Start of the Greg Oden era for Blazers?

PORTLAND, Ore. — After a season of waiting for their No. 1 draft pick, the Portland Trail Blazers open preseason practice with Greg Oden eager to go.

"It's going to be amazing, and I'm going to be ready for it," said the 7-foot center, whose rookie season was over before it started when he had knee surgery last September.

All reports indicate Oden is ready for this season. He's been playing five-on-five for several weeks now and on Tuesday he'll raise the level as training camp opens.

The Blazers will likely still take it easy on Oden, limiting him to morning practices. He admits that although his repaired right knee feels fine, he's not quite in game shape yet.

Meanwhile, he's trying to keep a low profile — even going so far as to turning down photo shoots for a couple of national magazines.

"I'm a guy who was hurt last year," he said. "There's guys who deserve it more than me."

Expectations are high all around for the upcoming season's Blazers, and not just because of Oden. The team appears to have more talent and depth than it's had for quite a few years.

Oden, All-Star guard Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge anchor the squad, made stronger with the addition of Spanish Olympian Rudy Fernandez and draft pick Jerryd Bayless, along with the return of role players like Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster and Channing Frye.

Roy averaged 19.1 points, 5.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds last season. Aldridge became a starter and showed probably the most dramatic improvement, averaging 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds.

"For the past two seasons it's been like, 'They're young, they're going to need some time,'" Roy said. "It doesn't feel like that this season."

The Blazers went on a surprising 13-game winning streak last season and finished 41-41 — out of the playoffs but an improvement over a 32-50 record in 2006-07. It was the first time Portland finished .500 or better since the 2003-04 season.

The players, buoyed by the momentum, nearly all returned to Portland earlier this summer to begin working out for the season. For many, it was a busy offseason.

Aldridge and Bayless gained experience this summer by playing on a squad that practiced against the U.S. men's team that won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing.

Fernandez, known for dunking on Dwight Howard in the Olympic final, was lured to Portland from DKV Joventut Badalona of the Spanish ACB League. Last season he averaged 21.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals for the team.

Bayless, who averaged 19.7 points last season for Arizona, was selected 11th overall in the June draft by the Indiana Pacers, who traded him to Portland a short time later.

Roy had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in August, but expects to be ready for the season. Like Oden, he will probably only participate in morning practices.

Frye had surgery on his right ankle in the offseason, but said he should be ready ahead of schedule — perhaps in time for the regular season opener.

Oden, despite the hype, is still a bit of a question mark.

Except for a handful of summer league games last year, Oden hasn't played much since he averaged 15.7 points and 9.6 rebounds in his only season at Ohio State. He led the Buckeyes to the national championship game, scoring 25 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in the loss to Florida.

The Blazers, however, have kept him involved.

He was a presence on the bench at home games and on many road trips last season. In the pre-game videoboard introduction of the team, his was right there with Roy, Aldridge and the rest of his teammates.

In his downtime, Oden whiled away the time by blogging. He turned 20. He endorsed Barack Obama. He launched Team Oden, a mentoring project for young people.

And he became a YouTube hit singing karaoke.

Since he's rejoined the Blazers on the court, his teammates have been impressed.

"There's no question in my mind he'll be one of the best big men in the league," Roy said. "He's smart. He knows how to play the game." Oden raised his eyebrows when told of Roy's comments, smiling. But then he again shifted into the low-key mode.

"I'm just trying to keep my eyes on what I can do out there and not listen to what is coming from the outside," he said.

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