Greg Oden is healthy, folks, and that is very good news.
Oden and Kevin Durant were supposed to be the double-threat rookie treat for hoops lovers last season. But when the big center from Ohio State injured his knee in offseason workouts before his original rookie season, we were all forced to impatiently wait to get a true glimpse of the potential of the NBA’s next great big man.
On Oct. 8 in Portland’s Rose Garden, there were 19,000 delirious Trail Blazers fans on their feet for the team's first preseason game and they were chanting "DEE-FENSE! DEE-FENSE!!!" like this was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. They were giddy as could be at the sight of young Mr. Oden taking his big 7-foot body into the paint for 13 points, five rebounds and two blocks in only 20 minutes against the Sacramento Kings. And the Kings looked completely puzzled by all this enthusiasm for a mere exhibition.
But Portland fans get it and so should you. This is a big deal. A very big deal. The sight of Oden camped in the paint, thumping and bumping in the low post for ferocious dunks and manly blocks and aggressive rebounds to remind us what a real 7-footer is supposed to do.
With all those jump-shooting, behind-the-arch pseudo-Euro 7-foot hybrids running all over the place, I was beginning to worry the last of the traditional NBA big men was in danger of extinction with the eventual retirement of Shaquille O’Neal.
But Oden gives us hope. He carries on the evolutionary line that began with George Mikan and ran through Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Lanier, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Patrick Ewing and Shaq.
On back-to-back nights, Oden played 20 minutes. In his second game, he finished with 14 points and nine rebounds while making 5 of 11 shots (all dunks). In those two games, he converted 10 of 19 shots from the floor, all but one of them were dunks.
"It was all right," Oden said of his opening-day (sort of) performance. "But there's always room for improvement. I know I'm not in the best shape of my life and all I can do is work through that."
Teammate LaMarcus Aldridge had a far more breathless opinion of the kid, one that I happen to share. "I think he is going to be Rookie of the Year," Aldridge said. "I'm going on record and saying that Greg is a man-child."
The Blazers are a team to watch this season. After a 41-41 record a year ago, McMillan’s team is a bit too young to be planning any championship contention. But the playoffs are a legitimate possibility, and that’s the message McMillan is sending them every day.
"For our guys," McMillan told the Oregonian, "the message for them will be 'What is the hype about? Who are we?'"
The answer is, a very fun team searching for its true personality.
They are loaded with talented kids, from Oden to fellow rookie Rudy Fernandez, a flashy guard who has a bit of Magic Johnson’s showmanship in him. There’s Brandon Roy, who is carefully recovering from knee surgery (Aug. 14) and is a star in the making. There’s Aldridge, who strengthens the front court.
But the Blazers need to get healthy. With Roy taking precautions to be ready for the regular season, Portland's injury list is getting crowded.
Fernandez sprained his ankle only a few hours after the Blazers learned starting small forward Martell Webster would be lost for two months because of a stress fracture in his left foot. Channing Frye had ankle surgery in September and starting point guard Steve Blake pulled a hamstring the opening week of training camp.
So McMillan has to still be treading a bit nervously into this season when he knows the healthiest man on his roster might be his big man Oden, who just spent the entire 2007 season sidelined following microfracture surgery on his right knee.
But to me, the best news of the new NBA season is that the Jail Blazers image is a distant memory and the new image is being hinged to the powerful young man with the incredibly old face and old-school game. Greg Oden is healthy, and that is something good to shout about.
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