Nov. 9, 2006

AP National Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – As he squirms in his seat, uncrosses and crosses those long legs and plays with the cast shackling his right wrist, Greg Oden looks like a kid who’s been cooped up for far too long.

Which, say those who know him best, sounds about right.

The Ohio State freshman is the biggest thing to hit college basketball in decades. Only the fourth two-time national high school player of the year, the 7-footer has dazzling, game-changing skills at both ends of the court. He’s already so good, USA Basketball invited him to hang with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and other NBA stars at its training camp this summer.

But the 18-year-old might not be as eager to join the NBA as everyone thinks, especially with a wrist injury forcing him to miss the first half of the season.

“He wants to experience the college environment, and he still hasn’t got to experience that yet,” said Mike Conley Jr., one of No. 7 Ohio State’s five heralded newcomers and a friend and teammate of Oden’s since grade school.

“He still thinks he needs to get better,” Conley added.

First, Oden must get healthy.

His right wrist has been immobilized since June 16, when a screw was inserted to repair a torn ligament. The injury kept him off the U.S. team for the world championships and, though the pin was removed several weeks ago, still limits what he can do in practice.

Off the court, too. Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn’t allow newcomers to speak to media until they’ve played a game, so Oden was unavailable for comment.

But a warning to everyone on Ohio State’s schedule: The cast on his right wrist _ Buckeye scarlet and grey, naturally _ could make Oden even better. A weight-room regular, Oden has added about 15 pounds of muscle since arriving in Columbus and now weighs 280 pounds.

He’s also been working on his left hand. Tirelessly.

“We had a coach in there the other day who said, ‘I didn’t know Greg Oden was left-handed,” Matta said. “I know Greg’s tired of being injured. But he’s had to do some things that he maybe needed to get better at. I thought his left hand was pretty good when his right hand was not injured. But I think it could add more to his game.

“I hope there’s a silver lining in this, because it’s been tough.”

Oden is expected back in time for Ohio State’s Big Ten opener Jan. 2 but not for games at North Carolina and defending national champion Florida. After six months off, no one knows how rusty he’ll be when he returns. Or how long it will take him to adjust to the college game.

That hasn’t stopped people from anointing him as one of the best in the country.

He was named to the preseason All-Big Ten team, believed to be a first for a true freshman. He also received votes for the preseason All-America team.

“From what he’s shown in practice, I’m sure he’ll have NO trouble adjusting,” said Matt Terwilliger, who will play some center until Oden returns. “Everything within 7 feet of the basket is an easy dunk for him, with how he gets up for rebounds and things.

“He’s so much more advanced (mentally) than most freshmen,” Terwilliger added. “Just the way he goes through drills, thinking about positioning and how quickly he picks things up. The mental aspect won’t be a factor with him.”

Basketball phenoms are nothing new in Indiana, home of Oscar Robertson, Kent Benson and Damon Bailey. But even there, Oden was something special.

A starter all four years at Lawrence North in Indianapolis, Oden scored 1,873 points and had 1,058 rebounds and 341 blocks. He led Lawrence North to three straight Class 4A titles and a 103-7 record, and he never lost a home game.

“He affects the game,” said Jack Keefer, Oden’s high school coach. “Our defense last year, people only averaged 32 percent. They only shot 3s because they didn’t want to mess with him. He not only takes the paint away from you, he takes the area around the paint away from you.”

His size alone makes him a force, but great timing and an uncanny sense around the basket make him particularly dangerous. Matta remembers seeing one game where Oden blocked 18 shots in 32 minutes.

Don’t overlook him offensively, though. He’s a great passer with soft hands and quicker than most realize. Content to let his teammates handle the scoring his first three years at Lawrence North, Oden picked it up as a senior when he and Conley had to carry the offense, averaging 22 points on 74 percent shooting.

“The level that he could escalate his game to was amazing,” Matta said.

By Oden’s junior year, he’d been featured in Sports Illustrated, and his games were being shown on national TV. The question wasn’t if he’d follow James _ one of the other two-time players of the year _ straight to the NBA, but which team would be lucky enough to get him.

The NBA had other ideas.

Tired of teenagers who came in needing heavy on-the-job training, the league established a minimum age limit in the summer of 2005. Precocious players now would have to play a little college ball before entering the NBA draft.

That was Oden’s plan all along. Unlike everybody else, he didn’t think he was ready for the NBA yet.

“There was no chance he was going to the NBA. It would have been me and his mom and his high school coach grabbing his ankles, telling him to do it,” said Conley’s father, Mike Sr., an Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump and coach of the AAU team his son, Oden and fellow Buckeyes freshman Daequan Cook played on.

Besides, Oden likes school. An honors student at Lawrence North, he’s majoring in business at Ohio State and wants to be an accountant.

He also relishes being “normal,” refusing to get caught up in the hype surrounding him. His wardrobe is more prep than pro _ he showed up at an Indiana Pacers game last year in a polo shirt and jeans, and wore khakis and a brown sweater to Ohio State’s first exhibition. And he rarely talks about being a potential No. 1 draft pick, even with his closest friends.

Teammates use words like “silly” or “goofball” to describe him. He likes cartoons and video games, and he’s already surprised Ron Lewis once with his Nerf gun. He likes to dance _ not well, Conley and Cook quickly point out _ and tell corny jokes.

“People look at him like ‘Greg Oden, the basketball player,’ but Greg tries to walk around and be a normal person,” Cook said. “That’s the great thing about him. He wants to be like the rest of us.”

When he’d phone Matta after committing, he continued to say it was “Greg Oden from Indianapolis” calling. And it was no coincidence the secretary in the Lawrence North athletic department retired after Oden graduated, Keefer said.

“She thought it would never be the same,” Keefer said. “He just treats everybody very nicely. Our school misses him dearly right now.”

People at Ohio State likely will feel that way someday, too.

When, though, is the question. Though Oden has told friends he’d like to stay in school, he also has said he thinks he could play in the NBA after his time at the U.S. team training camp.

“I think he feels a lot more confident about it today than he did eight months ago,” Conley Sr. said. “But with his injury and his hand, and coming back, you just never know. You just never know.”

AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.