LAS VEGAS – Greg Oden(notes) was spent. The injuries, his inconsistent play, the expectations that came with being a supposed franchise-altering center – all of it had worn on Oden. The fun-loving free spirit who charmed the NBA as the No. 1 pick two summers ago had transformed into a brooding giant.
Even Oden admitted it: The pressure had become too much. So after the Portland Trail Blazers' season ended with a first-round loss to the Houston Rockets, Oden retreated to Columbus, Ohio, to enroll in some summer school classes at Ohio State, clear his mind and work on his game.
His goal: To regain his swagger and prove to the Blazers he can still become a growing force in the NBA.
"They're going to see a guy that can dominate on the court and change games," Oden told Yahoo! Sports this week. "…They drafted me for a reason and I want to show them why they drafted me."
To rebuild his confidence, Oden began visiting a sports psychologist. "A little shrink," he joked.
"I've always been the type of guy that it doesn't matter what I do if my team wins," Oden said. "We made it to the playoffs for the first time in how many years, and I'm down on myself."
The psychologist helped Oden "see himself." Former Blazers forward Brian Grant provided similar help, flying from Cincinnati to Columbus to work with Oden four times a week, on and off the court. Grant, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease, grew into a mentor of sorts for the Blazers' 21-year-old center. His words stuck with Oden.
"He said, 'People might be a lot more skilled than me, bigger than me, faster than me, but I'd be damned if I'm going to let someone outwork me when I'm out there,' " Oden said. "…He's been through it all. If I need someone to talk to, I know I can call him."
Through the first half of last season, Oden seemed all too willing to go it alone. He missed his rookie year after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee then his much-anticipated debut on opening night last season was cut short because of an injury to his right foot. Once again, Oden was labeled the next broken Blazers' center, following Bill Walton and Sam Bowie.
Oden's warm smile disappeared. Even his teammates had trouble encouraging him. He returned in a couple weeks, but another injury sidelined him for a month after the All-Star break, just as he was beginning to show some of his potential. He was supposed to help Brandon Roy(notes) and LaMarcus Aldridge(notes) lead the Blazers, and once again he was stuck on the sideline. Even after he was effective in a handful of games late in the season, Oden played poorly in the playoffs, undone by foul trouble.
"I'm going to be me no matter what anyone else says," Oden said. "I don't read anything at all. It's a lot easier that way. It's to the point where I don't want highlights anymore – good or bad."
That doesn't mean Oden is hiding from the spotlight, either. He will participate in Team USA's minicamp this week, and the practices will be open to the media. Saturday's scrimmage is open to the paying public. Perhaps no player has more to gain – or lose – from this week than Oden. If he plays poorly, everyone will be quick to once again write him off.
Blazers coach Nate McMillan, an assistant on Mike Krzyzewski's Team USA staff, is eager to see how his young center performs. He knows one thing: Oden looks good. "He's healthy and he's ready to go," McMillan said. "We're excited for him."
Oden, too, sounds excited. He says he's stronger, both physically and mentally. His big smile has returned, and he's quick to laugh again. Will the Blazers finally see the player they thought they drafted?
Greg Oden is stone serious about this much: This season, he's stepping onto the court with something to prove.