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Kid with clout

Greg Oden, on the floor, fights for a loose ball during last year's Indiana Class 4A title game. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Greg Oden, on the floor, fights for a loose ball during last year's Indiana Class 4A title game. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

INDIANAPOLIS – Greg Oden might be the next LeBron James.

Indiana, North Carolina, Michigan State, Arkansas and Wake Forest are among the schools that have recruited the 7-foot high school junior. Other schools haven’t bothered, because they figure he’ll go directly to the pros.

Oden, a polite kid who turns 17 in January, is just trying to ignore the hype.

“A lot of people come up to me, but I really try to shy away from the attention,” he said, “because in my mind, I think somebody’s going to get tired of seeing me in the newspaper.”

He’s been making plenty of appearances in the national media. Oden was on the cover of Student Sports magazine’s season preview edition last month. Sports Illustrated featured him recently, and ESPN2 televised his team’s win Thursday night over Poplar Bluff, the Class 5A champion from Missouri.

“He knows he must improve,” said Jack Keefer, his coach at Lawrence North High School. “He knows he’s not good enough, even though everybody’s trying to tell him he is.”

Oden wanted to pass the time, not grab headlines, when he began playing basketball in fourth grade. He had moved with his mother, Zoe, and brother, Anthony, from Buffalo, N.Y., to Terre Haute, Ind. There wasn’t much else to do, he said, so he began playing ball every day at the Boys Club.

The family moved to Indianapolis four years later. He had grown to 6-7 and was playing at Craig Middle School. That’s when Keefer first saw him.

“Everybody kept telling me they had this big monster in the eighth grade who was dunking the ball. So I went down and watched their first game of the year,” Keefer said. “The place was packed. … I haven’t seen a junior high game like that in my entire life.”

By the next fall, when Oden enrolled at Lawrence North, Keefer knew he was ready to start.

“We didn’t have to play him into a spot; he deserved a spot right away,” Keefer said. “He didn’t score much, but he had the presence on the floor that adjusted the whole game.”

Oden averaged 13.9 points and 9.8 rebounds a game as a sophomore, helping lead Lawrence North to the Indiana Class 4A championship. In the title game, he made all four of his shots – including three rim-jarring dunks – and had 12 rebounds. He was an Associated Press first-team All-State selection.

This season, his Wildcats are ranked No. 1 and Oden is a key reason. He hit 20 of his 23 shots in the first two games this season, and through the first five games – including Thursday’s 56-40 victory over Poplar Bluff and North Carolina recruit Tyler Hansbrough – was averaging 19.4 points and 10.2 rebounds.

“He’s a lot better offensively. He’s more assured of himself. He makes such good decisions when he has the ball,” Keefer said.

Even without the ball, Oden intimidates opponents with his size.

“It just automatically rattles them, but coach wants us to play such good defense that it really doesn’t matter that I’m a 7-footer,” Oden said.

Donald Cloutier, a 6-7 senior who will play at Western Michigan next year, said Oden “makes life real easy” for the Wildcats.

“Just throw it up to him and he’ll go get it most times,” Cloutier said. “If they’re doubling down on him, I can look at 15-foot jump shots all day.”

His teammates don’t resent the attention Oden is getting.

“When we’re out there, we know he’s No. 1 and we work around that,” Cloutier said. “Our guards can be a lot more aggressive on defense and he can pick up whoever when they get to the basket. On offense, of course, he tears people up in the post.”

Chris Benedict, whose Columbia City team lost 50-29 to Lawrence North in the state championship game in March, said Oden’s defense dictated the outcome.

“He just controlled the boards on the inside and did a tremendous job,” Benedict said. “We tried to get it out of his hands as much as we could, but we couldn’t keep him off the glass.”

That power is what draws scouts, who liken Oden to James and other high school players who have gone directly to the NBA – Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O’Neal.

“They think he has a lot of the intangible things with the defense and shot-blocking and rebounding,” said Doug Huff, rankings editor of Student Sports magazine. “They always look at potential, and they think that compared to the other kids who have preceded him in that situation … he’s on that same level.”

Still, relatively few are able to make the transition successfully, Huff noted.

“A lot of these guys that do not have the tools he has think they are ready,” Huff said.

Oden said he isn’t ready for the NBA. He wants to concentrate on being a presence on the court and keeping the attention low-key.

When ESPN came to town for a setup story for the Poplar Bluff game, the crew wanted to ride the team bus, wanted to go home with Oden, wanted to follow him from class to class. Most of the requests were denied, Keefer said.

“He doesn’t want to walk the halls with a camera following him. He’s just a kid,” the coach said.

Regardless of what Oden decides, the attention isn’t likely to fade. And there’s another Oden waiting in the wings.

Little brother Anthony — 6-foot-8, 250 pounds and still growing — is a freshman on the junior varsity team at Lawrence North. Greg has been tutoring Anthony in basketball skills, especially moves in the post.

“I look up to him a lot,” said Anthony, 15. “He taught me to just keep working on my game so I can be as good as him, hopefully.”