Oden wants to start

Portland Trail Blazers center Greg Oden hams it up for the camera during Blazers media day in Portland Monday.<BR><I>Associated Press</I>

PORTLAND - Greg Oden's goal this season is to start for the Portland Trail Blazers, no disrespect to teammate Joel Przybilla.

"I love Joel to death, but I want that starting spot," he said.

Oden arrived at fall camp thinner and more cheery than he was at times last season, when he went through rookie growing pains.

The 7-foot center was the top pick in the 2007 draft but missed his first season because he had microfracture surgery on his right knee.

Oden played off the bench for much of last season while Przybilla started. Though he was dogged by criticism, Oden improved steadily and in the end averaged 8.9 points and 7 rebounds per game.

"I feel good now because I feel I put in some really, really hard work in the offseason and now I'm ready to go out there and play," he said Monday, a day before the team's first practice of the fall.

The Blazers won 54 games last season and made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2003, but fell in six games to the Houston Rockets in the first round.

Portland signed guard Andre Miller and veteran forward Juwan Howard in the offseason, part of an effort to add some experience to a team that was second-youngest in the NBA last season.

The team's undisputed leader, Brandon Roy, said the Blazers cannot use the excuse of youth now that they've got playoff experience. And if they learned anything, it was that Houston wanted it more in the end.

"My message was, 'Let's not have any more "What ifs?" or regrets,' " said Roy, who averaged 18.1 points and 7.5 rebounds and was named to the All-Star team for the second time.

This summer Roy signed a five-year max contract with the Blazers worth more than $80 million. Roy has an option on the fifth year.

Left unsigned was LaMarcus Aldridge, who expressed his frustration at the pace of negotiations on Monday. The Blazers have until Oct. 31 to extend his contract, or he will become a restricted free agent after this season.

"I didn't think it would be this hard," Aldridge said.

In contrast, Oden was all smiles.

"He's back to the guy we met when he got drafted," Aldridge said. "He's back to having fun."

Oden worked out all summer with Blazers assistant Bill Bayno back home in Ohio. He worked on all phases of his game, and even toyed with a turnaround jumper.

He also lost weight to be lighter on his feet.

How much? "I'm not going to tell you that," he smiled.

Last season was rocky for Oden. He injured his foot in the season opener and missed six games. Eventually elevated to a starting role, his play was inconsistent at best.

Then came a collision during a game at Golden State that caused a bone chip in his left knee. That kept him out of the All-Star weekend's rookie challenge and the next 15 games.

But Oden's postponed rookie season was marked mostly by his moodiness. Oden looked sullen at times on the bench, like the pressure of being the No. 1 draft pick was too much for him.

Going into this season, there's a sense that Oden has accepted the pressure rather than fighting it.

"I don't know if the pressure's off," he said. "It's more there, like it's expected now."

Roy suggested that only Oden can get in his own way.

"Greg is going to be as dominant as Greg wants to be," Roy said. "There's not much you can do against a guy like that."


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