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Monday, October 13, 2008

Blazers' youth movement causing fans to swoon, led by Greg Oden

Blazers' youth movement causing fans to swoon

When Greg Oden strides onto the court during pregame introductions, the Rose Garden registers about an 8.5 on the Richter scale. The 7-foot center is right in there with Phil Knight, Powell's Books and Washington Park atop the list of Portland's most recognizable figures.
Then, there is the Trail Blazers' other rookie, Rudy Fernandez, who, after two games in the NBA preseason, already owns the town.
Portland's fans lusted for the 6-5 shooting guard while watching him help Spain to the silver medal at the 2008 Olympics, losing to the United States in the final. It took about two minutes into last week's public scrimmage -- witnessed by more than 11,000 Blazermaniacs -- for the lust to turn into full-blown love.
Fernandez oozes with charisma, but without a special talent on the basketball floor, he'd be just another flashy European. Fernandez, 23, has a special kind of talent.
"Rudy is a major international player," said Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard, who stole, er, bought the draft rights to Fernandez from Phoenix for $3 million in 2007. "Not one of the best -- the best."
When asked if Fernandez is already better than other top international players in the NBA, such Manu Ginobili or Pau Gasol or Dirk Nowitzki, Pritchard said, "There are some great players, and I probably should qualify it as 'best young player.' Outside of NBA players, though, he is the best. He proved that during the Olympics."
Pritchard said when he saw Fernandez play for Joventut Badalona in Spain last season, "I knew this kid is ready for the NBA now. Not in one year, not in two years -- now. He'll raise the level of play of every one of his teammates."
After enduring a painful few years of the "Jail Blazers" and losing records in the early 2000s, Blazers fans have been thirsting for a team to be proud of. Pritchard has gradually lured back the fan base by building a foundation of fine players who are also solid citizens, beginning with All-Star guard Brandon Roy.
When the Blazers lucked into the opportunity to take Oden with the first pick in the 2007 draft, the city went crazy. When Oden suffered a knee injury that required microfracture surgery and forced him to miss the entire 2007-08 season, it put off plans for an NBA championship parade down Southwest Broadway for a year.
Now Oden is back, starting at center for one of the youngest and most promising clubs in the league. Through two games in the preseason -- both at home, a rout of Sacramento and a one-sided loss to Golden State -- the former Ohio State star has looked at times dominant, at other times uncomfortable.
Limited to 20 minutes in each game by coach Nate McMillan, Oden averaged 13.5 points and 7.0 rebounds, shooting .526 from the field. Of his 10 baskets, nine were dunks -- six or seven of the rim-rattling, backboard-shaking variety.
Oden got few of his other attempts -- jump hooks or putbacks -- to fall. But he was aggressive on the offensive glass, and his presence at the defensive end meant opponents had to think before entering the paint with the ball.
Against Golden State, Oden dunked five times, more than once carrying an opposing arm or two up toward the basket.
"When he grabs on to that ball and pumps it up to the basket, you have two choices -- get out of the way or foul him," Portland assistant coach Dean Demopoulos said. "And a lot of the time, he'll make the shot. Wherever he is, there's going to be something physical happening."
The Warriors' Ronny Turiaf, who spent time guarding Oden, knows exactly what Demopoulos means.
"Oden does a great job getting his body real low, trying to put himself in position where he can explode and go off contact for a nasty dunk with both hands," Turiaf said. "He is going to have a real good career in the NBA. He will be one of the great presences down low. He'll get a lot of defensive attention, and that's going to help his teammates."
The Warriors went with the immediate double-team every time Oden received the ball in the paint. He was able to kick the ball out to the perimeter, where power forward LaMarcus Aldridge was set up with several easy jumpers.
"Having Greg down there opens things up for all of us," Aldridge said.
Oden needs to get into game shape, and he needs to stay healthy, of course. He won't turn 21 until Jan. 22, so there is plenty of maturing to do even though he looks old enough to qualify for an AARP card.
"Greg's going to be just fine," Demopoulos said. "If he remains healthy, he'll be one of the great forces in the game, no question about it. It's going to take a little time to get his stamina where he needs it, but ... he'll be in position to where he can use that powerful presence that he has. There aren't many players in the world like him.
"It'll be interesting when we go against the Suns and he's matched up with (Shaquille O'Neal) -- the young heir apparent against the aging veteran, trying to get one more ring. It'll be a fascinating subplot."
Fernandez wasted no time winning the hearts of the Blazers faithful. His first time with the ball during the public scrimmage -- on a 2-on-1 break -- he sent a perfect behind-the-back pass to Travis Outlaw for a dunk that brought down the house. Moments later, he launched a pass through the legs of a defender to Outlaw for another slam. Later, Fernandez took a lob pass from countryman Sergio Rodriguez -- starting at point guard while Steve Blake is out with a hamstring injury -- and dunked as fans chanted "Rooo-Dee!"
Has a player who scored only six points ever turned on a Rose Garden crowd the way Fernandez did in the exhibition opener against Sacramento?
Fernandez made only three baskets and was 0-for-3 from 3-point range, but he had the partisans roaring and exchanging high-fives in the aisles with his passing and court savvy.
Remarkably, Fernandez passed between the legs of a defender again -- this time the Kings' Jason Thompson -- to set up Aldridge for a dunk, made-to-order highlight material.
"To do that twice in two games?" Demopoulos marveled. "I mean, come on."
Later in the game, Fernandez turned a feed from Rodriguez into a basket that surely must have been a top play of the night.
Demopoulos called it a "catch-and-reverse spin, left-handed English shot -- you just don't see that every day."
"I've been doing this for three decades, and it takes a lot to open my eyes real wide and to go through the Rolodex of my mind and figure out if I'd seen that before," Demopoulos said. "That I haven't seen much of, if I have at any point in time."
Fernandez -- taken by Phoenix with the 24th pick in the 2007 draft before being sent to the Blazers -- sacrificed plenty in the pocketbook to come to the NBA. He'll make $5.5 million over the next four years in Portland, about $15 million less than he could have reaped in Europe.
"He's giving up a lot to play in the NBA," said his agent, Gerard Darnes.
"For a long time, my dream has been to play with the best players in the world," Fernandez said. "Now Portland gives me that opportunity."
When he flew into Portland a week before training camp, he was greeted by a large throng of fans.
"I can't believe when I arrived at the airport, 200 people are chanting, 'Rudy! Rudy!'" Fernandez said. "It's incredible. In Spain, only in soccer. It's a good surprise. I say, 'Let's go practice now. We go.'"
Fernandez, who sprained his left ankle in the fourth quarter vs. Golden State, is averaging 10.5 points and six assists in two preseason games. He can handle the ball and possesses excellent court vision, often setting up teammates for easy scores.
"People thought he was just a scorer, but (against the Kings) he showed he can pass, too," Roy said. "We've seen that in practice. He'll thread the needle. He has the confidence to make passes that other guys don't.
"Rudy is a tough player. I love the energy and the swagger he plays with."
Fernandez will sometimes unwisely try a play with a high degree of difficulty. He had six turnovers against the Warriors.
"I know this -- he's not scared," Pritchard said. "Nate might not like this, but sometimes Rudy will make a pass, and you'll think, 'What the heck is he doing?' But he'll make it again, and he'll complete it. He has that internal confidence that will allow him to succeed. You have to have somebody out there willing to make mistakes."
McMillan is trying to decide whether to use him to back up Roy at the two-guard or push Roy to small forward and start Fernandez in place of Martell Webster, who is lost for eight to 10 weeks because of a stress fracture in his left foot.
"All I know is, Rudy is going to play, whether as a starter of reserve," McMillan said. "He plays the game with his heart. He plays it with passion, on both ends of the floor. You rarely see that in the NBA. A lot of guys give that effort on only one end of the floor. When you have a guy who plays hard on every possession, with his kind of potential ... once he figures everything out, he'll be a special player."
Demopoulos said Fernandez reminds him of Doug Collins as a player. McMillan said he sees a little bit of Pistol Pete Maravich in him.
"We'll see where this all goes," Demopoulos said. "We don't want to blow this up to where the expectations are so high, but we know that Rudy has a great feel for the game. When you can pass like he can, and when you see the floor the way he does, not only do the fans love it, his teammates love it. And you better be ready, or the ball's going to be there."
Oden is the potential franchise player, Fernandez the people's choice.
Blazers fans hope it turns into a championship combination.

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