HIS ROOKIE season was erratic at best, and Greg Oden heard about it. Plenty. "[People] were on me, even for things that weren't my fault," says the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, who sat out '07--08 after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee. "And when things were going well, they said, 'He should have been playing that way.' That's kind of tough to handle."

After the season coach Nate McMillan talked to Oden about not only improving his conditioning to become more explosive but also remembering what he loves about basketball. Oden obliged, undertaking a rigorous off-season program with assistant Bill Bayno while taking classes at Ohio State. After 10 weeks of five-on-five scrimmages, lessons in post positioning and defensive technique, and talks about his role on the Blazers, the 21-year-old center emerged 13 pounds lighter in body and decidedly lighter in spirit. "The lesson I took from this summer is that I'm here for a reason," Oden says. "I worked for this, so why can't I be excited and become an All-Star?"

While that certainly would advance Portland's cause, the team's deep stockpile of young talent lessens the pressure on any one player. "Collective responsibility," said G.M. Kevin Pritchard of the team's approach. "It's as much up to me as it is LaMarcus Aldridge or Brandon Roy or Joel Przybilla or Andre Miller or Steve Blake. We're trying to get all of us not to focus on expectations but on doing our best. And that's all we care about with Greg."

Portland's plan seems to be working. Oden's subdued demeanor of last season has given way to smiles, jokes and an outward display of confidence—but not cockiness. "I'm not going to try and take over," says the 7-foot Oden. "I'm smarter than that. All I've got to do is go out there and not worry about anything else, not question anything else."

After all, he has plenty of people in Portland ready to do that for him.

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2008--09 statistics

Martell Webster had turned into a shooter you needed to rotate to.... Is Jerryd Bayless a point guard To me, he's a high-volume scorer who needs a lot of touches, and that could be to the detriment of their team.... Rudy Fernandez is going to be good. He knows how to play in addition to being an excellent athlete who gets off the ground quickly and anticipates well.

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHRUDY FERNANDEZ After scoring double digits as a rookie, the soaring Spaniard leads a strong second unit. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHGREG ODEN He has shed 13 pounds and his dour demeanor. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH

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