If you think about it, this is really Greg Oden’s rookie year.
That may seem strange, since he was drafted two years ago and actually played last season. However, when it comes to evaluating his potential as a young player, he’s really a rookie.
After all, this is the first time Greg has gone into an NBA season after having an entire summer to work on his game. For that matter, it’s really the first time he’s been able to work on his game in any off-season since the summer after his junior year in high school. That was 2005.
Remember, Oden had off-season surgery on his right wrist in June of 2006. He had surgery on his knee in the summer of 2007, and wasn’t cleared to play basketball until just a few weeks before the 2008 training camp. He wasn’t even cleared to run until just a few weeks before that.
Looking back at last year, there is no way anyone should have expected anything from a young player, especially a big man, who had literally not played basketball for 13 months, and who had literally gone three years without being able to work on his game in the off-season.
Imagine a young tenor making his debut in La Bohéme at the Metropolitan Opera after having gone three years without vocal studies. Imagine a rock band going on tour without having rehearsed the songs from a debut album they recorded 13 months before. Imagine Tiger Woods returning from a year off following surgery to play a Major Tournament, and having only 144 holes to prepare. Only in this case, imagine it’s Tiger’s first year on the Tour.
Those situations are roughly equivalent to what Greg went through last year.
So if we're looking at Greg Oden as a rookie, what are we seeing so far?
For starters, we're seeing a player who is averaging close to a double-double in only 24 minutes per game. That's right: Oden is scoring 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game despite limited minutes.
Furthemore, Oden is already very close to being the best defensive player in the NBA. Seriously. Oden is leading the league in blocks at 31, block percentage at 7.6, and in defensive rating at 91.8. He is also fourth in the league in defensive win shares at 0.9, and is fifth in the NBA in blocks per game at 2.4 rejections per contest. Again: he is doing all while playing only 24 minutes per game. When Greg Oden is in the game, he is a force of nature on the defensive end. Pure and simple.
He is also among the best rebounders in the NBA, leading the league in total rebounding percentage, is fifth in Defensive Rebound Percentage and eighth in offensive rebound percentage. His rebounds per minute ratio has been near the top of the league this year and last year, with teammate Joel Przybilla as one of his only real challengers.
Offensively, Oden is still quite raw. However, he has made great strides since last year. He has revealed the ability to hit a short jumper, though not with regularity, and has improved both his hook shot and his up-and-under move. He has also improved both his field goal percentage (fourth in the NBA at 59.6%) and his free throw percentage (up to a very respectable 75%). He is getting more shot opportunities, and scoring on them more often.
Strangely, his points per 36 minutes ratio is actually down from a year ago, largely because he is getting less than half as many free throw attempts. This could be a statistical fluke that will even itself out, or it could be due to changes in the Blazers offensive style. It's too early to tell.
Overall, if this were truly Oden's rookie year, and the last two years had never happened, I think most basketball experts would be very impressed with him. His biggest issue is (and remains) his ability to stay on the floor. He continues to lead the league in fouls, and this limits his minutes. Moreover, Nate McMillan is keeping Oden on a very tight leash when it comes to playing time. Once Greg picks up his second foul, he sits the rest of the first half. The Blazers are able to get away with this because they have the best backup center in the NBA in Joel Przybilla.
However, there is no question that Oden has tremendous impact when he is on the floor, and his productivity is staggering. If he were playing regular starter’s minutes (36 per game), his numbers suggest he would produce 14.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Of course, the scoring would be even higher if he was getting to the line more often, perhaps 16-17 points per game.
So then, to ask the ultimate question: how do we judge Oden at this stage? Was he worth a number 1 pick?
Well, his numbers prove he has the potential to average 16 or 17 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks while shooting 59.6% from the field and 75% from the line, and while being rated as the No. 1 defensive player in the NBA.
Of course, when I say he has the potential to do this, I don’t mean he might develop into the kind of player who is capable of doing this. I mean he already is the kind of player who is capable of doing this. He just isn’t staying on the floor long enough for the numbers to show up.