Greg Oden CENTER

When things go wrong for a cash-heavy man-child like Blazers center Greg Oden, everyone has a different explanation. Ask 10 people how the seven-foot-tall, 285-pound 2007 top draft pick can finally live up to expectations, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Play defense without fouling out. Figure out how to turn left with the ball. Hone a hook shot. Increase his vertical leap. Toughen up. Get mean. Improve his footwork. Set better picks. Get in shape. And, oh yeah … settle down and just Be. Greg. Oden.

That last bit of advice is the one you’ll most often hear coming from the Blazers. Publicly, the team brushes off Oden’s slow acclimation to the NBA, attributing it to his recovery from the microfracture knee surgery that grounded him for the entire 2007—08 season. But the real reasons lie about five feet higher. Professional athletes endure two rehabilitation processes after an injury: the physical and the mental. Oden’s body has healed. But his mind seems tethered to a dark cloud that, last year, followed him everywhere. He seemed sullen and adrift from his teammates. When cornered by microphones he offered thudding, monotone answers that recalled Eeyore.

So this summer Oden retreated from the scrutiny. He spent months in Columbus, Ohio, where he’d played his one year of college ball for Ohio State. There, he did low-key workouts with Blazers staffers, according to Portland strength and conditioning coach Bobby Medina. In August, while participating in a camp for Team USA Basketball, Oden admitted that he had been speaking with a sports psychologist, generating his only headlines of the summer. In the alpha-dog world of the NBA, where toughness is worn like armor, it was a startling confession. Oden was finally starting to open up.

That’s a positive sign. Last season, the Blazers were hands-off with the 21-year-old. Upon season’s end, the weather changed. Nate McMillan pointedly stated that he expected Oden to have a “big summer.” Kevin Pritchard, a former player himself, was more direct in challenging his big man: “I’ve been in locker rooms,” he told a reporter. “I’m not afraid to challenge guys.”

Even though Oden’s played only a hundred games, roughly, since graduating from high school, it’s fair to say this is his moment of truth. If he fails to become a backboard-shattering brute, the whispers of draft-day bust will increase in volume. But if he can Be. Greg. Oden? If he can fulfill the dreams of those who packed Pioneer Courthouse Square before he played a single game? A team with that guy in the middle could contend for a title. And soon. Which may be the only outcome that will silence his critics.