WHATEVER ONE might say about the interminable period between the drafting of Greg Oden on June 28, 2007, and his first on-court action, in a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings in early October, the Portland Trail Blazers weren't waiting for Godot. Oden was everywhere. He performed a painfully off-key karaoke rendition of *NSync's It's Gonna Be Me at an event he hosted last month for an Oregon mentoring organization; accompanied Justin Timberlake on the piano (O.K., he pretended to play) in undersized tux and oversized Elton John glasses at July's ESPY Awards; chatted by phone last February with Barack Obama ("He said he wasn't feeling my Mohawk," Oden reported); blogged about various aspects of his private life (he took a cold shower at his mom's house; met Caribbean chanteuse Rihanna, on whom he's had a crush for a long time; concluded that a summer cold was "def not" the flu, yada yada); and in general fashioned a larger-than-life, good-guy persona—the Benign Big Man—that hasn't been seen in an oversized NBA youngster since a smiling Shaquille O'Neal strode confidently to center stage in 1992.
"Everybody's seen me sitting around on the bench in a suit and doing other stuff," says Oden, 20, who missed all of last season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee, "but now it's time to really accomplish something."
Yes, it is. When the Blazers tip off their season on Tuesday in Los Angeles, on national TV against the Lakers, Oden will finally end the weight of The Wait for his team, the latest in a long list of Johnny-come-latelies to do so. In the '50s Richie Guerin of the New York Knicks and Hall of Famers Cliff Hagan of the St. Louis Hawks and K.C. Jones of the Boston Celtics had to fulfill military commitments before they joined their teams. In 1962 Jerry Lucas was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals but sat out the season after signing with the American Basketball League. The Celtics could only long for Larry Bird after Red Auerbach snookered his fellow general managers by selecting Bird in 1978, when he was an eligible junior at Indiana State, and then signing him after his senior year. More recently, several outstanding international players (Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls, Peja Stojakovic of the Sacramento Kings, Andrei Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz and Manu Ginóbili of the San Antonio Spurs) had to finish tours of duty in Europe while the NBA clubs that drafted them cooled their heels.
But the best comparison for Oden is with David Robinson, another center taken first overall, who had to spend two years in the Navy before joining the Spurs in 1989 and immediately lifting a 21--61 team to a 56--26 record (then the greatest turnaround in NBA history) and the second round of the playoffs. At least one fan expects Oden to have an even greater impact: Kendall Pritchard, the 11-year-old daughter of Blazers G.M. Kevin Pritchard. She wrote WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS OF THE NBA! above the Blazers' logo on the personnel board in her father's office. "If she thinks it's important, we'll leave it there," says Pritchard. "But make sure you say it wasn't my idea."
THERE IS no doubt that a healthy Oden will make Portland better. Only a rocky finish to last year's 41--41 season cost the young Blazers a chance at the playoffs, and the addition of an athletic, 285-pound 7-footer who conjures visions of Dwight Howard, and even Shaq, clearly casts Portland as a climber. The playoffs are the franchise's stated goal, fourth place (and home court advantage in the first round) everyone's secret wish.
"All our holes," says shooting guard Brandon Roy, a surprise All-Star last year in his second season, "are holes that Greg is going to plug." That includes defensive rebounding (the Blazers were tied for 20th in second-chance points allowed and were last in fast-break points, which are usually triggered by rebounds) and interior defense (they were 21st in blocked shots). "We were simply overmatched by big centers like Yao [Ming] and Dwight Howard," says coach Nate McMillan.
What the Blazers don't play up as much is Oden's offense. Theoretically, they now have a low-post threat who can draw double teams and open up perimeter shots. Reserve center Joel Przybilla did a serviceable job in Oden's stead last season, but with averages of 3.3 shots and 4.8 points a game, he could be ignored by defenses. "Greg can dunk on anybody, and I mean anybody," says third-year power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who blossomed into a 17.8-point scorer in Oden's absence last year. "Greg is every bit as strong as players like Yao and Shaq. Plus, he's got great hands. I compare him to Tyson Chandler [of the New Orleans Hornets] in that he can roll to the basket after screening, catch, settle himself and score. There are not a lot of big guys who can do that."
That said, Oden has never been a numbers machine on offense. He averaged only 15.7 points during his one season at Ohio State and even in high school was never a guy who, in his own words, "went off all crazily and scored 30 or 40." (Over the six-decade history of the NBA there have been a few centers drafted first overall who were not thought of as big-time scorers—yes, Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown were taken first in their respective drafts.) And for those wedded to the Robinson-Oden comparison, remember this: The Admiral averaged at least 23.2 points in each of his first seven seasons. Oden may never be a 20-point scorer. But as Roy says, "With Greg's return we're adding a piece to a really good team, not someone who has to come in and dominate the ball."
IN TRUTH, the Trail Blazers can't be sure what they'll get from Oden offensively. In four preseason games through Sunday, Oden was at best solid, averaging 11.0 points on 53.3% shooting. At times he appeared awkward in the low post and a little out of shape. (That's not surprising since he also missed a couple days of camp with a mildly sprained ankle.) In short, he has not looked like a dominant center on the offensive end.
Yet McMillan emphasizes that the Blazers will still look inside to Oden on the blocks. "I don't want to put a number on what we expect from Greg offensively," says McMillan. "But he has skills. He has footwork. He has—I hesitate to make this comparison exactly—some of Shaquille's ability on offense. He walks you in, and when he's deep enough, he'll overpower you. And if you come and double-team, he's willing to give it up.
"Greg is a very poised, very patient and very unselfish big man. My guess is that by January, I'll be yelling at him to shoot more. That's O.K. We're just going to take it slow. That's the plan."
The Blazers are good with plans. They had one before the Ping-Pong balls brought them Oden: to remake a team that had lost its nestling spot in the warm bosom of loyal Portland fans, having earned the sobriquet of Jail Blazers through the on-court and off-court misadventures of players such as Rasheed Wallace, Isaiah Rider, Damon Stoudamire, Bonzi Wells, Ruben Patterson, Zach Randolph, Qyntel Woods and Darius Miles. Pritchard (who arrived in 2004 as director of player personnel and was named G.M. late in the '06--07 season) and McMillan (who became coach before the '05--06 season) wanted to rebuild with what Pritchard calls "character guys." So far it has worked, not least because Pritchard pulled off some draft-day magic to get solid citizens Aldridge (from the Bulls) and Roy (from the Minnesota Timberwolves). Perhaps that karmic improvement was the reason the Blazers won the '07 lottery despite having only a 5.3% chance to do so.
Though Kevin Durant, the other tempting choice in the '07 draft, has beguiling offensive talents, Portland focused on Oden from the outset. Pritchard said he felt even better about the pick after Oden woke up from the surgery on his knee.
"I said, 'Greg, you had microfracture surgery. You're probably going to be out the whole year.' And his response was, 'I'm so sorry.' He kept saying it over and over. 'I'm so sorry.' It was at that point I told everybody, 'This is the exact guy we want for our franchise.'?"
THE EXACT GUY settles himself into a chair behind a desk at the Blazers' practice facility 15 miles south of downtown Portland. It is a week before his preseason debut. He holds a plate of postpractice food and smiles apologetically. "You mind if I eat while we talk?" Oden asks, unfailingly polite. Over the next 30 minutes the food gets cold. "I don't want to talk with my mouth full," he says with a smile when he's urged to eat.
Oden's size and friendly demeanor invite comparisons with Shaq, which are understandable but not perfect. From O'Neal's first days at LSU in 1989, there was a hurly-burly air to him. Shaq was, and remains, "on." By contrast, there's an air of quietude about Oden—less theater, less scene-stealing.
Still, Oden's public forays, his blogging, his No. 1 draft position, his unmistakable corporeal presence and his grizzled-vet countenance have turned him into a personality without portfolio. A few weeks before the season, Oden elected to lower his profile, even rejecting a request to pose for the cover of this issue. "There are a lot of players who deserve to be on the cover more than me," he explains between rare bites. "It's time I started earning some things."
He is enthusiastic about voting in his first presidential election ("Obama's a guy who caught my interest even though my tax bracket would have me vote otherwise," he says), but as the season draws near, he hasn't paid close attention to the race. Asked where he will cast his ballot on Nov. 4, Oden's face shows a flash of panic. "Man, I better see where we are," he says, grabbing a pocket schedule off the desk of Chris Bowles, the Blazers' director of player programs. "Ooh, we're in Utah. Well, Chris will take care of it."
The Blazers have been good at taking care of things. (Bowles subsequently did arrange for Oden and several teammates to cast absentee ballots.) Throughout the six months that Oden rode the bench last season, there was never a major public relations slipup. That is harder than one might think; injured players are often a major distraction to teams. But as methodically as the Trail Blazers remade their team, so did they establish, and stick to, a plan for Oden's supporting-role performance.
First of all, he was absolutely, positively not going to play, no matter how well his rehab went. He was encouraged to go on several road trips—a few back-to-backs so he could learn how that makes the body feel and an 11-day January excursion so he could familiarize himself with arenas in the East. He was expected to show up for games at the Rose Garden, on time and in NBA-mandated business casual. Though limited by injury, Oden fulfilled some rookie tasks, such as helping to unload the equipment truck on the road. Only rarely did McMillan direct questions to him in team meetings; the Blazers wanted him to feel a part of the team but not as if he was on trial.
Nor did Oden thrust himself into the spotlight. He was never caught even hinting at a weakness of, say, Przybilla, or suggesting how much better Portland would be were he in the lineup. "First off, I'm a rookie, so I don't know anything about the NBA anyway," says Oden. "Why should you talk if you can't contribute?"
The fact that everything worked out didn't mean it was easy, though. "After my knee started coming around, I wanted to play really bad," says Oden, who was admonished but not fined when he was caught playing pickup ball at a Portland gym last March. "I didn't care if it was for two minutes. I did not want to be considered a rookie this season. A player wants to be with his draft class. What if I make the rookie-sophomore All-Star game this season? [A take-it-to-the-bank bet if he's healthy.] I'll be playing against the guys I was drafted with."
The party line is that Oden learned by watching, but the center says that the game unfolds so fast that picking up individual opponent weaknesses was nearly impossible. "What helped me the most—and I know this sounds strange—is watching guys miss," he says. "I remember during one of the San Antonio games Tim [Duncan] missed an easy shot, and it almost startled me. Man, when you're watching a game on TV, you think that he never misses that shot. So it boosts your confidence. I didn't pick up any strategic stuff, but I did come away feeling, O.K., I miss shots, they miss shots. I can play with these guys."
McMillan felt that Oden hit the typical midseason rookie wall (the rehab routine being as numbingly difficult as actually playing). But Oden says the toughest part for him came much earlier, in December, when the Blazers went on a 13-game winning streak. "I think when it got to 10 games—maybe it's something about double figures—it drove me crazy not to be playing," he says. "There was so much hype around here, and, man, I wasn't contributing to any of it. I wanted to be out there celebrating with the guys after every game. But I couldn't."
EXACTLY HOW much the Trail Blazers will be celebrating this season depends on several factors: The continued improvement of Roy and Aldridge. The quality of point guard play from Steve Blake (pass-first incumbent), Jerryd Bayless (shoot-first rookie) and Sergio Rodríguez (third-year question mark). The maturation of Spanish rookie guard Rudy Fernàndez, who has All-Star--caliber skills but may need some time to adjust to the physical NBA game. The willingness of forwards such as Martell Webster (who is out until December with a stress fracture in his left foot), Travis Outlaw and Channing Frye to contribute as their minutes invariably go down with Oden and Fernàndez on the floor. And don't forget that the Blazers, for all of their overachievement last season, were still only the 10th-best team in the conference; to ascend in the West, they will need slippage from the aging but still formidable triumvirate of San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix.
But it's undeniable that the focus is on Oden. He doesn't have to be Bill Russell from the outset, but he sure as hell can't be Kwame Brown. After all, it's a three-story-high Oden jersey that hangs from the side of the Rose Garden, and it will be the chant of O-DIN! O-DIN! (conveniently, the chief Norse god) that will reverberate most raucously through the arena when the Blazers are rolling. The long wait has only increased the anticipation to see whether pleasure delayed is pleasure doubled or pleasure denied.
That's a lot of pressure ... for a rookie.
"They'll probably make me do some rookie stuff again," says Oden. "That's O.K. I'm so eager to play, I'll carry balls, luggage, whatever." Fortunately, he's not being asked to carry a team. Not yet, anyway.
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The playoffs are the franchise's stated goal, fourth place its secret wish. "ALL OUR HOLES," says Roy, "are holes Greg is going to plug."
The focus is undeniably on Oden. He doesn't have to be Bill Russell from the outset, but he sure as hell CAN'T BE KWAME BROWN.
The Trail Blazers will be one of the NBA's most improved teams. Turn the page to see SI's predictions for how many more or less wins each club will have.
Photograph by John W. McDonough
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK Since his high school days Oden has been renowned for his intimidating defense, but he will also create open shots for teammates as a low-post threat.
Photograph by John W. McDonough
LEARNING CURVE While Oden (below, left) got used to a sideline perspective after his knee surgery, nothing prepared him for the speed of the game until he stepped on the court in the preseason.
Photograph by John W. McDonough
[See caption above]
Photograph by John W. McDonough
EMBRACEABLE O With his blend of huge talent and humility, Oden has already endeared himself to the Portland faithful.