Oden: Midway Through His Rookie Year

This may strike you as hypocritical given our habitual dismissal of the weekly Greg Oden stories coming out of national media outlets, but with the Trail Blazers exactly halfway through the 2008-09 season, a fair enough amount of time has passed that we can take a concentrated look at the over analyzed big guy — even if he hasn’t played 41 games yet himself.

Oden had a career night last night against the Bucks, a 24-point, 15-rebound affair in which he actually has a positive score in +/- stat category — +27, second only to Brandon Roy’s +30 — unlike his previous “breakout game” when he dropped 22 and 10 on the defenseless (literally) Golden State Warriors on Nov. 18. I hate to start things off with stats because by the end of this year, Greg’s season will be defined by far, far more than numbers, but they do offer perspective.

For the year, Oden’s averages look like this:

Oden: 8.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 1.46 turnovers and 3.7 fouls with a .535 fg% and .630 ft% in 22.7 minutes (35 games).

Last year’s best rookie big man, Al Horford, had a ROY runner-up season with this line:

Horford: 10.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists , 0.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 1.69 turnovers and 3.3 fouls with a .499 fg% and .731 ft% in 31.4 minutes.

And a few more relevant rookie years:

Dwight Howard: 12.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.7 blocks, 2.01 turnovers and 2.8 fouls with a .520 fg% and .671 ft% (what happened there??) in 32.6 minutes.
Yao Ming: 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.8 blocks, 2.11 turnovers and 2.8 fouls with a .498 fg% and .811 ft% in 29.0 minutes.
Amare Stoudemire: 13.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.1 blocks, 2.30 turnovers and 3.30 fouls with a .472 fg% and .661 ft% in 31.3 minutes.
Kevin Garnett: 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks, 1.38 turnovers and 2.4 fouls with a .491 fg% and .705 ft% in 28.7 minutes.

Of course, many of these lines come with disclaimers. Dwight, KG and Amare all were drafted out of High School, while Horford had an excellent career at Florida and Yao Ming had been playing for years internationally. Considering his wrist injury at Ohio State, Oden is closer to the high school kids than anyone else, games-wise, and also the only one to have missed an entire season with microfracture knee surgery. Also worth noting that KG averaged 6.4 points pre-All Star break his rookie season, Amare 12.8 and Dwight 10.5. No, none of those three had played at the college level, but none of those three had lost the athleticism that was a large reason why they were drafted in the first place while Oden is probably far from fully recovered in terms of his explosiveness.

While Oden’s rebounds (more on this later) are lower than the other players, he plays at least six minutes less than any of those players at that point in their career. And according to John Hollinger, Oden has the 11th best rebound rate in the league. Other than perhaps a small difference in steals, the number that obviously sticks out is Oden’s 3.7 fouls per game in far fewer minutes — a cause and effect relationship if there ever was one. Oden has had trouble adjusting to the NBA’s contact rules and the flopping of smaller players, and in many cases, just hasn’t been able to keep his hands to himself. In this week’s edition of The Sporting News, which Oden write’s a bi-weekly entry for, he said just as much:

Right now, I would say half the calls don’t go my way just because I am a rookie big man, and the other half are ones that I could avoid — that I will avoid, eventually, with experience.

That’s tough for me because it’s not my game. I have to learn to be not as aggressive because people are flopping and fouling the heck out of me all the time. I have to learn to flop a little, too, or else I am playing at a disadvantage. I would like to just go in and say, “Let’s both be as strong as we can and see who win,” but unfortunately, people don’t play like that. In the end, you have to flop a little or you don’t get calls.

The sad thing is, he’s right. You have to sell calls to get calls. Kobe does it, Duncan does it, even Shaq Diesel does it. Flopping is part of the game David Stern has molded over the last two decades. It’s also true that Oden will get fewer whistles on him as he gets older, but one of his biggest problems he said himself. He is trying to not be as aggressive so he can stay in the game, but then he has people telling him to be aggressive and he hasn’t completely learned how to do that and avoid fouls. The Blazers NEED Oden to be aggressive. When he is, he dominates the Bucks. When he isn’t, he plays 35 minutes and goes 10 and 4 against the Lakers. The simple point is that Oden’s fouls will come down over time for a good number of reasons, and though it has before, it sounds (and as of last night and his defensive performance, looks like) he isn’t going to let short term problems derail his improvement.

And he has improved. While defense hasn’t quite been so bread-and-buttery for Oden as some expected, Oden has, when finding that line between aggressiveness and fouling, proved he can be a game-changing force in the middle. Almost whenever he is in a game, wing players are changing their shots in the paint. Other big men have not shied away from challenging Oden, and some, like Shaq, have won the battle, but rarely, if ever, have we seen Oden back down. It’s on the perimeter, and the pick-and-roll especially, that Oden needs the most work, but last night we saw Oden beat a driving guard to the baseline, not foul, and force a pass. We have seen him hedge the pick-and-roll and smoothly get back to his man rolling to the basket to break up a play. The times when he hip checks a point guard after not moving his feet well enough should not matter compared to the more rare instances when Oden does things correctly. Surely, his quickness is still coming back to him, but most of this learning through experience and repetition. No player, without the aid of illegal substances at least, gets dumber as they get older.

While defense has been very hit-or-miss depending on the game, the situation and the matchups, Oden’s offense has, in many ways, surpassed my own expectations. Yes, he still misses a few too many dunks, but it is becoming less common to see Oden get stripped on the way up. I can’t speak for him, but I’m sure he has had to learn that unlike in college and high school, you can’t just be strong with your hands and arms. In the pros, being strong with the ball means the entire way you position your body. Gradually, Oden appears to be bringing the ball down to his waist less and playing big with his legs, elbows and shoulders. While it may seem like Oden fumbles a few too many inside passes, we must remember that many of those are incredibly difficult to handle. Are those same passes being thrown to Joel Przybilla? The Blazers play with Oden every day in practice and surely see him grab passes in traffic that would hit most of us in the face or careen out of bounds. You don’t throw bullet passes above a cutting big man’s head through the arms of two defenders without trusting th
e recipient.

What’s most impressive has been Nate McMillan’s trust in Oden, running plays through the big man during key stretches of games. Oden already has the underrated patience to post, pass back and re-post, as well as hit the open man out of a double team. The pass isn’t always perfect, but even with his passing turnovers its almost always a case where its the thought that counts.

The post moves are still raw, but some, like that finger roll late in the game against Boston in Portland, are beautiful. Even that and-one hook he had against the Bucks last night was half a finger roll. Dare I say Oden has a little bit of the Big Dipper, Wilt Chamberlain (forward to 1:05), in him? The hook needs a lot of work, though. Right now Oden is getting the ball up because of his size and strength, but when playing against another big defender, he often gets pushed backwards and off balance as he goes up for the shot. This has something to do with giving yourself a good foundation of power from your legs, but Oden also has to learn how to create space for himself — either with ball fakes, spin fakes or little nudges into the defender’s chest that Shaq has perfected.

Oden has proven he can hit a hook with his left hand, but he doesn’t look comfortable turning and shooting over his right shoulder. If he is on the left block, he’s probably going to dribble left into the paint and shoot a righty hook. If he is on the right block, he is probably shooting a quick baseline righty hook. The most successful big men know how to roll the defender off their shoulders and to where they want them to be, but they also know how to take what the defense gives them. Too often I see a defender shade Oden left on the left block and Oden tries to power through him and rise up for the hook. All he needs to do is dribble left to get the defender on his left shoulder, make contact and spin right, creating space for a short hook, an up-fake and spin back right (think Hakeem’s Dream Shake, easier said than done), or a power dunk if the footwork is right. Again, things that take time to learn and perfect, but for now even simple things like shoulder fakes to the right shoulder do just enough to keep a defender off balance.

We can’t forget about the picks Oden sets. The other day Kevin Garnett described trying to guard Shaq as trying to hold up a crumbling wall in your house. Running into an Oden pick can be like having the wall fall on you with your back turned. On his off, less energetic nights, Oden gets to the spot too slowly to set up the screen and sometimes gets called for an offensive foul, but on his best nights, man…Oden sprints out to the perimeter and gives Brandon Roy an instant seven feet of floor space to work with. And when he’s setting crisper, harder picks, Oden is also cutting to the bucket harder, either forcing the defense to collapse with his presence or forcing the defense to collapse on the next possession by power dunking in its collective grill.

I’m sure my point is obvious at by now. Oden is learning, we need to be patient. For many of you, hearing that is probably getting annoying and redundant, but its a mantra everyone, from fans to teammates to reporters to Oden himself, must remember. The best part of it is that we get games like Jan. 20 when things come together (even against a team with nothing resembling a center) and we are offered a glimpse of the future. There will be more two point, three rebound performances this year, but they will become less and less frequent until, eventually, they evaporate into the vast ether of rookie-year lessons. Someday, if Oden reaches his potential, he might become Duncan-like in his consistency, both in individual performances and winning games, but he could also become underrated and underappreciated for those very reasons. We have already seen improvements from the Blazers’ No. 1 Draft Pick, and every single one is a small joy once they are realized on an NBA court. Let’s enjoy a young, talented center getting better in his first season, because he is, just like Dwight Howard, just like Kevin Garnett, even like Kevin Durant. If things don’t pan out for the Blazers ten years from now, then we can all gripe about it, but if they do, won’t you want to look back on the first few tantalizing years with a smile?

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