Bugged by injuries, Greg Oden hasn’t quite yet been able jump-start his career the way he would have liked to. After having all the accolades as a high schooler, the top pick in the 2007 NBA Draft has had to fight off many adversities in his young career. From terrible injuries to constant foul trouble, Oden has battled through it all. There’s some doubt now as to what he’s capable of doing, but here and there he shows glimpses of glorious game. (Like in January when he dropped 24 points and 15 rebounds on the Milwaukee Bucks.) Expectations have been scaled back somewhat since Ben Osborne wrote this piece three years ago; but if Greg’s healthy, it’s only a matter of time before any and all expectations become reality.— Franklyn Calle
by Ben Osborne
Typically, due either to overconfidence in my acquired knowledge or plain laziness, I do not pick up dictionaries when I write. But as I formulate this story on Greg Oden, the 7-0, 260-pound consensus high school Player of the Year from Indianapolis, I need to check on a word that might work: refreshing. Is that just for processed foods and soda pop? Or does it have a universal meaning? Out comes the Webster’s. Thankfully, it keeps things simple. Check it: “re-fresh-ing. adj. 1. that refreshes. 2. pleasingly new or different.” And that’s all I need, No. 2 in particular. There’s no better place to start my story.
The refreshment begins on the court. Through the AAU circuit, summer all-star camps and the three straight state titles and a career-ending 45-game winning streak at Lawrence North HS, Oden has shown a package of size and skills I simply haven’t seen before. Today, on the eve of the annual Roundball Classic in Chicago, it’s on display a mere 15 feet from me. At the behest of our cameraman, Oden is throwing down dunk after dunk. A seven-footer slamming the ball home sounds pretty boring, right? Not when “G.O.” is the seven-footer in question. I don’t know if Oden could win a dunk contest at his height, but he sure wouldn’t embarrass himself; he’s got two-hand power slams where he brings the ball back between his shoulder blades before exploding it forward, and he’s got leaning one handers—equally impressive with either hand, mind you—of which MJ in his prime would approve. If I didn’t know it before today’s little workout, I do now: Greg Oden has springs.
Yes, guys like Kevin Garnett and Oden’s oncourt idol, Dwight Howard, are athletic power forwards, and David Robinson was a specimen at center, but in a lot of ways those guys are modern, face-the-basket big men. Oden is not. On offense, his aforementioned 260-pound frame (which he sees getting even bigger when he heads off to Ohio State) combines athletic dunks with old-school big man moves Pete Newell would be proud of. “He’s really grown on offense,” says longtime Lawrence North coach Jack Keefer. “He’s got a drop step, an up and under and a jump hook. Plus, this year he worked on a jump shot, which is now good from about 15 feet in. He’d show up at 6 a.m. big-man workouts to work on that stuff, and he’d always practice his free throws, too. You know he shot almost 80 percent from the free throw line? But still, his main strength has always been on defense.”
No doubt, Coach. I just started this on offense because it’s the part of Oden’s game that is underrated, if such a thing is possible when discussing a player called “the most intimidating big man I’ve ever seen,” by OG recruiting expert Bob Gibbons. (Also, because Oden has been displaying it right in front of me for the last 45 minutes.) But when he finishes his mini-workout/photo session, Greg steers the conversation right back to defense. “I’m a defensive guy—I like to get rebounds and block shots,” the 18-year-old says in his friendly baritone. “I just look at it like, to win, you don’t want the other team to score.”
As Keefer says, Oden helps immeasurably in that regard. “He can really move and defend around the basket,” Keefer says. “Teams shot 32 percent against us because all they could really do was shoot three pointers. He let us be much more aggressive on the perimeter because we knew he had the basket covered.”
Often, Oden’s basket coverage would lead to transition opportunities, in which Greg’s friend and fellow future Buckeye, Mike Conley Jr., would lead a break that Greg would hustle to finish—just seconds after he’d blocked the shot to start it. “When you run and you get the ball, you always have fun,” Greg says. “I loved my guards, because they give me the ball. I’m not the type to always shoot the ball, but I like to touch it every time down. I like to get assists as much as making a post move to score. I’m just that type of player.”
Not that Oden sees himself as a finished product, or even close. “I’ve got a lot to work on,” he insists. “There’s just so much I feel like I need to do to be there, and I just don’t see it happening yet. There are a lot of guys who can do stuff that I can’t do.”
Unwilling to let Oden get away with vaguely big-upping folks who can’t hold a candle to him, I demand an example. “OK,” he answers. “Look at the McDonald’s Game. Kevin Durant got the MVP. He was awesome. Hitting those threes, taking it to the hole. You see his talent against my talent, and you call me the best player? You see how he did in that game, and I just did all right. I know these all-star games are for guys [on the wing], but still.”
So, like Keefer says, when he isn’t in bed or in class (Oden has been an honor-roll student throughout high school), Greg works on his game. “I mean, I like to sleep in when I can—who doesn’t?—but when I get on the court, I know what I’m here for,” he says. “Every day at the end of practice, I have to hit 80 percent out of 50 free throws before I can leave. If I hit, like, 38 out of 50, I have to keep shooting ’til I get to 80 percent. I did that all season. Our coach owns a restaurant. He told me if I shoot 80 percent from the line, I get a free steak dinner. I ended up at 79-point something. [Laughs] I think he might let me slide.”
“My first memory of playing is with Coach Jimmy Smith in the fourth grade,” recalls Oden, who was born in Buffalo but moved with his mom and brother to Terre Haute, IN, in ’96, after his parents got divorced. “I played, but I was goofy. Couldn’t really hit a layup. My first basket in a game came in the fifth grade.” Here, Oden adopts a Shaq-like lilt to his speech, giving credence to the belief that dude is quite funny. “It was a bank shot. It was for the other team.” Punch line! “This is no lie,” Greg goes on. “The first basket I ever scored in a game was for the other team. And I was excited. We won that tournament and my friend Travis, Jimmy’s son, got MVP. I remember on the play I scored, getting the ball, and I swear, even though there were no cameras it felt like there were lights flashing—after I scored I was like, Yeaaah! Everyone else was like, What?! And my coach was like, Greg, what are you doing? Everybody was making fun of me, but I was happy. It was my first basket.”
Things progressed rapidly from that inauspicious beginning, in part because of his size (“I was big for every age,” Greg says), but also because of his desire to improve. “Things just came into place for me, and it wasn’t that tough,” he says. “I went to the Boys Club in Terre Haute every day. Every day. And then I started playing with Coach Conley”—that’s Mike Sr., the former Olympic triple-jump gold medalist who coaches the Spiece Indy Heat AAU team—“in sixth, seventh grade; he would travel back and forth from Indianapolis to pick me up. Then in the eighth grade, my family moved to Indianapolis, and I just kept playing. I started getting some college letters, but I never really looked at them because they were questionnaires. With the colleges, my coaches handled all the little stuff, so all I had to do was go on visits, which I usually did with Mike. Then I made my choice, but I never really thought too much about the whole process.”
In one sound bite, Oden demystifies a process that everyone from filmmakers to writers to congressmen have obsessed over for years. Along the way, the attention around Oden grew exponentially. It wasn’t quite at LeBron levels, in part because the people around Oden didn’t put him out there like that, in part because the NBA age limit delayed the specter of a No. 1 pick, and in part because Oden just didn’t want it that way; still, the Indy Star could have been renamed the Oden Star. “I get people coming up to me, like, ‘Dang, Greg, you’re in the paper every day,’” he says. “It’s to the point where I don’t even read them anymore. It’s an honor that people want to write about you, but I’m not the best talent out there and I know that. I’m just going to keep working hard so that hopefully one day I will be.”
Says Keefer, who coached Eric Montross and Lawrence North to the Indiana state title back in ’89, “This state has adopted Greg like a rock star, and he’s handled it all. You should see the crowds he draws. We’ve had kids be good players before, but my gosh, everyone wants Greg’s autograph. And he’s patient through it all. People ask me if I think he’ll change; I don’t think he’ll ever get grouchy, but I could see him avoiding public places sometimes to avoid the crowds.”
One place he’ll go to avoid them is in Terre Haute, where the Smiths still live and where, Oden says, he’ll be “every week or two now that the season is over. Most of my friends are from basketball, but Travis is still my best friend. This is a short white guy who will play golf at Ball State next year. We hit balls in his backyard and he can hit them to, like, the moon, and I hit them into the fence two feet away. Going down to Terre Haute to hang out with him is my getaway from basketball.”
I told you. Refreshing.
The next step in his basketball maturation begins in July, when he will move to Columbus and begin working out as a Buckeye. Greg says he’s ready. “I did all I could at this level. I had a great high school career, we won three straight championships. Now I’m playing in these all-star games, and then I’ll be ready to start working out. I’m ready to improve my game at the next level.”
Talking about his upcoming freshman college season, Oden is typically modest about the odds that he and the rest of the “Thad Five” recruiting class (named for OSU coach Thad Matta’s haul of prep All-Americans Conley, Daequan Cook and David Lighty and JuCo transfer Othello Hunter) can dominate from the jump. “I really don’t know,” he says. “I know it’s going to be some hard work. But we’re going to go in with some energy; we’re freshmen, and hopefully we can all play.”
While Oden is barely over high school and sounds legitimately concerned about how he will fare in college, the basketball community at large has him ticketed for NBA All-Star games—and, apparently, international impact. This very morning, as the buses to Roundball practice warmed up, I noticed USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo in the hotel lobby. It’s been rumored that the national team would love to get Oden on board for the ’08 Olympics. So is Colangelo here for him? “Yeah, he talked to me, and what he said made a lot of sense,” Oden says. “He was wondering if I’d like to practice with them and be a part of that. I said I’m not ready yet. But they talked to me, like, ‘You’ve been in high school, playing against 6-4 guys, you know your game best, but to really know, you have to play against the best. You have to challenge yourself.’ I’ve never played against NBA guys before, so I kind of feel like I’m not ready, but since I’ve never done it, how do I know? I could possibly go out there and do good.”
So is he going to join the team for their summer workouts? “I’ve got to talk it over with my mom,” Oden says. You get the point.