A more confident and aggressive Greg Oden looks as if he can be the Blazers' answer inside
HIS STATS are disappointing for a No. 1 pick—8.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in 23.2 minutes at week's end—yet the Trail Blazers are heartened by Greg Oden's progress. Over a recent five-game stretch the rookie center averaged 16.4 points and 11.4 boards, including career highs of 24 points and 15 rebounds in a Jan. 19 victory over the Bucks. "He just dominated us," said Bucks coach Scott Skiles. "We tried to front him, we tried to play behind him, and he hurt us."
While the 7-foot, 285-pound Oden will be expected to consistently produce such numbers in the coming years, for now the Blazers are evaluating him not as the star of the 2007 draft but as a 21-year-old who missed last season while recovering from right knee microfracture surgery. There are still times when Oden looks like a long-legged foal, committing needless fouls as he struggles to hold his ground against big men from Shaquille O'Neal to the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins. "They've got that veteran old-man strength, they're smarter and they know the game," Oden says. "Before, things just came easier; now I've actually got to think about what I'm doing."
Oden's recent improvement is not the result of any technical refinements, though; he's simply playing with more confidence and aggression. When he was drafted, some executives wondered whether he might be too happy-go-lucky to realize his vast potential. Then, as he struggled to get comfortable on the court, he seemed to play unenthusiastically and was criticized for that. The Blazers have encouraged Oden to find a happy medium and are relieved that it's quickly paying off. "I'm not going out there to just have fun," Oden says. "This is serious right now."
Oden couldn't be in a better situation: Third-year forward LaMarcus Aldridge (17.5 points per game through Sunday) takes on the frontcourt scoring burden, liberating Oden to focus on defense and controlling the boards. The young team ranks first in offensive-rebounding percentage and second in overall rebounding differential, thanks in no small part to Oden.
"People see this big young man who is supposed to be a dominating force," says Portland coach Nate McMillan. "He wants to do well, and he's uncomfortable with all the attention. He would prefer to earn that attention." He's starting to.