top prospect in the nation.

In his one season at the University of Rhode Island, Odom led the Rams to the Atlantic-10 Championship, nailing a last second three-pointer in the title game against Temple University.

In his debut season in the NBA, Lamar—selected fourth in the 1999 draft—was counted on by the Clippers to be one of their go-to guys. At 17 points and eight rebounds, Odom did what he does best: respond to the challenge.

Odom also played an integral role on an exciting young Miami Heat squad in 2003-04, becoming a leader for a franchise that had been dormant for years.

While he’s been relied upon to be “The Man” pretty much since the first time he picked up a basketball, Odom is now just one of the guys on a Lakers team that is primed for a title run.

A VERSATILE ASSASIN

This season, the emergence of phenom Andrew Bynum, the ever-present Kobe Bryant and a potent bench have allowed Lamar to focus on the little things instead of worrying about putting up points as Kobe’s main running mate.

“The game is different when you have a center who’s playing great at that position,” said Odom. “He takes up so much space, allows you to play defense a little differently, allows you to pressure up on your man, allows you to deny people the basketball if they cut back-door, knowing he’s waiting there.”

Although he’s averaging a career low 13 points, don’t tell Lamar he’s having an off season.

“I don’t shoot the ball a ton,” said Odom. “I maybe average around nine or ten shots a game. We’re winning. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Lamar said it best; with so many weapons on the team, he doesn’t have to be option number one, two, three or even four now that L.A. has reeled in Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies.

The true key to Odom’s game is his incredible ability to morph—at a moment’s notice—into whatever type of player the Lakers need him to be on a given night. Whether it’s playing small forward to take advantage of a smaller lineup like the Warriors’ or at power forward to relieve Gasol when he’s out of the game, Lamar has the unique ability to play all five positions on the court—something Riley was correct in saying has not been done since Magic and his Showtime Lakers.

“I always try to play defense, always rebound the ball, always focus on getting others involved,” said Lamar. “Basketball is a game where if you know the science of the game, one man can win a game, but it’s hard for one man to keep winning.”

If basketball truly is a science as Odom claims, then he has clearly reached expert status. While there are certainly other versatile players in the league—LeBron James,Dirk Nowitzki and teammate Kobe Bryant instantly come to mind—you’d be hard-pressed to find another player that is asked to shift their role as often as Odom.

LEARNING HOW TO ADAPT

Though much of Lamar’s ability to remain so flexible on the court stems from his God-given talent, a large portion is derived from his inspiring upbringing.

Raised by his single mother and grandmother, Odom learned how to adapt to his surroundings, no matter how rough or foreign, from an early age.

“I’ve been through a lot of things on and off the court,” said Odom. “I’ve lost a child since I’ve been in the NBA. Life is pain, you’re going to have to adjust and get through. If you believe in God and you’re a spiritual person, you can get through anything.”

When the forward started his 2007-08 campaign, his role as the team’s number two scorer was clearly defined. When Bynum seemingly grew up before Lakers’ fans eyes, the pressure on Lamar to score dissipated.

Unfortunately for Odom, the injury bug caught up to him early in the season and derailed some of the momentum gained from another stellar playoff performance against the Suns. When he finally returned, he struggled at first to find his niche with a Lakers team suddenly bursting with confidence.

Reflecting back on his early season woes, Lamar said, “It’s like a hitter, you’re a great hitter if you go one for three. It happens like that. Sometimes, you’re not going to hit all of your shots…Sometimes it’s like that, but I don’t pressure myself because when it counts, I come through in clutch situations.”

As far as the injuries that have continued to plague him during his Lakers tenure, Lamar said that they are simply a part of the game.

“You could take—how many players in the NBA, like 475?—people think the good ones don’t get injured, but it’s not like that,” said Odom. “It’s a flip of a coin. No matter how much you lift weights, no matter how much you take care of yourself, how much you don’t go out, how much you don’t drink or smoke, anything can happen out there…Your next game could be your last game.”

“Guys that are injured that are able to come back, I look up to them. People don’t know that injuries affect your confidence as well as your ability.”

While Lamar may not place pressure on himself, after Bynum went down with a painful injury of his own, the pressure on him to assert himself on offense and defense mounted considerably.

“I’m going to have to pick up some of the rebounding slack,” said Odom at the time. “Defensively, drawing guys into the post. If you turn them once or twice, you know Andrew’s coming. Of course, without his scoring, I’m going to have to pick it up a little more.”

With the recent acquisition of 2006 All-Star Gasol, the burden on Lamar to score has never been smaller since he came to the Lakers.

FIRING BACK

As a naturally gifted ball-handler despite his lanky 6’10” frame, Odom has the unique ability to control a ballgame from a variety of statistical angles.

Pass, score, rebound, defend—#7 has mastered it all in his four years with the team.

“I didn’t rebound the ball as much when I first got here,” said Lamar. “I try to pick up the slack in any category. I try to do many things. With this team that I’m on, I just can’t focus on one thing. It’s not my game.”

For years, pundits have criticized Odom for not scoring enough, or at last not on a consistent basis. However, like his predecessor Magic, Lamar’s focus has never been on putting up shots.

While players that fill similar roles for their teams such as Shawn Marion basically get a free pass from league experts and fans, Odom has been continually chastised for his perceived inability to rise to the occasion for the Lakers.

The simple fact of the matter is that Odom never has been and never will be the type of player who looks to go off for 35—or even 25 points—on a given night.

Averaging over 107 points a game as a team, it’s hard to argue that the Lakers really need him to.

With Gasol and Bynum—once he returns from injury—anchoring the front line, Odom can reassume his natural position at small forward, no doubt a nightmare mismatch for almost every team in the NBA.

Even though Lamar is being hailed as the best third or fourth option in the league after the trade for Gasol, he has no plans to change his approach. Like he’s done for his entire life, Odom will take whatever’s given to him.

“Ever since I came here, I just came here and played my game. When we made it to the postseason, I usually picked up my scoring,” said Lamar.

The critics who have jumped on his back for far too many seasons now need to accept what is being give to them.

Even Odom himself has evolved to the point that he is no longer concerned with individual accolades, including the All-Star nod that has eluded him for his entire career.

“Honestly, this is my ninth year in the league,” said Odom. “I’m one of the only players who can make an Olympic team, but can’t make an All-Star team. It’s just kind of crazy…It’s just something that if it comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, I understand the caliber player I am. I know what I can bring to any team and hopefully that one day comes, but if it doesn’t, I can’t base my career on it.”

Truth be told, the forward might never reach the milestones achieved by Magic Johnson, but he is a pivotal component of a title-contending squad and is perfectly content with simply being Lamar Odom.