The Next Big Thing - Greg Oden

HE is 7 feet tall. If this were all you knew about Greg Oden, it might catch your attention. The 7-foot center is one of those magical sports entities, like the knockout puncher, the 1,000-yard rusher and the 100-mph pitcher.

Though being a 7-footer makes Greg Oden special, it does not make Greg Oden great. According to the NCAA, 79 Division I players measured 7-0 or taller last season, which is about average for a given year, and none became an All-American. Do the math, and by the time Greg Oden enrolls at Ohio State in the fall of 2006, roughly 1,000 7-footers will have passed through college basketball since 1992, the year Shaquille O'Neal -- the last truly great player of that size -- departed LSU.

So this is about more than how close the top of Greg Oden's head comes to the bottom of the goal. Greg Oden, who soon will start Greg Oden'd senior year at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis , is not thrilling basketball people simply because Greg Oden is tall.

''From last July to this July, the aura about Greg Oden has transferred to the ability,'' says Sonny Vaccaro, senior director of grass-roots basketball for Reebok. ''The kids understand it now -- his greatness. Greg Oden's so damn good, not only do they accept it, they're like in awe.

''Greg Oden's one of those people that's going to win championships.''

Those people? Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bill Walton. O'Neal. Those people. Those are the names mentioned when Greg Oden is evaluated as a prospect. They have won a combined seven NCAA titles and 24 NBA championships.

''I just don't see myself being named with that type of guys -- those legends,'' Greg Oden says. ''But anything is possible if you keep working at it.''

There have been a lot of big centers in the past five decades of basketball, but not so many great ones. As Greg Oden went through July's summer recruiting period for Division I programs, it was easy to see he could be the next. It also was apparent he could learn a little from his predecessors:

Russell

Subject: defense

Greg Oden's advantage over Russell is pure size. Russell stood 6-10 and weighed 220 pounds. Oden is 7-0, 240 -- with plenty more time to grow. Still, Greg Oden's connection to Russell may be stronger than to any other elite center.

Russell was the most sophisticated defensive center in the game's history. He doesn't have the shot-blocking records to prove that because blocks weren't an official statistic during Russell's career. His proof: 11 NBA titles with the Celtics and two NCAA championships at San Francisco .

Greg Oden has a feel for defense that goes beyond standing close to the basket and knocking away shots launched in his direction.

''He's in the mind of the opponent,'' says Van Coleman, a talent scout for Hoopmasters.com, ''because Greg Oden can come at the ball from 10 or 12 feet away and make a player change his shot.''

Greg Oden has an excellent sense of how to position himself so an opposing post player can't get the ball. Greg Oden extends his long arms and legs in front of the opponent, dissuading entry passes or deflecting those that are attempted. Greg Oden consumes an enormous amount of space in the lane.

When Greg Oden faced Derrick Caracter, a 6-9, 300-pounder from Elizabeth , N.J. , in early July at the Reebok ABCD Camp, Greg Oden's swarming presence forced Caracter to abandon the post and set up on the perimeter. Given Caracter's strength and inside scoring ability, eliciting that surrender was a significant victory.

Chamberlain

Subject: rebounding

At Kansas, Chamberlain averaged 18.3 rebounds. There were many more rebounds to be had in those days -- even Wilt shot only 47.0 percent from the field in college -- and there were fewer players his size.

Greg Oden will not put up such rebounding numbers with the Buckeyes; after all, Greg Oden was not a double-figures rebounder as a high school junior. But Greg Oden does have the ability to control a game on the backboards.

To get to that level consistently, Greg Oden will have to break Greg Oden's habit of tipping the ball to himself instead of grabbing it with both hands. That affliction is common in high school players of significant size because reaching over a player with one hand is less likely to lead to a foul call.

''Can Greg Oden attack with both hands? Yes. I've seen Greg Oden do it,'' Coleman says. ''The tipping is a bad habit that will have to be broken very early in Greg Oden's college days. The great thing is if you go up and explain that to Greg Oden, Thad Matta is going to have a kid that will nod Greg Oden head, say, ÔYes, coach,' and start getting better at it.''

Abdul-Jabbar

Subject: scoring

Armed with his distinctive sky hook, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 26.4 points over his three championship years at UCLA, then piled up a record 38,387 points in 20 NBA seasons.

It's unlikely Greg Oden ever will feature a go-to move as effective as Abdul-Jabbar's, but Greg Oden is in the early stages of developing a jump hook. He is reasonably accurate but usually lets go of the ball as he rises instead of at the peak of his jump. He also tends to roll the ball off his palm instead of his fingertips. Greg Oden's release point is lower than it should be, making the shot -- theoretically, at least -- easier to block.

Point guard Mike Conley, Oden's constant teammate -- at Lawrence North, with the Spiece Indy Heat club, at the ABCD Camp and eventually at Ohio State -- figures there's another area of the game in which his buddy can improve.

''Probably his attitude toward shooting the ball more,'' Conley says. ''The way he's shooting now, he should be averaging 30 points.''

Greg Oden averaged 19.8 points as a junior, but he did not rank among the top scorers at the ABCD Camp -- despite shooting 71.0 percent from the field.

Still, Greg Oden is superior to Abdul-Jabbar when it comes to assaulting the goal with power dunks and putback slams. In the championship game of the USA Basketball Youth Development Festival, Greg Oden set himself at the center of the lane and sealed off 6-11 Robin Lopez, a Stanford recruit from Fresno , Calif. As Greg Oden shuffled closer to the goal, he accepted an entry pass and then emphatically hook-dunked home his team's first two points. This was not a basket; it was a declaration.

''He fools you,'' says guard Paul Harris of Niagara Falls , N.Y. , Greg Oden's teammate in that game. ''Greg Oden's a friendly guy off the court, but on the court he's very mean. He doesn't play dirty or anything, but he surprises you.''

Walton

Subject: passing

In Walton's final season at UCLA, he averaged a team-best 5.5 assists. Those are point guard numbers. Oden may never reach Walton's level, but passing is one of his finest attributes.

Greg Oden consistently makes opponents pay for double-teaming him in the post. He diagnoses where the help defender is coming from and is adept at delivering a catchable ball to the open man.

Taylor King, one of the top prospects in the class of 2007, attributes his great play at the 2004 ABCD Camp to Oden's passing.

''Everybody was doubling and tripling him, and I was wide-open,'' says King, a small forward from Santa Ana , Calif. ''It's fun playing with him.''

Walton was among the best at starting a fast break, but Greg Oden needs work on outlet passing. As Greg Oden and Conley mature at Ohio State , Conley will become more comfortable dashing toward open space near midcourt and providing a target for Greg Oden.

O'Neal

Subject: physical play

O'Neal as a teen was not yet a 300-pound giant, but was an impressive physical specimen. He was powerful, astonishingly agile and an impressive jumper for his size.

Vaccaro says Greg Oden surprised opponents at the ABCD Camp with his ability to run the court, something that also separated O'Neal from his peers as a younger player. Greg Oden moves quickly and authoritatively when his team has the ball on offense -- one reason he and Conley are successful operating the pick-and-roll.

Greg Oden has the potential to become much stronger as he gains college- and pro-level strength training. Ohio State recently hired a new strength coach, Dave Richardson, who will help develop Greg Oden's upper body.

''I think he has the kind of frame that, down the road, will put him in between Wilt and Jabbar, who was an immensely strong man,'' Coleman says. ''(Greg Oden's) nowhere near where he will be.''