Like a bat outta hell, this week has seen a veritable torrent of Greg Oden coverage — refreshingly, it’s been almost all positive. After enduring more than a year of naysayers and negative humdrum in Oden-related news/blogs/comments the world has suddenly turned in the big fella’s direction. It’s as if everyone has pulled over to the curb and given the 7’0″ manchild a clear path down the freeway to a successful 2009-10 season. 

Oden has made a conscious effort to avoid the strains of the media during the first part of the off-season, doing private workouts in Ohio to improve physically and getting his mental health in shape at the same time. The pressure and scrutiny showed their toll on the rookie last season, as he had little time to familiarise himself with the league, whilst recovering from more injuries than any man his age should have to deal with. Basketball was no longer fun for the previously affable big man.

In one of the many Oden articles this week, in what surely must be International Greg Oden Week, Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports summed up GO’s mood of late:

Greg Oden was spent. The injuries, his inconsistent play, the expectations that came with being a supposed franchise-altering center – all of it had worn on Oden. The fun-loving free spirit who charmed the NBA as the No. 1 pick two summers ago had transformed into a brooding giant.

Even Oden admitted it: The pressure had become too much. So after the Portland Trail Blazers’ season ended with a first-round loss to the Houston Rockets, Oden retreated to Columbus, Ohio, to enroll in some summer school classes at Ohio State, clear his mind and work on his game.

His goal: To regain his swagger and prove to the Blazers he can still become a growing force in the NBA.

“They’re going to see a guy that can dominate on the court and change games,” Oden told Yahoo! Sports this week. “…They drafted me for a reason and I want to show them why they drafted me.”

To rebuild his confidence, Oden began visiting a sports psychologist. “A little shrink,” he joked.

It takes a lot for a young man to admit that he needs to obtain the services of a “shrink”. This was a mature, NBA-ready move by Oden. And according to him, it paid dividends.

The psychologist helped Oden “see himself.” Former Blazers forward Brian Grant provided similar help, flying from Cincinnati to Columbus to work with Oden four times a week, on and off the court. Grant, who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, grew into a mentor of sorts for the Blazers’ 21-year-old center. His words stuck with Oden.

“He said, ‘People might be a lot more skilled than me, bigger than me, faster than me, but I’d be damned if I’m going to let someone outwork me when I’m out there,’ ” Oden said. “…He’s been through it all. If I need someone to talk to, I know I can call him.”

Already, this small amount of news has to make you feel so much better about Oden’s prospects in 2009-10. So much of the battle in the NBA is psychological. All of the guys that make it to the league have the talent — they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did without that aspect. However all too often it is the lack of mental toughness that defines a player’s career. You need only look at Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant and their defining characteristic — the thing between their ears — to see how important the cerebral part of the game is to being a success.

Ben of Blazers Edge defined this mental aspect in the context of Oden:

Athletes are human beings. Often young, emotionally delicate human beings.  If their heart isn’t in it, or they are struggling with family issues, or they are simply not comfortable in their environment, behavior off the court will often manifest before, or simultaneously with, developments on the court.  Both sides of the coin are important to keep an eye on, although it’s obviously much more difficult to ascertain what’s going on off-the-court.  

In Oden’s case, it wasn’t that difficult.  It would be nearly impossible for anyone that spent significant time around GO last year to not pick up on his moodiness, his withdrawn personality, and his emotional ups-and-downs from day-to-day.  There were definitely times that he was happy, jovial and smiling in front of reporters; there were also times, a lot of times, when he was not. It was just a fact of his life.  I’m not sitting here killing the guy for it six months later; it was just a fact of life. 

The Blazers have done a very, very, very good job of focusing the attention this summer on Oden’s conditioning progress.  That is something that Oden can improve simply through effort and it sounds like he’s on the right track.  

But throughout last season and during this summer, I’ve heard far more questions from non-team observers about Oden’s mental makeup than questions about whether he will be able to continue a full recovery from microfracture surgery.  Repetitive conditioning will get him where he needs to be physically; it’s the rest that seems up in the air for many observers.

The thing is, people constantly forget that Oden is a young man. He is a guy who could be still at college, partying and enjoying a lack of responsibility. He has been through physical setbacks that would leave many of us with our hands raised to the heavens asking, “why?!” And, he is a basketball player who has displayed immense physical talents, of which he has yet to experience adequate opportunity to display at a professional level. That time is still to come — and it will come. It won’t be an overnight success, but there will be signs of that path to greatness in the coming NBA season.  

There are plenty of Oden-detractors. Those that want to see him a failure. That he will not be, not by reasonable standards — in my opinion. I am not the only one to hold this belief. Zach Harper, a maestro of the NBA written word, shared his thoughts on Oden this week (it is International Greg Oden Week, after all). He made an infrequent departure from his highly successful Talkhoops blog, to write for the equally brilliant Hardwood Paroxysm. His article deserves your full attention and a complete read, but I excerpt here some choice passages:

I’m narcissistic (or maybe delusional or maybe both) enough to believe that I can look at any player and tell you whether or not they’ll be great or not, simply by watching them play for no more than a minute.

But when nobody else outside of a certain Pacific Northwest, rabid fanbase can see what you see, at what point are they completely ignorant or are you completely wrong? At what point do you trick yourself into seeing what isn’t there or realize you hit the jackpot of evaluation by recognizing what others simply choose not to see?

Welcome to my obsession with Greg Oden.

We all know the tales of Gregory Wayne Oden, Jr. He was an All-American at the high school and college level. He was the number one overall pick over the smooth scoring Kevin Durant. He had micro-fracture surgery before his pro career even started and instantly started getting catcalls that referenced Sam Bowie. Bill Simmons thinks he’s a bust while having stated in consecutive pre-season podcasts how good Andris Biedrins and Andrew Bynum are with his buddy, Joe House. Oden is a running joke right now amongst those that don’t cheer for the Rose City. Hell, he’s probably even a joke or punch line for you and your friends.

But I have to tell you something.

You’re wrong.

Greg Oden is a beast of a man, ready to unleash hell on the rest of the NBA. He’s a rebounding vacuum. He’s a shot-blocking, missile defense system that the Pentagon would be envious of. He has an Ike and Tina kind of relationship with the rim on offense. He’s a decent enough free throw shooter and he moves as smartly without the ball as any young center in the NBA. Greg Oden is not only a good player; he’s a sure-fire perennial All-Star who will help his team win a couple of titles. He’s a Defensive Player of the Year a couple times over.

But then again, you don’t see what I see with Greg.

Wait; do I actually see what I see with Greg?

You see injuries, slow feet, and an awkward shuffle up court.

I see powerful dunks, skying for blocked shots, and brute strength unlikely to be matched by feats of feeble young giants.

You see Pyrite, sedentary in a hearth of failure.

I see 1970s Solid Gold magic.

Really, read the entire article — you owe it to yourself.

To top things off, in this IGOW, we have Oden appearing as Brook Lopez’s worst nightmare at Team USA Mini-Camp. Being the only Portland Trail Blazers representative, after the withdrawal of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jerryd Bayless for a variety of reasons, he’s getting the lion’s share of press from the Portland media (“All Oden, all the time”). But Oden is being noticed all over the basketball-following world — and with good reason.

It’s clear that Oden HAS worked markedly in the off-season to improve his game. Last season his lack of fitness was his biggest obstacle to success. His injuries caused him to lack playing time, which caused him to be unfit, which caused him to be a step slow on plays, which caused him to foul a lot, which caused him to not play… which caused him to be unconfident. You get the picture.

Nate McMillan, assistant coach for Team USA, said that he just wants to see improvement from Oden over the course of this camp. Improvement would be a sign that he has indeed made the off-season effort to take the next step. In the workouts so far, it is clear that Oden has made progress — he has improved. More than anything, from the footage below, it’s apparent that he has dramatically increased his mobility — perhaps even in the ballpark of his Ohio State days.

He appears to be flying up and down the court, closing down the pick-and-roll on defence and snaring available rebounds. Not to mention blocking a fair few shots. It’s worth noting that Oden’s squad (flanked by old buddy Kevin Durant) seems to be smashing their opposing workout squad. Take a look at the footage from the mini-camp and judge for yourself.


International Greg Oden Week may fast be drawing to a close, but that’s not to say that the positive effects of this point in the goofy centre’s development will not be felt by us for the rest of this season and for time to come. He’s got a big career ahead of him and we’ve only scratched the surface.