Teen anointed next big man
By Malcolm Moran, USA Today
TEANECK, N.J. -- Just outside the rectangular lines of the basketball court, adults bearing colorful logos, cellular telephones and conflicting agendas surrounded Greg Oden, the 7-foot, 245-pound 16-year-old already proclaimed The Next Great Big Man.
Not long after Oden's sophomore season at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, during the period that led to an unprecedented selection of eight high school players in the first 19 slots of the NBA draft, the speculation, private and persistent, was that Oden would have been Commissioner David Stern's first handshake had he been eligible.
Even as the name of the prospective psychology major is placed atop the mock draft lists, circa 2006, Oden sends a 20th-century message no one seems to hear:
"I know what I want to do," Oden said quietly. "I want to go to college."
The words were recorded and scribbled into notepads by those observing him here this month at the annual ABCD camp for high school players. But do they register? Oden averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds and made 71% of his shots for a Lawrence North team that won Indiana's Class 4A championship.
The emerging issue of the 2006 NBA draft is whether Oden remains willing to postpone his fortune.
By the Numbers
Average points per game*
Average rebounds per game*
His graduating class
Photo: WireImage.com | Source: USA Today
The night of the draft last month, as Oden watched the high-priced parade of his peers, this is what he was thinking: "I wanted Jameer Nelson to go higher. I just like him. He's a real good player."
That would be the national college player of the year and former point guard at Saint Joseph's. Nelson, a four-year product who took his name out of the 2003 draft to return for an inspiring, undefeated regular season, was rewarded with the No. 20 position, seven costly slots behind high school point guard Sebastian Telfair, whose considerable gifts do not yet include a reliable jump shot.
The more Oden the person was on display, the more his support for Nelson made sense.
As dramatic and imposing as Oden's shot-blocking ability can be, the subtleties to his game include the way he recognizes a teammate's pass after a basket.
As Oden hurries back to the defensive end, he bends his right elbow, holds his right hand near his chest and points to his teammate, a gesture far more personal than theatrical.
His name has already been placed on the short list alongside Indiana's reverence-requiring products Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird. When asked to evaluate his play at the camp, Oden said, "We won. It's a team sport so you've got to keep it that way."
Mike Conley, the Olympic gold medal-winning triple jumper, coaches Oden's AAU basketball team. His son, Mike, is an AAU and high school teammate.
"In Greg's eyes, he has a whole lot to improve on," the elder Conley said. "It's not like he is the end-all. He's not into the hype, the showboating that other kids are into."
Against the norm
At one end of the Rothman Center at Fairleigh Dickinson University, banners honored past most valuable ABCD campers whose stories capture an industry's risks and rewards.
Kobe Bryant made passing on young talent another headache for NBA executives. Leon Smith, whose brief NBA career followed a painfully difficult adolescence, attempted suicide. LeBron James rescued a franchise and became a conglomerate. Lenny Cooke, a gifted young player who declared for the draft much too soon, is far closer to obscurity than the spotlight.
Nearby, a sign held a reminder:
"Attention NCAA college coaches: This is an evaluation period. No contact with players allowed."
Throughout the gym, coaches wearing college logos could not discuss recruits and scouts wearing NBA logos could not talk about underclassmen.
What's Being Said
"I know what I want to do. I want to go to college."
-- Greg Oden
"I'm sure (entering the draft) is not something he and his family are going to rule out today."
-- Oden's AAU coach
"It would be wonderful if he went to college even for one year. It would sort of be thumbing his nose at this whole trend of kids wanting instant gratification... "
-- Tom Konchalski, recruiting analyst
Sources: USA Today, Washington Post
Matt Doherty, the former Notre Dame and North Carolina coach and now a television commentator, was a coach at the camp and a rare credible, unmuted voice. Doherty coached against Oden's team in the first game the prospect played at the camp and later listed his observations.
"His maturity," Doherty said. "His disposition. Very even-tempered on the floor. He never got frustrated. He maintained his composure. And in the second half, he broke out."
Doherty pauses. "And the other thing is, he held the door for me. Twice."
A current college coach, who is prohibited by NCAA rules from talking for attribution about prospects, said of Oden, "He's the most humble player I've ever met. Good player, bad, anyone."
In the rapidly evolving get-rich-quick culture of the early-entry era, Oden has quietly revealed a personal approach with as much throwback appeal as the expensive old-time jerseys worn by fans in the stands.
"I really have no offensive skills," Oden said during a week in which he made 26 of 30 shots, averaging 8.9 points.
Under rules that required each camper play at least two quarters a game, Oden averaged 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots.
Conley remembers an episode when Oden was in seventh grade.
"He wasn't playing as well as I'd have liked," Conley said. "I told him I was going to not start him in a game. That very next game, he just emerged.
"It was at that point I saw the light switch come on. He began to grab more offensive rebounds. He blocked shots 2 feet above the rim."
All around, as players considered their potential draft status, Oden repeated his college intentions.
The Real Shaq
Shaquille O'Neal made a big splash in Miami, promising to deliver a championship to the Heat. Story
Listen: 'I'm Going to Play Hard'
Doherty remembers hearing a similar message when he recruited Dwight Howard, this year's No. 1 choice in the NBA draft, for North Carolina.
"His dad told me, 'He's going to go to college,'" Doherty said. "And I said to myself, 'You don't know it yet, but he's going to the NBA.'"
The overall assessment of Oden is undisputed. The issue is whether a college recruiter's effort will just become a waste.
"He wants to experience that," Conley said of college.
"At the same time, if he's at a level where he can make a difference in the league and it's in his best interest to look at that, I'm sure (entering the draft) is not something he and his family are going to rule out today."
A minor injury to his right ankle, suffered when Oden attempted to block a shot, kept him out of an all-star game during camp and produced a reminder of how quickly everything can change.
When Oden's game was switched to a different court moments before tip-off on a Saturday night of the ABCD camp, Indiana University coach Mike Davis moved from a conspicuous seat behind a basket to an equally conspicuous seat near the new court. He cannot discuss Oden, but the conspicuous attentiveness and his strategic body language did enough talking.
Less than a month after Hoosiers recruit Josh Smith became a first-round NBA pick, Davis has attended each of Oden's games. With Oden living in the Hoosier state, it would not be a surprise if that routine extends through the next two years.
Revisions in the NBA collective bargaining agreement next year could complicate Oden's eventual decision.
A baseball-style mandatory two- or three-year stay for players who enroll in college could push Oden toward the pros. A 20-year-old age limit in the NBA could force him toward college after all.
Does Oden know how he plans to obtain and sort through the essential information to make a decision?
"I have no idea," he said.
"He might be just the type of kid that bucks the trend," Doherty said.
Would he? Could he?
A few feet from a court, Doherty was talking about Oden's refusal to let an older person hold the door when the center walked by. Doherty pointed to his head. "Is it because of the gray hair?" he said, and Oden smiled.
The former college coach had a message for the future star. "Don't let this game change you," Doherty told Oden. "You change the game."
07-21-04 13:45 EDT