Young Star, Old Soul

The Blazers have entrusted their future to a 24-year-old guard with the game of an aging veteran. Now, all that prematurely mature Brandon Roy has to do is learn to play like a kid
February 09, 2009

DEEP IN thefourth quarter of any tight game in Portland, shooting guard Brandon Roy setsthe rhythm. As the sold-out Rose Garden urges its young Trail Blazers togo-go-go, Roy peacefully decelerates his dribble, making his way acrosshalf-court like a senior citizen oblivious to surrounding traffic, putteringalong while an impatient defender swats futilely at the ball until, at last, heis ready to make his move, cross-stepping abruptly into the lane ...

... And then theball is descending high off the glass through the net, and he is headingupcourt, his blank expression unchanged. When Kobe Bryant, LeBron James andDwyane Wade attack the basket, they lurch, lunge and leap with enough g-forceto lift spectators out of their seats. When Roy drives, fans' mouths drop openas they sit, dumbfounded. How did he make it there? "He's verydeceptive," says Blazers center Joel Przybilla, who has been Roy's teammatefor three years. "I don't know if it's how he plays the angles or what.It's amazing, because it looks like he's not even asserting himself, but hegets to the spot where he wants to get to and then, man, you're introuble."

The 6'6" Royplays like an aging vet who takes pride in outsmarting the rim-scrapers whileconserving energy to extend his career. In fact, he is a 24-year-old blessedwith a 41-inch vertical leap, which he uses only when necessary. He wearsneither tattoos nor jewelry. In this era of unparalleled athleticism and styleover substance, Brandon Roy is the NBA's curious version of Benjamin Button—ayoung body driven by an old-school mind. "He's of the same ilk as OscarRobertson and Walt Frazier, and I don't say that lightly," says Blazersassistant Dean Demopoulos. "The defense is never threatening to him, andhe's that way as a person too. He is a very secure, grounded guy, a throwbackwho could play in any era."

A four-yearcollegian at Washington, Roy has startled many in his three seasons as a pro,revealing the sort of upside normally associated with rawer prospects. He wasnamed Rookie of the Year in 2007, and last Thursday he earned his secondstraight All-Star berth. At week's end Roy was leading the Blazers with acareer-best 22.6 points per game, along with 5.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds, asthe team (29--17) chased its first postseason appearance in six seasons. Roy'simportance truly shows when the game heats up: Only James, Wade and Bryant aremore prolific down the stretch than Roy, who through Sunday was averaging 7.1points in the fourth quarter. "He has a pace about him that is calming forme and the players," says Portland coach Nate McMillan, who, when he was inSeattle, used to watch Roy play for Garfield High. "He's better than Ithought he would be."

Roy has beenhearing such remarks for as long as he's been playing basketball. "Even myhigh school coach, I can understand why he didn't think I could play," hesays. Roy is well aware that he has never embraced the flamboyant role ofmodern-day prodigy: While others his age have grown up playing recklessly andreached the NBA in need of discipline, he has faced the opposite problem. Hehas been unable to play without restraint, to let himself go.

HE'S ONE of myfavorite players in the league," says Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, whoasks his staff to make highlight videos of Roy as teaching tools for his sonsJeremiah, a junior redshirting at Indiana, and Austin, a high school sophomorein Winter Park, Fla.—both guards. "He plays under control, he playsunselfishly, and he plays at gears that young players don't play at. Most youngplayers play fast and out of control, and for them it's all about getting 'myshots.' But his whole attitude is based on team play."

Few younger starshave had a more profound effect on their franchises than Roy. At week's endPortland was drawing an average of 20,543 fans at home, the third-bestattendance in the league. That's a huge turnaround from 2005--06, when the teamwas known nationally as the Jail Blazers for off-court incidents involvingtheir talented but undisciplined players and attendance was 15,049. Localdepartment stores didn't bother to carry Blazers T-shirts and other team gear,and commissioner David Stern had to personally intervene to keep disaffectedowner Paul Allen from selling the franchise.

Portland generalmanager Kevin Pritchard, who as player personnel director orchestrated theteam's breakout draft in 2006, coveted Roy's maturity and character as well ashis talent. And Roy wanted to be in Portland as well: The proximity to Seattlewould enable his parents—Gina, a school lunchroom attendant, and Tony, a citybus driver and former Marine—to attend his games. "My Number 1 pick was togo to Portland," Brandon says. In a flurry of draft-day deal-makingPritchard packaged the No. 4 choice to the Chicago Bulls to land LaMarcusAldridge, a 6'11" forward from Texas who would make the NBA all-rookiefirst team; then he acquired Boston's pick at No. 7, which he swapped withMinnesota for the rights to Roy, whom the Timberwolves had taken sixth. "Wefelt like Brandon could be a really good leader," says Pritchard, "andthat he and LaMarcus had the ability to change the culture of ourteam."

No sooner hadtheir two lottery picks arrived in Portland than the Blazers were marketingaround them—especially Roy. He was a low-risk choice for a front man: a gifted,selfless player who was well-spoken and outgoing, the middle of three childrenraised in a church-going, two-parent home. The burden of off-court appearancesand interviews to promote the team's brand was exhausting during a rookieseason in which Roy flew home in between games for the birth of his firstchild, Brandon Roy Jr. (Roy and his fiancée, Tiana Bardwell, had their secondchild, daughter Mariah Leilani, in January.) "The first two years theyreally had him everywhere, and [quietly] he complained," says McMillan."He did it because he knew where the organization was at. He did it to getus to where we are now."

The Blazers evendispatched Roy to the 2007 draft lottery, where he served as the public face ofa franchise that overcame a long-shot, 5.3% chance to win the No. 1 pick andthe rights to Ohio State center Greg Oden. After Oden underwent microfractureright-knee surgery and sat out last season, Portland fans, haunted already bythe physical collapses of centers Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, began to fretagain over the long-term prospects of their young roster. Roy was available atthe No. 6 pick only because he had undergone two knee operations and wasregarded as brittle by several teams, according to league sources. He hasalready missed 36 NBA games because of a sore left heel and other ailments.Will Roy's body hold up long enough for him to lead the Blazers' promisingyoung rotation of Aldridge, Oden and rookie swingman Rudy Fernandez to achampionship? "You can't predict the future with injuries," saysPritchard. "But whatever happens going forward, we knew Brandon was rightfor us because he absolutely changed the direction of our team."

ROY ISN'T worriedabout his staying power. "I see myself as having just as long of a careeras I want," he says. "I look at some of the older guys and watch howthey carry themselves, and they play a lot different in their latercareers."

The irony is thatRoy already plays like those older guys. "He is a glider, and I remembergetting on him about playing harder," says Jason Jones, who was Roy'sjunior varsity coach at Garfield High. "Brandon would say, 'But, Coach, Iam playing hard.' It was hard to recognize at first because you never see a kidthat age play that mature style."

"I would getso mad because I would be trying to run harder, but my game would never let meget out of control," says Roy. "When I went to college, right awaycoach [Lorenzo] Romar was like, This guy just doesn't go hard. He was justhammering me, hammering me, hammering me, and I would say, 'Coach, I am playinghard.' Even my first couple of practices with Nate, he was like, Brandon, pushthe ball down the court! But I am pushing it! I'm playing hard as heck outthere. I'm beat, I'm tired."

So how does hemake the spectacular look so effortless? The answer is fundamental: Roy candribble so well that you can't tell which is his weak hand, and at 211 poundshe has the size to shield the ball as he reads the defense and waits for a playto develop. He has a coach's mind, an intuitive understanding of teammates andopponents swirling around him as if they were X's and O's diagrammed on awhiteboard. "He's always on balance, so if someone reaches in, he's able tospin and he's not falling over," says Portland point guard Steve Blake, whobecomes a spot-up shooter when Roy takes over in the fourth quarter. "Thenhe sees the next guy coming and he just goes into another move."

"Brandon hasa crossover, a pump, a spin—he has three moves that will get you," saysMcMillan. Back off and he'll pour in jumpers out to the three-point line; guardRoy tight, and he'll lever on by. "He goes in straight lines," says NewOrleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul. "Anybody who knows basketball knowsif you go around a guy, you need to go right by him. He takes a minimal amountof steps, and then he's at the rim. He uses his right hand and his left handequally, and if he has to get that burst to dunk on you, he will." But onlyif he has to.

So where does Roygo from here? The answer goes against everything he believes in. "I need tomake some mistakes," he says. "I need to make that tight pass, becauseI'm always trying to make the right pass. Even this year I've learned to shootshots I wouldn't shoot in the past. Let go a little bit, don't try to play sounder control. And I think that's where my potential lies—taking more risks,trying to play with more flair and having more fun out there."

If only the restof the league had such problems.

Where does Roy go from here? The answer goes againsteverything he believes in. He says, "I NEED TO MAKE SOME MISTAKES."

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Finding His Footing

A more confident and aggressive Greg Oden looks as ifhe can be the Blazers' answer inside

HIS STATS are disappointing for a No. 1 pick—8.9points and 7.2 rebounds in 23.2 minutes at week's end—yet the Trail Blazers areheartened by Greg Oden's progress. Over a recent five-game stretch the rookiecenter averaged 16.4 points and 11.4 boards, including career highs of 24points and 15 rebounds in a Jan. 19 victory over the Bucks. "He justdominated us," said Bucks coach Scott Skiles. "We tried to front him,we tried to play behind him, and he hurt us."

While the 7-foot, 285-pound Oden will be expected toconsistently produce such numbers in the coming years, for now the Blazers areevaluating him not as the star of the 2007 draft but as a 21-year-old whomissed last season while recovering from right knee microfracture surgery.There are still times when Oden looks like a long-legged foal, committingneedless fouls as he struggles to hold his ground against big men fromShaquille O'Neal to the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins. "They've got thatveteran old-man strength, they're smarter and they know the game," Odensays. "Before, things just came easier; now I've actually got to thinkabout what I'm doing."

Oden's recent improvement is not the result of anytechnical refinements, though; he's simply playing with more confidence andaggression. When he was drafted, some executives wondered whether he might betoo happy-go-lucky to realize his vast potential. Then, as he struggled to getcomfortable on the court, he seemed to play unenthusiastically and wascriticized for that. The Blazers have encouraged Oden to find a happy mediumand are relieved that it's quickly paying off. "I'm not going out there tojust have fun," Oden says. "This is serious right now."

Oden couldn't be in a better situation: Third-yearforward LaMarcus Aldridge (17.5 points per game through Sunday) takes on thefrontcourt scoring burden, liberating Oden to focus on defense and controllingthe boards. The young team ranks first in offensive-rebounding percentage andsecond in overall rebounding differential, thanks in no small part to Oden.

"People see this big young man who is supposed tobe a dominating force," says Portland coach Nate McMillan. "He wants todo well, and he's uncomfortable with all the attention. He would prefer to earnthat attention." He's starting to.

PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughDRIVING EFFICIENCY When one NBA coach wants to school his sons in the fundamentals, he shows them video of Roy. PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonoughHIGH, GUYS A 41-inch vertical leap and strong left hand help Roy finish off his cagey forays into the paint. PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonough GLASSDISTINCTION While still a work in progress on offense, Oden has made Portlandone of the top rebounding teams.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)