DEEP IN the fourth quarter of any tight game in Portland, shooting guard Brandon Roy sets the rhythm. As the sold-out Rose Garden urges its young Trail Blazers to go-go-go, Roy peacefully decelerates his dribble, making his way across half-court like a senior citizen oblivious to surrounding traffic, puttering along while an impatient defender swats futilely at the ball until, at last, he is ready to make his move, cross-stepping abruptly into the lane ...
... And then the ball is descending high off the glass through the net, and he is heading upcourt, his blank expression unchanged. When Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade attack the basket, they lurch, lunge and leap with enough g-force to lift spectators out of their seats. When Roy drives, fans' mouths drop open as they sit, dumbfounded. How did he make it there? "He's very deceptive," says Blazers center Joel Przybilla, who has been Roy's teammate for three years. "I don't know if it's how he plays the angles or what. It's amazing, because it looks like he's not even asserting himself, but he gets to the spot where he wants to get to and then, man, you're in trouble."
The 6'6" Roy plays like an aging vet who takes pride in outsmarting the rim-scrapers while conserving energy to extend his career. In fact, he is a 24-year-old blessed with a 41-inch vertical leap, which he uses only when necessary. He wears neither tattoos nor jewelry. In this era of unparalleled athleticism and style over substance, Brandon Roy is the NBA's curious version of Benjamin Button—a young body driven by an old-school mind. "He's of the same ilk as Oscar Robertson and Walt Frazier, and I don't say that lightly," says Blazers assistant Dean Demopoulos. "The defense is never threatening to him, and he's that way as a person too. He is a very secure, grounded guy, a throwback who could play in any era."
A four-year collegian at Washington, Roy has startled many in his three seasons as a pro, revealing the sort of upside normally associated with rawer prospects. He was named Rookie of the Year in 2007, and last Thursday he earned his second straight All-Star berth. At week's end Roy was leading the Blazers with a career-best 22.6 points per game, along with 5.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds, as the team (29--17) chased its first postseason appearance in six seasons. Roy's importance truly shows when the game heats up: Only James, Wade and Bryant are more prolific down the stretch than Roy, who through Sunday was averaging 7.1 points in the fourth quarter. "He has a pace about him that is calming for me and the players," says Portland coach Nate McMillan, who, when he was in Seattle, used to watch Roy play for Garfield High. "He's better than I thought he would be."
Roy has been hearing such remarks for as long as he's been playing basketball. "Even my high school coach, I can understand why he didn't think I could play," he says. Roy is well aware that he has never embraced the flamboyant role of modern-day prodigy: While others his age have grown up playing recklessly and reached the NBA in need of discipline, he has faced the opposite problem. He has been unable to play without restraint, to let himself go.
HE'S ONE of my favorite players in the league," says Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who asks his staff to make highlight videos of Roy as teaching tools for his sons Jeremiah, a junior redshirting at Indiana, and Austin, a high school sophomore in Winter Park, Fla.—both guards. "He plays under control, he plays unselfishly, and he plays at gears that young players don't play at. Most young players play fast and out of control, and for them it's all about getting 'my shots.' But his whole attitude is based on team play."
Few younger stars have had a more profound effect on their franchises than Roy. At week's end Portland was drawing an average of 20,543 fans at home, the third-best attendance in the league. That's a huge turnaround from 2005--06, when the team was known nationally as the Jail Blazers for off-court incidents involving their talented but undisciplined players and attendance was 15,049. Local department stores didn't bother to carry Blazers T-shirts and other team gear, and commissioner David Stern had to personally intervene to keep disaffected owner Paul Allen from selling the franchise.
Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard, who as player personnel director orchestrated the team's breakout draft in 2006, coveted Roy's maturity and character as well as his talent. And Roy wanted to be in Portland as well: The proximity to Seattle would enable his parents—Gina, a school lunchroom attendant, and Tony, a city bus driver and former Marine—to attend his games. "My Number 1 pick was to go to Portland," Brandon says. In a flurry of draft-day deal-making Pritchard packaged the No. 4 choice to the Chicago Bulls to land LaMarcus Aldridge, a 6'11" forward from Texas who would make the NBA all-rookie first team; then he acquired Boston's pick at No. 7, which he swapped with Minnesota for the rights to Roy, whom the Timberwolves had taken sixth. "We felt like Brandon could be a really good leader," says Pritchard, "and that he and LaMarcus had the ability to change the culture of our team."
No sooner had their two lottery picks arrived in Portland than the Blazers were marketing around them—especially Roy. He was a low-risk choice for a front man: a gifted, selfless player who was well-spoken and outgoing, the middle of three children raised in a church-going, two-parent home. The burden of off-court appearances and interviews to promote the team's brand was exhausting during a rookie season in which Roy flew home in between games for the birth of his first child, Brandon Roy Jr. ( Roy and his fianc�e, Tiana Bardwell, had their second child, daughter Mariah Leilani, in January.) "The first two years they really had him everywhere, and [quietly] he complained," says McMillan. "He did it because he knew where the organization was at. He did it to get us to where we are now."
The Blazers even dispatched Roy to the 2007 draft lottery, where he served as the public face of a franchise that overcame a long-shot, 5.3% chance to win the No. 1 pick and the rights to Ohio State center Greg Oden. After Oden underwent microfracture right-knee surgery and sat out last season, Portland fans, haunted already by the physical collapses of centers Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, began to fret again over the long-term prospects of their young roster. Roy was available at the No. 6 pick only because he had undergone two knee operations and was regarded as brittle by several teams, according to league sources. He has already missed 36 NBA games because of a sore left heel and other ailments. Will Roy's body hold up long enough for him to lead the Blazers' promising young rotation of Aldridge, Oden and rookie swingman Rudy Fernandez to a championship? "You can't predict the future with injuries," says Pritchard. "But whatever happens going forward, we knew Brandon was right for us because he absolutely changed the direction of our team."