It’s Been Quick, But Time Is Right For Oden’s Move To Next Level

By Bob Kravitz
Updated: April 22, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS— We sat there, some 20 rows above midcourt in the Lawrence North High School gymnasium. Zoe Oden’s eyes shone proudly on her not-so-little boy, a 15-year-old sophomore named Greg whose oversized frame seemed to take up half the gym.

Soon, the madness would be starting, all the calls and text messages from college coaches, all the calls at home from reporters, all the attention an athletic 7-foot teenager demands.
“He’s still my baby,” she said softly. Now, some three and a half years later, Zoe Oden’s baby has grown up — well, grown older, anyway — and after years of trying to shield her boy from bad influences and those who would befriend him solely to gain a seat on the gravy train, it’s time to let go . . . at least as much as a mother is capable of letting go.
The former Lawrence North and Ohio State center made himself eligible Friday for the NBA draft, news that didn’t come as a surprise to anybody who wasn’t carrying around Ohio State pompons.
Who can argue with that decision? He’s ready. He’s been ready for years. He’s ready enough that every NBA team believes he’s worthy of being the No. 1 player chosen in the 2007 draft.
He has reached the point where he simply can’t risk another season of college basketball and the possibility of a calamitous, career-ending injury.
All kids go to college to prepare themselves for a job that will support themselves and their families. It just so happens that Oden, who would have been the top pick one year ago and maybe even two, is a basketball prodigy.
Nobody suggests his game is fully refined. Nobody says his game is as complete as Tim Duncan’s. There remains a lot of room for growth, especially on offense.
But where is he going to learn more about NBA-quality offensive basketball — at Ohio State, or with an NBA franchise, which can hire a top big-man coach and challenge Oden at practice with players his own size?
Look at Jermaine O’Neal, who came right out of high school. He spent four years of developmental basketball in Portland, learning from Rasheed Wallace and other Blazers. And got paid for it.
The only people who aren’t letting go are those wearing scarlet-and-gray blinders. A year ago, they would have made the devil’s deal and embraced Oden, even with the knowledge he was a one-and-done guy.
Now that he’s leaving, those same people haplessly tried to justify why he needed to stick around Columbus another year.
There is no reason.
The young man is ready. If there was any question, it was answered in his NCAA finals performance: 25 points and 12 rebounds in a losing cause to Florida.
He’s ready as a basketball player, but more, he’s ready to strike out on his own. He is a smart, studious, humble guy who might have gone to college even if the NBA hadn’t established its new age rules for draft entry.
You watch: Someday, Oden will have his degree. Because he wants that degree, and because if he doesn’t pursue it, Mom will kill him.
As for Oden’s buddy, Mike Conley, Jr., the long-term future is bright while the immediate future remains cloudy. He also is making himself available for the draft, though he’s not going to hire an agent and will leave himself the option of returning to Ohio State.
Which is absolutely the right thing to do.
A year ago, most of us wouldn’t have thought this was possible. Conley was excellent, but he was Oden’s baggage handler, the Other Guy in the equation.
Now Conley has emerged, on his own, as a spectacular player who has a better-than-decent chance to get drafted in the first half of the first round.
In which case, he needs to make the jump as well.
Three Web sites —, and — all have Conley as the first point guard taken in the draft. Two have him going 11th. One has him going 12th.
One more year isn’t going to increase his draft stock. If anything, it will hurt it. The important thing is, he’s going to get solid information. While he hasn’t signed with an agent, he just happens to, well, live with one — his dad, Mike Conley, Sr.
If Conley struggles at the pre-draft camps, or he just decides he wants to enjoy one more year of campus life — and who wouldn’t? — then he’d be smart to return to Columbus. But if he proves to be worthy of a top-10 or top-15 pick, there’s no compelling reason for him to play another year of college ball.
Thinking back now, it’s hard to believe it was just four years ago. There were Oden and Conley, two high school sophomores, two guys whose parents sat up in the stands at Lawrence North and worried about them becoming adults before they had the chance to spend time as kids.
Now, they’re on the doorstep of the NBA. They grow up so quickly.