Greg Oden doesn’t have much information to relay to Zion Williamson regarding draft night. Despite being the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, the former Ohio State standout says he spent most of the June evening at Madison Square Garden in a daze, shuffling between media obligations at a rapid rate. Oden has pictures of his time with commissioner David Stern, but not exactly many memories.
“I remember mainly being the first one to go and do interviews and then being the last one to leave,” Oden told The Crossover. “When my name was called, my first thought was, ‘Don’t trip up these stairs.’ After that it was a bit of a blur until the night was over and everything settled before I headed to Portland.”
There might not be a treasure trove of anecdotes Oden can relay from draft night. Yet once Williamson exits the Barclays Center on Thursday and begins his rookie year with the Pelicans, Oden’s experience could then prove handy.
Few players entered the NBA with more fanfare than Oden over the last 20 years. LeBron certainly holds the mantle as the most hyped prospect of the modern era, though Oden certainly belongs in the conversation for second place in the 21st century. Anthony Davis’ arrival was analogous to Oden’s, each dominating college basketball with a historic defensive effort. Kevin Durant belongs in the conversation despite going No. 2 to Oden, and now Williamson will stand next to Adam Silver with similar expectations. Oden can relate.
“[Williamson] is a little bit different, he’s on TV and they’re showing highlights when he’s hurt and on the bench,” Oden said. “So the attention is on a bit of a different level than I got even with a lot of people watching me, but he’ll be great. He’s an explosive player, he’s a different animal that people haven’t seen before.”
Williamson enters a franchise situated closely to what Oden experienced when he played his first season in Portland. The Blazers won 41 games the year after drafting Oden, establishing a dynamic core with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge as Oden recovered from microfracture surgery. Oden didn’t make his debut in October 2008 amid a deep rebuild. Portland won 54 games in 2008-09 with Oden playing more contributor than savior. As Jrue Holiday and the Lakers’ former youngsters lift the roster in New Orleans, Oden sees Williamson following a similar route.
“Zion’s got some talented people around him, so the attention shouldn’t be too intense.” Oden said. “He should be able to run and play in transition and do the things that are going to make him the top pick. It’s a nice situation I think to come in to.”
Oden hasn’t spoken with Williamson in the lead up to the draft, but the former Blazer has doled out considerable advice to some of the league’s future stars over the past few years. Oden took his NBA experience to the bench in 2017, working as a student coach for Thad Matta and Chris Holtmann at his alma mater. More recently, Oden served as a coach at the NBPA Top 100 Camp, working to mold a portion of the nation’s elite high school recruits. Oden was the nation’s No. 1 recruit 13 years ago. Now, he’s in his former coaches’ shoes.
The foray into coaching has lent Oden a scout’s eye. The league’s history is wrought with former players decrying the latest generation, claiming the league’s gone soft, selfish or unsightly. Oden certainly played as a center of a previous generation. He attempted zero career threes and shot only 27.9% in his career between 3-10 feet. Oden’s analogs still exist in the league—Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert come to mind—yet as the breed dwindles in the NBA, it may be disappearing at the prep level. Oden could very well begrudge the new prototype. He’s taking a different approach.
“I would say, the kids today can really do it all,” Oden said. “When I was in the Top 100 camp, you knew who the point guards were, who the shooting guards were, I was obviously with the bigs. There were a couple of guys who were different, maybe a big guy that could shoot, but now all these guys can shoot, really. All these guys can handle the ball, play 1-on-1 from the three-point line and toward the rim. So it’s exciting to work with them on every aspect of the game and make players who can succeed in a lot of areas.”
Injuries limited Oden’s career to just 105 career games across three seasons. A final run with the Heat in 2014 didn’t net a championship ring seven years after a similar title escaped him with the Buckeyes. Oden’s career is largely defined by missed opportunity and too much time seated on the sidelines. But such a perch may actually suit him well. Oden has a pool of experience unmatched by most former players at just 31 years old. It seems only right he remains on the bench as a coach, lending his knowledge to the next generation.