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.