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Oden newest phenom on horizon
By Marc J. Spears
"He's definitely unique for his size at 17," Indiana Pacers guard Fred Jones said. "He's not a skinny dude. He can run. The most important thing about him is he is just a good dude. You don't hear about him doing anything crazy."
Despite Oden's talent, there's not the fan or media following there was with James. When Oden was introduced during warmups in a recent game at Broad Ripple High School, he received a tepid response at best and a loud boo by one fan. There also were plenty of seats available.
Once the game started, Oden made a believer out of me.
Every offensive rebound was his. He scored despite being quadruple-teamed at times. He blocked a shot off a 6-7 foe without jumping. He blocked another shot with such force the ball was planted between the rim and the backboard. He dunked repeatedly in chin-raising, Shaq-like fashion. He is so athletic and agile he plays point in his team's full-court press.
And during his 18-point, 11-rebound, three-block outing in a blowout win, Oden's best play was grabbing a rebound, dribbling the length of the court in traffic, jump-stopping in the paint and then throwing down a two-handed dunk. Oh, yeah, he just turned 17 on Jan. 23.
"I need to improve on shooting, handling the ball and getting stronger in the weight room," Oden said afterward.
The unselfish Oden is averaging 20.2 points on 73.3 percent field-goal shooting, 9.8 rebounds and three blocks. He also scored a season-high 37 points for a team loaded with Division I prospects that won a state title last season.
"With their (dominating) style of play, he only gets like 18 minutes a game," said Jones, who attended the Broad Ripple game. "He's going to be good. He's got his head on his shoulders right, too. (The NBA) is drooling over him right now."
Oden, who earns A's and B's, is serious about his education and his hoops. He could score more than 30 every night, easy, if he wanted to. But his coach, Jack Keefer, recently scolded him.
Why? Because he isn't taking enough shots.
Keefer told Oden that if he doesn't shoot at least 15 times a game, he wouldn't start the next contest.
"I understand where he is coming from," Oden said. "All the coaches tell me that, so it must be true. I'm trying to shoot the ball a lot more."
Nine NBA scouts came to see Oden play in a recent game televised by ESPN2. Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine already have come to town. Stars at his games include Jones and Indianapolis Colts Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison, and Colts president Bill Polian.
More will be asked of him very soon. He knows it. Such is the reality for extremely talented teenagers in sports, especially in basketball, where million-dollar contracts rest just beyond high school graduation.
And the storm heading for Oden will reach a fever pitch experienced by few others.
If he is the first pick in the 2006 NBA draft -- which the nation's three foremost recruiting experts say is a certainty, even though Oden maintains he might attend college -- Oden would sign the maximum-allowed rookie contract, along the lines of $20 million over four years.
After that, the bank opens up further. Several players in the NBA have contracts worth more than $100 million.
Even that's a small fraction of what Oden could earn. Last year's No. 1 NBA draft pick, high school player LeBron James, makes several times his basketball salary in endorsement contracts. Forbes Magazine estimates James' total earnings at $250 million.
With that money come media, agents, shoe companies, people trying to grab a piece of the stardom.
All this staring at a kid who earned his driver's license in January. Who just got his first girlfriend.
Oden told a reporter for CBS SportsLine last month that if he was guaranteed to be the top pick in the NBA draft, he would "have to" make the jump and skip college. But now he backs off that. He says he isn't good enough yet.
"That's too far ahead," Oden says. "I know if something like that was to happen, it would take maybe three to four years for somebody like me to develop to that all-star level.
"I know in my mind I'm not ready for that."
The making of a star
Oden's story isn't the oft-heard one of an urban youth using exceptional sports skill to claw his way out of poverty.
He grew up in Terre Haute and moved to Indianapolis before eighth grade. He lives with his mother, Zoe Oden, a rehabilitation technician at St. Vincent Hospital, and his 14-year-old brother, Anthony, in a nice subdivision in Lawrence Township.
Oden's father, Greg Sr., lives in Buffalo, N.Y., but Zoe Oden is quick to say he is involved in his son's life.
Zoe Oden is a hands-on single mom. She keeps tabs on who's keeping tabs on her son, sitting in on interviews when possible.
Oden has above-average grades and attends church with friends.
He is self-effacing, his voice soft and quiet.
"People are putting a little pressure on him to live up to all this, and I certainly believe he will. But he has to go through the process," said Jack Keefer, Oden's high school coach. "He's just trying to grow up and have fun with his buddies."
But that's not always easy. Oden's national stature has grown with his physical one.
The serious attention began at the start of his freshman year, when several recruiting analysts listed him as the No. 1 player in the Class of 2006. He was 14 and stood 6-foot-11.
He became the first freshman starter for Lawrence North, and his first points in his first game came on a dunk. That season Oden averaged nine points and nine rebounds.
This past season, he averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds, shot 70 percent and led Lawrence North to the Class 4A state championship.
Along the way, he added an inch and bulked up to 245 pounds, making him taller and heavier than Pacers star Jermaine O'Neal.
It is during the summer, though, when high school players make the biggest splash. Tournaments are set up around the country for traveling teams, giving college coaches, NBA scouts and talent evaluators a chance to see the best players face off against one another.
Oden plays for a team called Spiece Indy Heat. The team played in Charlotte, N.C., last month and has upcoming tournaments in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
It was at the Charlotte tournament that Oden went from a clear-cut high school star to a clear-cut favorite to be the No. 1 NBA draft pick in 2006.
Going head-to-head with 6-foot-10 Andray Blatche, a high school graduate who is headed to prep school and is being recruited by all the traditional college powers, Oden shot 7-for-10 from the field and scored 18 points. Blatche shot 3-for-10 and scored 10 points. Oden was named the tournament MVP.
Defense is Oden's strong suit. With his shot-blocking and rebounding he has drawn comparisons to NBA great Bill Russell. Offensively, he lacks the go-to move critical to success for big men at higher levels.
To NBA teams, however, his production is irrelevant. It's potential they crave.
"He's the best prospect in high school basketball right now beyond a shadow of a doubt, and he's got room to grow," recruiting analyst Dave Telep said. "It'd be a huge upset if he's not the top pick in the 2006 draft."
Already, NBA executives are buzzing about Oden. The general opinion? "That he's got a chance to be a great player," Pacers chief executive officer Donnie Walsh said.
Kevin Garnett, recently named the NBA's Most Valuable Player, jumped from a Chicago high school to the NBA in 1995. Since then, NBA teams have been afraid of missing the next big thing.
Last year, James became the second high school player in three years to be the top NBA draft pick, following Kwame Brown in 2001. Thirteen high school players have declared themselves eligible for this year's draft.
"The draft has become a draft of potential," ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale said. "It's not about, 'What players will help us today?' It is, 'What will he be down the road?'
"But if you're a kid, you have to protect yourself. You're on the (bench), praying, hoping to make it. A lot of kids are better off going to college.
"I love kids, and you don't hurt yourself by going to college. You feel good about yourself, really good about yourself. But you can certainly understand a situation with a LeBron James or Dwight Howard, those type of guys."
That's because many of those players don't just make it in the NBA, they dominate.
In voting for the NBA MVP this past season, Garnett was No. 1, the Pacers' O'Neal was third, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers was fifth and James was ninth. All went straight from high school to the NBA.
Since 1995, 18 high school players have been first-round selections. Seventeen still are in the league.
"If we don't change the way we're doing business, he's the No. 1 pick because they're picking based on potential, and he has the most potential," Van Coleman, another longtime high school talent scout, said of Oden.
One of the risks of choosing college is injury. Chris Marcus, a 7-foot-1 center at Western Kentucky, was expected to be a high draft pick after leading the nation in rebounding as a sophomore in 2001. Instead of jumping to the NBA after that year, he returned to college, suffered a foot injury and was never drafted.
With millions of dollars at stake, there are other looming perils. Agents -- some legitimate, some not -- try to filter into the picture.
Zoe Oden said that hasn't happened yet. But it almost certainly will. Drew Joyce, LeBron James' high school coach, said agents attempted to make contact at the beginning of James' junior year.
"If the kid is not grounded and doesn't focus on what he needs to get done in his high school season," Joyce said, "this has the potential to ruin kids."
His mom and his coach are confident that Oden has that strong support system. Zoe Oden has no plans to seek out a financial adviser, at least not yet. Right now she just plans to keep a close eye on her son, to protect him from the storm and let him be a 16-year-old kid.
"He's fine with it," Zoe Oden said. "Believe me, he
knows what's going on, but it doesn't bother him."