Greg Oden has been called just about everything.
Coming out of college at Ohio State University, he was called a "beast", "the next Bill Russell", the "most prized Ohio State basketball recruit in the school's history", and "dominant".
Two years after being drafted number one by Portland and two injuries, critics added such labels as "the next Sam Bowie", "bust", "fragile" and "injury prone".
In a 2008 entertainmentinsider.com article, the collegiate Greg Oden was described as living:
"...up to the hype. He was simply a dominating figure, he had a soft shooting touch, could clog up the middle and block shots, and he was as intimidating of a player as there had been in recent memory. He, along with that heralded freshman class ran rough shod through the Big Ten conference.
"In the conference tournament, there wasn't a team who came within 10-12 points of beating them. Oden was his usual monstorous (sic) self, blocking shots and imposing his will. He eventually led the team to the NCAA Tournament final, where they lost to repeat champions, the Florida Gators."
Later in that same article, the author concludes:
"Oden may prove me wrong, but as of right now, October 29th, 2008, I will declare that Greg Oden is a draft bust up to this point. When you are supposed to be the next Bill Russell and all you have to show for it in your first 18 months of the league is 1 1/2 quarters played and two large injuries, that is a crushing disappointment that is hard to shake."
This is where I have a fundamental difference of opinion from the critics.
Most of us can agree that the NBA has never seen the anticipated Greg Oden—the one who dominated at the collegiate level, and the one projected by nearly every NBA scout and talent evaluator to do the same thing at the NBA level.
I believe this is primarily due to the following three factors.
First, about the surgery.
Portland fans nearly had a meltdown when it was announced that Greg would have to undergo microfracture surgery.
Although it had been performed before on other elite athletes, including some who had played in the NBA, and it was and is considered to be a minimally invasive and minor procedure, not all outcomes had been positive.
By Sept. 30, 2008, some 30 NBA athletes had undergone microfracture surgery.
Two additional players, Spencer Hawes and Doug Christie, had the procedure performed prior to entering the NBA. Notables included players such as Amare Stoudemire, Allan Houston, Tracy McGrady, and John Stockton.
Recovery time has taken as little as two months (Stockton, Hardaway, Najera) and as long as 16.5 months (Kittles).
Greg Oden was out for approximately 12 months.
It is noteworthy that the microfracture surgery that Greg Oden underwent was considered to be highly successful, and relatively minor when compared to other cases. The team exercised great caution in bringing him back, allowing him to sit out the entire 2007-2008 season. Doctors described the outlook as follows:
"The area where the damage was is small and the rest of his knee looked normal. All those are good signs for a complete recovery from micro fracture surgery."
Fans of the Blazers and Oden should take comfort in the knowledge that the microfracture surgery performed on Greg appears to be completely successful, and that no lingering problems directly associated with the surgery have been noted.
There is every reason to believe that Greg Oden's knee will not affect the quality of his career.
The second point has to do with conditioning.
While at Ohio State University, Greg was usually described as being between 7'0" and 7'1", and weighing roughly 250 pounds. Through the magic of YouTube, we can go back in time and see what a 250 pound Greg Oden looks like.
The season following his microfracture surgery, Oden never got back into "game shape."
This was attributed to the Blazers coaching staff not allowing him to put weight on his affected leg for nearly the entire year. He lifted weights to stay in shape.
While he added strength, his conditioning suffered.
To complicate matters, a foot injury sidelined him for the first two weeks of the following year. His conditioning was delayed even further.
Coach Jay Jenson claimed that Oden's playing weight last season was in the 290 pound range, a full 40 pounds heavier than he had been at Ohio State.
If you think the 40 pounds are insignificant, go ask your girlfriend, wife, brother, friend—someone—to strap a 40 pound weight on your back. Now, go out and try playing basketball.
If you haven't lost a step or two, or if you haven't lost at least eight 10 inches off of your vertical, you're probably wearing a large "S" under your shirt.
This was clearly an issue in the Greg Oden we saw last year, as opposed to the pre-NBA version.
So, where is he now?
Greg has spent the better part of the summer in Columbus, working out with Blazer coaches and former Blazer Brian Grant.
Kevin Pritchard reported "He's working his tail off and is in his best shape ever."
This, after repeated, glowing reports by assistant Blazer coach Bill Bayno about his improved conditioning.
Two weeks ago, Greg participated in a USA Basketball Mini-Camp event, held in Las Vegas. Playing against the best young talent in the NBA, Greg more than held his own. There were several occasions where he still looked a half step slow, but as a whole, he stayed out of foul trouble (the practices and scrimmage were officiated), and rebounded and defended very well.
Although it was Kevin Durant who would grab most of the headlines, the coaches and staff were generally very complimentary about Greg's performance.
Descriptive words such as "very good", "balanced" and "quickness" were used freely to describe his play. Jerry Colangelo reported that he's "got a future in the NBA and maybe a future with us (meaning the USA Olympic squad)" but added that he still had work to do.
Coach Jay Triano had nothing but praise for Greg, saying, "Oden was the surprise of the practice. He shut down everything inside."
Tweets from the sessions included the following:
"McGee, Randolph, Lopez, and Milsap have all tried to take it at Oden. All have failed."
"Oden showing some serious instinct during 5 on 5 defensive drills. I've counted at least 3 blocks."
"GO's first jump hook of the scrimmage over Lopez is money. Looked more fluid and natural than last season."
There were a couple of moments of disappointment as well. In the scrimmage, there was one play where Greg had inside position over Lopez, but ended up losing the rebound.
To make matters worse, Lopez scored on the play while Oden was called for a foul.
That said, he clearly appears to be in much better condition than he was last year. If progress is measured in direction and not necessarily in location, Greg's stamina and readiness is going to be just fine.
My final point has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding/recollection of why Greg was considered to be such a great High School and Collegiate player, and why he was drafted with the number one selection in the 2007 draft.
Kevin Durant has certainly not made Greg Oden's life easy, at least from a comparative point of view.
A scoring machine, he's a player who looks like he could easily win a scoring title or two. Now a full year ahead of Greg (due to the surgery season), Kevin scored 25 ppg and grabbed 6.5 rebounds in 39 minutes of play last season. The 25 ppg were enough to place him sixth in the NBA in scoring.
Meanwhile, Greg Oden, limited primarily by foul trouble, played only 21 minutes per game, scored only 9 ppg, and had 7 rpg and 1 bpg.
While armchair coaches across the land looked at the numbers of the former 1 and 2 players selected, it was natural to compare the results of the numbers.
But statistics can often be misleading.
Do you recall the quote at the beginning of this article? The one where the big fella was described as "... a dominating figure, he had a soft shooting touch, could clog up the middle and block shots, and he was as intimidating of a player as there had been in recent memory?"
That was and is the Greg Oden the Blazers are waiting to see. Not one who comes in and outscores Kevin Durant.
It's interesting to note that although Greg Oden was never expected to be the first or even the second scoring option in the Blazers rotation, had his statistics been adjusted for minutes played to equal Durant's, he would have scored 17 ppg, grabbed 13 rpg and had 2 bpg as a rookie.
That's significant for a player who was forecast to be a defensive-minded player.
And it hardly qualifies him as a "bust."
Look, I'm not claiming that the guy from Portland has been as successful as the guy from Oklahoma City in his brief NBA career so far. Far from it.
But I am saying—emphatically saying—that other than conditioning (which has been improving, and is likely to continue do so), and increasing minutes played by staying out of foul trouble (which I primarily attribute to slow feet due to a lack of conditioning—which caused him to play defense with his hands too often), Portland is likely to get a version of Greg Oden which is equal to, or perhaps better than, the one we all saw three seasons ago.
In fact, we are already starting to see it.
And as for Blazer fans, as well as true NBA fans everywhere, this is a very encouraging sign of things to come.
My Greg Oden wish list for 2009-2010?
1. Stay healthy
2. Get down to a reasonable playing weight (about 265) and stay there.
3. Continue to work on the little things. Improve by small degrees on a regular basis.
4. Let Andre Miller do his thing. He'll find you. Just get in position and be ready.
5. Have fun and don't worry about the critics. They'll shut up when you place your first trophy on your mantel.
And, if I could say one thing to the man-child from Indiana, it would be this.
"Stand up Greg. Just stand up and do what you were born to do."