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HIS ROOKIE season was erratic at best, and Greg Oden heard about it. Plenty. "[People] were on me, even for things that weren't my fault," says the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, who sat out '07--08 after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee. "And when things were going well, they said, 'He should have been playing that way.' That's kind of tough to handle."
After the season coach Nate McMillan talked to Oden about not only improving his conditioning to become more explosive but also remembering what he loves about basketball. Oden obliged, undertaking a rigorous off-season program with assistant Bill Bayno while taking classes at Ohio State. After 10 weeks of five-on-five scrimmages, lessons in post positioning and defensive technique, and talks about his role on the Blazers, the 21-year-old center emerged 13 pounds lighter in body and decidedly lighter in spirit. "The lesson I took from this summer is that I'm here for a reason," Oden says. "I worked for this, so why can't I be excited and become an All-Star?"
While that certainly would advance Portland's cause, the team's deep stockpile of young talent lessens the pressure on any one player. "Collective responsibility," said G.M. Kevin Pritchard of the team's approach. "It's as much up to me as it is LaMarcus Aldridge or Brandon Roy or Joel Przybilla or Andre Miller or Steve Blake. We're trying to get all of us not to focus on expectations but on doing our best. And that's all we care about with Greg."
Portland's plan seems to be working. Oden's subdued demeanor of last season has given way to smiles, jokes and an outward display of confidence—but not cockiness. "I'm not going to try and take over," says the 7-foot Oden. "I'm smarter than that. All I've got to do is go out there and not worry about anything else, not question anything else."
After all, he has plenty of people in Portland ready to do that for him.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2008--09 statistics
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G Rudy Fernandez, 10.4 PPG; G Steve Blake, 5.0 APG; F Travis Outlaw, 12.8 PPG; C Joel Przybilla, 8.7 RPG • New acquisition
COACH: Nate McMillan (fifth season with Portland) • 2008--09 RECORD: 54--28 (second in Northwest)
POINTS SCORED: 99.4 (14th in NBA) • POINTS ALLOWED: 94.1 (fourth in NBA)