With Summer League passing and the long August days ahead, we get a nice little bonus news time as Greg Oden scrimmages with the USA select team in Las Vegas. This will be our first chance to get non-team-based reports and observations about how his summer is going.
To my mind there's no more critical issue facing the Blazers in the next couple of years than how Greg develops. Brandon Roy is the heart of the team but as long as he's healthy he's pretty near a given, pros and cons. LaMarcus Aldridge will see some growth but he's already developed into a good player. Whatever other young players remain with the team long-term will also have steep growth curves. But nobody has the potential combination of size, position, talent, and upward mobility as Oden. If he turns into a monster even in one or two areas Portland becomes a legitimate contender. If he's a glorified journeyman the road gets harder.
It would be silly to expect miracles or a complete transformation from Greg this summer, let alone demonstrations of such in this mid-summer camp. He doesn't need to fill Bill Russell's shoes this fall in order to be considered a success. However I'll be watching some benchmarks to see how his development is going. These include:
1. Showing up to camp in shape.
It may seem basic, but stamina and mobility were two of the stronger casualties of Oden's year-long, surgery-inspired respite. Extra pounds eat away at his game, making him slower and more prone to get behind plays and thus in foul trouble. They also increase the chances of injuries or chronic debilitation of his joints, particularly knees. One of the stronger signs of Greg's commitment will be arriving ready to play NBA basketball.
2. Recognizing when to follow through on a defensive play or rebound and when to let it go.
Granted Greg's teammates put too much pressure on him last year to make decisions about guarding players off his position. But many of Greg's fouls were unnecessary nevertheless. He'd have zero chance of cutting off a drive, blocking a shot, or getting a rebound and he'd bull in anyway, getting halfway there and all the way whistled. Greg is responsible for patrolling the paint but that doesn't mean the opponent will score zero points there. A little wisdom coupled with the strength would go a long way.
3. Agility getting out to cover the screen and recovering to the middle.
Every NBA center with pretensions of being a paint defender must possess this skill. If you're big opponents will involve you in screens. They circle your name in red and tell the guy you're guarding to set high picks all night. The concept isn't hard. You have to run out to delay the dribbler long enough for his man to recover, then fall back into the lane to cover your guy again, preventing the easy dive to the bucket. Experienced big men do it without thinking. Oden not only thought last year, he thought slowly. And he ran slowly. And the Blazers' guards never recovered on their man once the screen was set. And it was basically a disaster. The perimeter defenders will have their own business to attend to but Greg himself has got to run the cover/fall-back yo-yo with consistency and alacrity if he ever wants any peace.
4. A calm, smooth post move.
I don't expect bankable yet. I don't expect Greg to evade every shot blocker. I'd like to get a glimpse of confident, paced, reliable footwork with his back to the basket. If the release is still jerky we can work on that. But if Oden never learns to use his bulk effectively the most buttery release won't matter.
5. Improvement at the foul line.
Greg is going to get fouled because of his size and prominence. It's nearly a given. The difference between 63% and 70% at the charity stripe adds up to a lot of points over the course of the season. This team needs more offense and this is an easy way to get it. You can practice foul shots no matter what your situation.
If Greg could manage even this much his utility would rise and his potential become clearer. He's going to do some of the exotic things naturally. These five improvements would go a long way towards transforming him from a young oddity into a genuine basketball player.
What else would you add to the list, remembering we're talking Oden's second season and just one summer of improvement? Comment below.