PORTLAND -- Greg Oden isn't as concerned about living up to the hype surrounding his rookie year as he is about diffusing it.
Oden turned down two national magazines that wanted to put him on their covers. And after a dunk to open his first preseason game he has kept a relatively low profile -- well, as low a profile as a 7-footer can keep.
"Look, I'm just a rookie," he said, "I haven't done anything yet."
Expectations are high all around for the Portland Trail Blazers' upcoming season, and understandably much of the focus is on Oden.
The Blazers took him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, much to the elation of fans who had seen the franchise fall on hard times.
But the excitement turned to disappointment before last season even started, when Oden had microfracture surgery on his right knee. Although recovery can come as soon as six months, the Blazers erred on the side of caution and declared him out for the season.
While he rehabbed, the team kept Oden both involved and visible. He was a looming figure on the bench in street clothes during games and even went on a few road trips. He made special appearances.
He blogged on his own, endorsing Barack Obama for president, and bonded with his new dog, Charles Barkley McLovin'. Over the summer, he went back to school and became a YouTube sensation with his all-in-good-fun attempt at karaoke.
Except for a handful of summer league games last year, Oden hadn't played much at all 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 Trail Blazers eased him carefully into fall practice and the preseason. In his first game, his first shot was a rim-shaking dunk that sent fans into a frenzy.
But some noticed that Oden's demeanor turned dramatically from fun-loving to oh-so-serious. After that first dunk, his preseason play seemed uninspired. Perhaps the expectations were weighing on him.
Slowly, however, he has been gaining confidence. He got his first double-double in an exhibition over the Los Angeles Clippers. Teammate Brandon Roy reported that the smile was back.
"I'm just trying to keep my eyes on what I think I can do out there and not trying to listen to anything else coming from outside. Just trying to go at me, that I've got to work hard," Oden said. "And things are going to happen because I worked hard for it."
The spotlight on the Trail Blazers this season is not simply because of Oden. The team appears to have more talent and depth than it's had for quite a few years.
Oden, 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 and Channing Frye.
Roy, an All-Star, 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.
Buoyed by the momentum, nearly all the players returned to Portland early to begin working out for the season.
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. Bayless, who averaged 19.7 points last season for Arizona, was MVP of the NBA's summer league after being selected 11th overall in the June draft by the Indiana Pacers and traded shortly thereafter to the Blazers.
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.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the preseason has been the play of French forward Nicolas Batum, taken with the 25th pick in the draft by the Houston Rockets and traded to Portland.
Batum, who is 6-foot-8 with stunning wingspan of more than 7 feet, has played his way into consideration for a starting job while Martell Webster recovers from a broken bone in his left foot. Other candidates included Fernandez and Outlaw.
When Webster returns to the starting lineup, he'll join Oden and Aldridge in the front court, with Roy at shooting guard and Steve Blake at the point.
Though Oden's year off may have made him rusty, preseason opponents were wary, at times double-teaming him. Sacramento's Mikki Moore bet $1,000 on who would be the first teammate to dunk on Oden (Kevin Martin collected, after crossing on Fernandez and dunking on Oden and Aldridge).
"I worked out with him last year before the surgery, and he's the real deal. I mean, this dude's good," Roy said. "He didn't have to make me a believer this season. But just to see him playing now and not having the soreness after workouts is a big sign. Dude's going to be a dominant force in this league for a long time."
Oden is looking forward to it -- just don't give him credit before it's due.
"I'm excited," he said. "I'm ready to get back and doing what I'm used to doing. There's really nothing else I can say about that. It's just a lot of excitement built up."