Greg Oden has played just 100 minutes this season but one thing is already clear: The Miami Heat made the right decision pursuing and ultimately signing the former No. 1 pick of the 2007 NBA Draft last summer.
While the Heat minimized much, if not all, of the risk in adding Oden by paying him the veteran's minimum, it was impossible to know then whether the center, four years removed from an NBA game, could still perform at a high level or if he could stay healthy after having chronic knee issues.
Since making his first appearance of the season on Jan. 8 against the Washington Wizards, which was ahead of schedule (the plan was for him to rehab for the entire first half of the season and debut after the All-Star break, according to B/R's Ethan J. Skolnick) Oden has yet to have a setback.
He's played in 12 of Miami's last 18 games. That's an accomplishment in itself, a sentiment Coach Spo shared, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post.
The biggest thing is look at how far he’s gone. Let’s keep it in perspective. You see what he can bring to the table and you immediately say more. But that can’t be in our vocabulary. The fact he’s available and in uniform is the biggest victory of all right now.
The fact that he's already playing well and getting better by the game is the cherry on top.
The per-game numbers don't jump out at us: 3.0 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.5 blocks. But, after considering how few minutes he's playing (8.3 per game), those numbers are far more impressive. Oden's per-36 minutes averages are 13.1 points (51.9 percent shooting from the field), 10.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.
Oden's defensive rating of 101 would rank 18th in the NBA (he hasn't played enough minutes to qualify). His win shares per 48 minutes ranks among the best in the league as well, according to NBA.com's Couper Moorhead.
While Oden hasn't moved as well as he used to, it's impossible for Miami not to be encouraged with where he's at right now. The big man is doing exactly what the Heat want him to; he's taking advantage of his offensive touches, grabbing rebounds and altering shots on the defensive end.
The biggest game of Oden's season to this point was his Feb. 23 start in place of an injured LeBron James against the Chicago Bulls. He added five points and five rebounds in just 13 minutes.
A reminder: Oden is putting up these numbers after missing four years of NBA basketball. Oden still has a ways to improve. He has only scratched the surface of his potential impact for the Heat.
This is someone that, if he continues to move better, gets more comfortable with the Heat's system and stays healthy, could be a real difference maker for Miami down the stretch.
Oden recently spoke to Charlie McCarthy of Fox Sports Florida about feeling more comfortable in his new surroundings.
"I know the plays a little bit better and I'm starting to feel a little more confident out there," Oden said. "I think guys are starting to feel comfortable with me out there."
The Heat are almost certainly going to face the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, which means Miami is going to have to go through Roy Hibbert. Without Oden, the Heat had no answer for Hibbert last year; he averaged 22.4 points and 10.4 rebounds in the 2013 conference finals.
But Oden has the size (7'0" and 273 pounds) and the defensive talent to prevent Hibbert (7'2" and 290 pounds) from dominating the Heat to the extent he did a year ago.
Whether this story has a happy ending for Oden (he helps the Heat get past the Pacers and they win a title) or takes a familiar, dark turn (his season ends with him writhing in pain on the floor, clutching his knee) remains to be seen.
But right now Oden's on the court, playing decent minutes and being productive, and there's only reason to believe he'll get better. That makes adding Oden already a huge win for Miami, even with the end of this story yet to be told.