As a lifetime Blazer fan in May 2007, the NBA Draft lottery provided me with one of my favorite Blazer moments. Coming into the draft lottery, the ‘Zers’ were projected to end up with the #6 overall pick. I was just hoping that maybe we could get Corey Brewer or someone solid to add depth. It was supposed to be the Grizzlies or Celtics who were to end up with the top picks. A few months prior, I had been on a University of Oregon sports business club field trip to see a Blazers game and to hear from then Grizzlies GM Andy Dolich. He talked about whom the Grizzlies were thinking about taking, because it was a foregone conclusion that they would win the lottery with a 25% chance to get the #1 pick. Dolich had hinted that Oden was the player to anchor a franchise.
So sitting there in my freshman dorm room, I can remember the moment clearly: Seeing us get bypassed at the 6th pick, launching Portland into one of the top 3 picks. After seeing the then Seattle Sonics get the #2 pick, I could hear screams of joy coming from the streets of Eugene and from all around me in the dorms. It was a very exciting time, seeing that we were going to get a highly coveted player. Brandon Roy was just named rookie of the year and becoming the face of our franchise, and LaMarcus Aldridge looked promising.
This created the great debate in Portland: Oden of Durant? I had seen Kevin Durant play in his junior year of high school for Oak Hill Academy. At the time, he was a 6’9” lanky forward who looked pretty athletic and raw, but couldn't make a jump shot to save his life. I had never seen Oden play in person, but knew he was considered a highly rated big man who could change the face of a franchise. There were comparisons, at the time, of him to Bill Russell. He was injury prone, even before entering the NBA, but I had seen what he could do in the NCAA tournament and was sold on the big man.
In high school, Greg Oden was a beast; he was a 7 foot man among boys at Lawrence North High School, playing alongside another top recruit in Micheal Conley Jr. As a junior in high school, he was widely considered the best prep player in the United States. Oden was a big body with long arms, great athleticism, defensive instincts and a nose for the ball. He grabbed seemingly every rebound within his vicinity and shut down the paint to opposing teams. He was a 2-time Gatorade Player of the Year and led Lawrence North to 3 state titles in high school. When he committed to Ohio State, along with Conley, they quickly jumped out as a contending team in the NCAA.
Before the ‘06-’07 NCAA season even started, Oden had surgery on his right wrist. Perhaps it was an early sign of his fragility, but back then, it was no big deal. Ohio State was cruising without him, and with him, they looked even better. In 32 games his freshman year, he averaged nearly 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks. He was a promising prospect to say the least.
He made some big plays to lead them to them all the way to the 2007 NCAA title game against defending champion Florida. Florida was loaded, with every returning starter in Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer, Al Horford, and Joakim Noah. The Buckeyes were getting solid play from veterans Jamar Butler and Ron Lewis, as well as Conley at point and Daequan Cook at guard. But it was Oden who was the dominant star of the team throughout the tournament and played like it in the title game, with 25 pts, 12 reb., and 4 blk.s in a 75-84 loss. Oden’s amateur legacy was that he was a proven winner, as he never lost a home game in either high school or college.
Getting back to the draft debate, Kevin Durant was an extremely talented scoring forward for the Texas Longhorns, who was Naismith player of the year as a freshman, averaging 26 points and 11 rebounds. He was a hard working player who had become a dominant scorer and outstanding shooter in the years since I had last seen him. The thought was that Durant would be a great forward and starter for any NBA team, maybe even lead the league in scoring someday. Next to Roy and Aldridge on the Blazers, he could have been a good fit, but there would still be pieces missing.
The thought at the time was that dominant centers would help win titles, and the Blazers needed more defense down low. Greg Oden could be that center who would anchor the team for over a decade and his ceiling for development was very high. He would be the player who could lock down the paint during future Blazers playoff runs and be the one to help lead us to a title, as he had done in high school and college. The new age Bill Russell was a ‘can’t miss’ type of player. Durant was the type of player who could win scoring titles, but Oden would be the kind of player that could win NBA championships. The Blazers agreed with this philosophy, taking him #1 overall in the ’07 Draft. Then injuries happened.
Oden played in the 2007 Las Vegas Summer League, but struggled throughout, even fouling out of games where the limit was 10 personal fouls. It was discovered that he had a micro fracture in his right knee and would need surgery to repair it, costing him all of the ’07-’08 season. It was a big disappointment and shot to the Blazer franchise, but it was encouraging that the team finished 41-41 without him, just missing the playoffs.
In his 2008-’09 rookie season, Oden looked solid in 61 regular season games, averaging 9 points, 7 rebounds and a block in 21 minutes of action per game. Greg looked to build on that this past season in ’09-’10, averaging 11 pt.s, 8.5 reb., and 2.3 blk.s in 24 minutes per game. But 21 games into the season, the injury bug bit again, this time fracturing his left patella and leaving him out for the rest of the season. In Oden’s time since being drafted, he has missed nearly 2/3 of his NBA games due to injury. In that same time span, Kevin Durant has won rookie of the year, been an NBA All-Star, All-NBA 1st team selection, and led the NBA in scoring last season with 30 points per game.
In retrospect, maybe the Blazers should have picked Durant. He is a dominant scorer who would have added another dimension to the already stable pillars in the Blazers' offense with Roy and Aldridge. Durant would have thrived in the half court offense and would have created a ‘Big 3’ for Portland because of his versatility. Oden has been so injury plagued for the Blazers, they would have been better off taking Al Horford to anchor the paint. It’s easy to say all of that three years down the road. Durant would have been the better pick, but the logic back then said Oden was the way to go, and numerous NBA GM’s would have chosen him over Durant. After all, Durant has been just as far into the playoffs in three seasons as Oden has been with the Blazers in one. The Blazers also have a similar type player in Nicolas Batum, who is a budding player that could be the Scottie Pippen to B-Roy’s Jordan, so to speak.
Many in NBA circles are quick to call Oden a bust, in the sense that he is nowhere near what people expected and maybe he isn't. He probably will never be that dominant #1 pick who will throttle the NBA and be a ‘Dwight Howard of the West’ type center, but he can still be a great player for the Blazers.
The only thing that has been holding him back is injuries, and that is a major concern. If he can stay healthy, he will anchor this team extremely well. The Blazers locked up Marcus Camby for a couple years, and Oden can learn from the former Defensive Player of the Year. In a worst-case scenario, the 22 year-old Oden continues to recover while Camby fills in during those couple years until Greg is ready to take over at full strength. If Oden will be a complete lost cause, then you should be able to find some team that will be willing to take a chance on him and hopefully salvage some value for him. G.O. is still a popular figure in Portland and his personality is embraced by the city. Despite some controversial photos, all seems to be forgiven, as he confronted the situation quickly and addressed concerns.
I still think the potential to be an All-NBA player is there for Greg Oden. I have faith that Portland may yet have made the right pick in 2007, but it’s likely that this might be the last season Oden has to prove it. He’s on the final year of his contract and it's time for Portland to decide if they want to extend it. If you can get at least 60 games and around 24 minutes out of each of those games, Oden’s production should warrant the gamble of keeping him.
I hate to say it’s a ‘gamble,’ but it truly is a hazard at this point in his career and for the Blazers. He is still a relatively high-risk player because of his injury track record, but his young age and potential are too great to ignore. I would hate to see Oden thrive with another team and become a star just because the Blazers wouldn’t be patient with him. He is definitely testing the Blazers' patience right now, but he could still be worth it, if not more. The 2010-11 season will be the true test of Greg Oden’s worth and health. I have a great deal of faith in his abilities and skill. The real questions will be do the Blazers have faith too and can he stay healthy?