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.