By Ian Thomsen
April 11, 2008

Also in this column:Rose vs. Beasley draft debateMy picks for the All-Defensive team

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Catching up with the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft ...

5. Remembering his last game. One year later, Oden was in his Portland home with his uncle watching the NCAA tournament final, a game his Ohio State team lost to Florida in 2007. "The first play,'' he said, "the announcer said something about me and the trouble [Memphis' Joey] Dorsey had with me [in an Elite Eight game], and that was kind of cool -- like, 'Dang, I was there just last year.' "

Oden empathized with Memphis after its loss to Kansas the other day. "I knew how they felt. I knew how it was when I sat there,'' Oden said of being in the locker room after the game. "And I waited the whole long time and I watched the One Shining Moment. I just remembered last year trying to watch it and [senior guard] Ron Lewis turning it off, like, 'We don't want to see this because we are not in it.' And I remember me and [freshman guard] Daequan [Cook] looking like, 'Man, we came to college to see us in the One Shining Moment.' Even though we lost, we still wanted to see it.

"I know you would love to be at the end of it, and we weren't. But it was still good to be seen on that. That's a memory you're always going to have.''

4. Improving as a player. "He's more comical than people think,'' Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard said. Which is not to say that Oden hasn't been serious about returning to the court. Within a week of having microfracture surgery on his right knee, Oden was back in the training room to resume upper-body workouts. The 7-footer would eventually bulk up to more than 290 pounds.

Oden has averaged a team-leading 25 to 30 workouts per month, according to the board kept by Portland strength and conditioning coach Bob Medina. "Two guys I can compare him to that I've worked with in the past are a young Shawn Kemp and a young Jermaine O'Neal,'' Medina said. "As young guys when they started training, their bodies just ate it up. How Greg has been ... other guys you have to encourage them to get in here; with Greg you say, 'Hey, we need to take a day off.' "

Oden won't resume playing full court until September, in part because the Blazers haven't resolved the cause of his knee injury last summer. "We have to really be careful in his rehab,'' coach Nate McMillan said, "because we don't know what happened.''

Oden weighs 285 now; he played at 275 last year with Ohio State. "Where I want him next year, I told him 260,'' McMillan said. "It's just a goal, but I think lighter for him is better to start off, especially coming off surgery. The more weight that you have to carry for an 82-game schedule that you've never played -- you're going to play twice as many games as you've ever played -- you don't want to be carrying a lot of weight. That will have an effect on your ability to stay healthy.

"Once you get through your first year, now you can say I want to put on 15 to 20 pounds. But I think first you try to have speed and the ability to run and to move, more so than being a physical monster in that paint. But the main reason is that he's coming off a major surgery and we want him to try to play 82 games, and the more weight you carry makes it harder for anybody.''

His shooting has improved too. "Because that's basically all I can do,'' Oden said. "So I have the best standing jump shot you've ever seen, I'll tell you that.''

Shooting coach John Townsend has worked with Oden to center his shooting hand behind the ball. He, too, keeps stats on a board in the Blazers' practice gym, which on Thursday showed that Brandon Roy has attempted a team-leading 357 free throws and made 75.9 percent of them.

"Greg's probably going to have 100 more this time next year,'' Townsend said. "I'll probably sit him down before the season next year to try to get him to commit to doing 83 percent, because Yao Ming and Brad Miller are the two best 5s percentage-wise in the NBA and they're both [just above] 83 percent.''

Oden was viewed by some as a limited scorer, but the Blazers have bigger ideas. "He's got very soft hands, a very soft touch,'' Townsend said. "You can throw it to him and he can catch it. Not many guys his size can do that.''

3. Fitting into the team. "We'll be playing around him and off him,'' McMillan said. "It will be Greg stepping out there and quickly realizing the areas he needs to improve upon. It will come really quick for him because we're going to throw him out there. And the thing that we'll have to do with him is to bring him on, not so much slowly, but to help him in his growth, his development.''

The league's youngest team has already helped ease Oden's transition by nearing a .500 season in his absence, which reduces the pressure on Oden to transform the franchise. It's not like he's going to come in and ruin a good thing, either.

"He's really an easy guy to integrate, the way he plays,'' Roy said. "He's a great shot-blocker, a great defender, and he lets offense come to him. Whenever he's healthy and ready to come back, we can put him in real smooth.''

They Blazers also learned that he wants to be part of the team rather than its master. "Every game when he travels with us, he's in the tunnel high-fiving everybody,'' Medina said. "It's not like it's all about him. If you didn't know any better, he's the 15th guy. He comes and does whatever you ask him to do. He's very coachable, he's on time, and it's rare to see that in the NBA -- especially with high-profile guys. A lot of times it goes to their head.

"Here's the No. 1 pick and every game at halftime the team's in the locker room and he's making ice bags with the ball boys. Not because somebody told him to do it. Just because he does it. How many times is the No. 1 pick doing that?''

In Tuesday's game against the Lakers, Oden could be seen during a timeout wearing a toy helmet and firing plastic mini basketballs out of a compressed drum into the crowd. When Oden returned to the huddle, point guard Jarrett Jack stared at him with a slow shake of the head.

"He was looking at me like, 'Man, don't talk to me again,' " Oden said. "It was probably because of the hard hat.''

2. Learning from the past. Others have wondered if Oden is too nice to destroy opponents. "He's very powerful under the basket,'' said assistant coach Maurice Lucas, the power forward on the Blazers' 1976-77 championship team. "You can tell a lot about guys' personalities the way they like to dunk the ball, and he loves to dunk it hard and powerful. He has that kind of Amaré [Stoudemire], early Shaq kind of thing in the post: 'Give me the ball, and whoever's in the way I'm going to dunk on him.' ''

Lucas has been showing Oden film of centers to emulate. "I compare him a lot to the great Nate Thurmond, a guy who's got great agility,'' Lucas said. "I showed him Wes Unseld, I showed him Bill Walton, I showed him Wilt [Chamberlain]. I showed him Elvin Hayes down there just for footwork, and I showed Hakeem [Olajuwon] for footwork. I want him to see all the different guys and how they played and the different effects they had on the game.''

Next year the Blazers will add Oden and their lottery pick. They also are expected to welcome Spanish guard Rudy Fernandez, the No. 24 pick in last year's draft who would be a top 10 pick this year, according to Pritchard. In 2009, they could have $26 million to $33 million in cap space; or this summer they could offer the pick and Raef Lafrentz's expiring contract if a rebuilding team is interested in making the kind of deal that sent Kevin Garnett to the Celtics or Pau Gasol to the Lakers. They have Roy, an All-Star this year, and LaMarcus Aldridge, who will be an All-Star soon. But their championship aspirations are built around the 20-year-old who has yet to play a minute.

"Who do you want to be?'' McMillan said, referring to Oden. "Think about what you want to be, and then become it. Because it's important for you when you step out there that everyone knows -- the league, the officials, your teammates -- who you want to become. Then do it. Become it.''

This is one of those times when an interview turns into a pep talk, so ambitious is the coach to start coaching.

"Because you have the potential to be a Hall of Famer,'' McMillan said. "Now you're going to have to become that. Some of us can say that, but we're just saying it. With your potential, with your makeup at such a young age, yeah, you could be that.''

1. Wanting what he can't have. The most damning speculation about Oden before the draft came from those in the league who wondered if he was passionate about the game. Was he too nice? Did he love basketball? Oden answered both questions -- yes and yes -- by participating in a pair of pickup games at a Portland health club last month.

"I called him and I said, 'OK, here's the good news, I'm ecstatic that you played. The bad news is you can't do it again,' " Pritchard said.

"I just wanted to get out there, I haven't been out there in so long,'' Oden said. "But the thing was, it wasn't as deep as people made it to be. It was a jog, a couple of jump shots, maybe one or two dunks. It wasn't that big of a deal. At least not to me.''

It was a small gesture of appreciation to a player whose talent came naturally. The injury has shifted his perspective, because he isn't entitled to be a star any longer. He is going to have to work for it. If nothing else, this lost season has answered the question of whether Oden will work hard to fulfill his potential.

4. I thought for sure I'd see the Bucks as one of the least efficient franchises [in last week's Countdown column]. But no buzz, as usual. Your thoughts on the Bucks' future? A candidate to replace the Sonics in Seattle someday?--Jeff, Green Bay, Wis.

The Bucks have created a lot of gossip around the league, as teams do when they're looking for a new coach or GM. The impression I get from several executives is that it's going to be hard to win so long as owner Sen. Herb Kohl doesn't change the way he runs the franchise. At the moment, most of the business of the team is channeled through a couple of attorneys who know little about basketball. But it's common knowledge around the league that former GM Larry Harris, who was let go last month, was forced to run trade proposals through the attorneys, who also offered trade suggestions of their own.

It's hard enough to compete with the likes of Detroit's Joe Dumars and San Antonio's R.C. Buford under normal circumstances, and harder when amateurs occupy a senior role in the basketball administration. Last year the Bucks had Mike Conley in for an impressive predraft workout. "I can't believe this kid shoots the ball so well with his left hand,'' one of the attorneys said to Sen. Kohl.

"It's because he's left-handed,'' Harris said.

If the reports are true that Pistons vice president John Hammond has reached a deal to run the Bucks, then Milwaukee has made a wise hire. But he will have a hard time succeeding without a direct communication line to the owner.

"My understanding is that the senator has people around him who have the power to make decisions but are not held accountable for those decisions,'' says a rival Eastern conference executive.

P.S. The Bucks won't be moving to Seattle.

3. How do the teams make their money? You have tickets, food and parking, but where is the real money to pay these high salaries and make money for the owners? I know TV, radio and jerseys, but, for instance, take the Celtics -- Kevin Garnett makes $24 million alone this year, and it's another $32 million combined for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Forty-one of the games are at home, so half the season is on the road. Plus, don't the players get per diem money on the road? It seems by the time you pay all the players, coaches, employees, etc. ... where is the money?-- Anthony, Los Angeles

The majority of each team's revenue comes from ticket sales. "I'm going to guess that tickets account for 55 to 60 percent for each team,'' a team executive said.

Each team started the season with $10 million from the national TV contracts. More revenue comes from local TV and radio, luxury suites and merchandise sales, as well as signage in the arena and other forms of corporate sponsorship.

"When small-market teams say it's hard to compete, they're not exaggerating,'' the executive said. "The money that MSG [Madison Square Garden] makes from its local TV contract with the Knicks blows away what most teams get. That's why they [the Knicks] don't care about spending money, while the rest of us are counting pennies. That's why we have to have a salary cap, because a team in a small market will never be on the same level of earnings as the Knicks or Lakers.''

2. With all your talk about money, I was wondering something. Would it be better for a veteran player to force a trade in the final year of a contract and then re-sign with the new team to a max deal, or hit free agency with potentially only one or two teams that can afford you? I would think forcing a trade would allow the player to pick his team and avoid accepting the highest bid from a bad team.-- Dylan Phelan, Green Bay, Wis.

It depends on which teams have the cap space. The dysfunctional Hawks are not an attractive franchise for a max player who wants to contend for the championship. On the other hand, a max free agent could sign with the Blazers in 2009 with the realistic goal of reaching the NBA Finals within three years.

If the player has a good agent, he'll know which teams are in position to bid for him and whether he's likely to receive an offer from the team of his choice. It's obviously against league rules for rival teams to negotiate with pending free agents, but there are all kinds of back-channel means of communication through intermediaries, and everybody in the league engages in it.

1. Is Kobe Bryant the best player never to win the MVP award?-- Jim, Newark, N.J.

Only 26 players have been league MVP. Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Isiah Thomas, John Havlicek and Rick Barry never won the award. I don't know if Bryant is a better player than guys like West or Baylor, but I think the question is going to be moot because Bryant is going to win the MVP sometime in the next two or three seasons -- probably this year.

The Euroleague Final Four is the best event in basketball, a single-game knockout competition played at a much higher level than the NCAAs with even more passionate fans. The semifinalists were established this week for the Final Four in Madrid on May 2-4. Montepaschi Siena of Italy will meet Maccabi Elite of Israel, and Tau Ceramica of Spain will play CSKA Moscow.

3. The mission of Tiago Splitter. The Tau center had been featured in NBA mock drafts for several years before he was chosen last year by the Spurs with the No. 28 pick. Splitter had 18 points and nine rebounds to lead Tau to a 85-68 victory over the Serb club Partizan Igokea in its Game 3 quarterfinal Wednesday, but he is not seen as a future star for the Spurs.

"He is an up-and-down player,'' an NBA scout said of Splitter. "As good as he was in Game 3, he was disappointing in Game 2. He has had a good season without being flashy or spectacular. He hasn't put together amazing numbers, but he does the job as a solid contributor.''

Splitter has averaged 13.9 points and 5.2 rebounds in 22.3 minutes in the Euroleague this season.

2. The tragedy of Ettore Messina. The CSKA coach learned two months ago that his younger brother Attilio had been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. For the last month, CSKA has been shuttling Messina back and forth between Moscow and Bologna, Italy, where his brother was undergoing treatment. Messina has been coaching the games, while his assistants have handled most of the practices in his absence. CSKA has a veteran team that was able to overcome an opening 76-74 loss to Olympiakos of Athens -- the winner on a buzzer-beater by former Bucks guard Lynn Greer -- and salvaged its best-of-three quarterfinal to advance to the Final Four for a record sixth consecutive time.

Attilio Messina died Thursday. He was 42. The month ahead will be very difficult for Coach Messina and his team.

1. The favorites. CSKA and Siena are expected to meet in the winner-take-all final May 4. Siena has dominated the weakened Italian league for the past two years with a balanced team that lacks a major star. CSKA has the higher profile with American guards Trajan Langdon and J.R. Holden, Greek guard Theo Papaloukas (recently named among the top 35 players in Euroleague history), and shooting big man David Andersen, who is expected to enter the NBA next season (the Hawks own his rights). But this event is as hard to predict as March Madness, and any of the semifinalists could emerge.

2. Derrick Rose, Memphis. "It has to be Rose,'' a league GM said. "Everyone was talking about Beasley as the No. 1 pick because he had a good year. But before that they were talking about his baggage, and that baggage hasn't gone away. Rose is so fast with the ball, and you saw in the [NCAA] final how he made big shots, he was athletic and strong and he could finish at the basket. He has a world of upside, and he's a tough kid who looks like he enjoys the spotlight. Can you imagine getting a point guard of that magnitude and knowing you'll have him for the next 12 years?''

1. Michael Beasley, Kansas State. "It still has to be Beasley,'' another team executive argued. "It's going to be hard to pass on him, no matter how well Rose did in the tournament. People are going to look at how Atlanta should have gone with a point guard like [Chris] Paul or [Deron] Williams in the [2005] draft instead of taking [forward] Marvin Williams -- that case is going to come up a lot in this argument. And a lot is going to depend, obviously, on which team winds up with the top pick. But I still think it's a lot harder to find a big guy who can do all of the things that Beasley can do than it is to find a point guard.''

1. Not that anybody asks -- the coaches decide this honor -- but here is how I would vote.

C -- Marcus Camby, NuggetsPF -- Kevin Garnett, CelticsSF -- Shane Battier, RocketsSG -- Bruce Bowen, SpursPG -- Jason Kidd, Mavericks

Bowen is a small forward offensively, but he often shuts down the top scorer in the backcourt, and it would be wrong to put forth a team like this without including Garnett, Battier and Bowen. The hardest position to choose each year is point guard, so I sought the advice of an NBA coach, a team executive with NBA personnel duties and an advance scout. The first two voted for Kidd, while the scout rated Deron Williams slightly ahead of Kidd. The executive noted that Kidd often is assigned to defend the superior backcourt scorer, including shooting guards. The coach said Kidd is able to adapt to quicker point guards by giving them space and playing the angles. Kidd's talent for rebounding is another asset defensively.

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