NBA beckons, but Oden should read Duncan's tale

ATLANTA -- Greg Oden isn't ready for the NBA. You know it. He knows it. The team that selects him No. 1 in this year's draft knows it.

But he'll ditch Ohio State after just his freshman season because you'd have to be a bona fide basketball moron to turn down the chance to be the first pick, right? All that money. All those great players in "the league." All those draft night photo ops with Commissioner Stern as you wear, say, that dumb looking $20 Memphis Grizzlies' ball cap with your $2,000 suit. And did I mention all that money?

Ask Oden if he's made up his mind about his NBA future and he'll say, "I haven't decided anything." He says it with an absolute straight face, in an absolute solemn tone. Then again, he's been asked the question only about 4,666,934 times in the last few months. By the way, that number is the average salary for an NBA center.

Poor Thad Matta. Not that there's much of a chance that Oden will become an Ohio State sophomore, but the Buckeyes' coach must have been thrilled with the Atlanta Sheraton staff if it plopped the Thursday edition of USA Today on the hallway carpet outside his players' hotel rooms. There on the front page, at the very top of the newspaper, was a photo of Shaq and a headline that read, "NBA centers dominate on payday."

Shaquille O'Neal makes $20 million per year. A cake-throwing stiff like Kwame Brown makes $8.2 mil. And on average, no other position pays more than center. So, yeah, Oden would be able to junk his red, seven-year-old Chevy SUV, the one with "way more" than 100,000 miles, and buy something new. Or, what the heck, buy an entire dealership.

No more pasta alfredo at the dorm cafeteria. No more making like a Penn & Teller act while folding his 7-foot, 270-pound body into a coach seat when flying commercial. No more doing his own laundry once a month.

So much would change if Oden leaves Ohio State after a grand total of 31 games (32, if OSU beats Georgetown in Saturday evening's Final Four semis). He would be 19 going on franchise savior. He'd be a one-dimensional -- maybe 1½ -- player whose offensive skills are a full lap behind his defensive abilities. He'd get a full serving of Shaq, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, Ben Wallace, Yao Ming, Eddy Curry, Jermaine O'Neal and Tim Duncan.

Oden would figure it out. He played most of the season with a bad wrist (he says it's 80 percent healed), so he can adapt. One big-time coach I spoke with this week wondered whether Oden really loves playing the game, but admitted he might be confusing Oden's stoicism with a lack of basketball joy.

What factors would influence his decision to stay or go? "I'll let you know when the time comes," Oden said Friday at the Georgia Dome.

I'd draft Oden No. 1. After all, defense never goes out of style. But first I'd have him spend some quality time with Duncan or South Carolina's Dave Odom, who coached Duncan at Wake Forest.

There's a little bit of Duncan in Oden. Duncan busted his hump at Wake, but he led the ACC in blank looks. He chose his words carefully with outsiders, but when he spoke, he had something to say. And he didn't take himself too seriously. Still doesn't. He wore his practice shorts on backwards at Wake. He wears his practice shorts on backwards at San Antonio Spurs' workouts.

Oden has some of those same quirky qualities. He seems amused and bemused by the attention he receives. His favorite all-time player is the understated David Robinson, who just happened to play with Duncan when they won an NBA championship in 1999. And there's a sweet innocence to him. Why else would the movie buff reveal that his top five flicks are "The Departed," "The Wood," "Love and Basketball," "American Pie 2" ("a classic," he says) and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"?

But most of all, Oden and Duncan share the experience of having to choose between living your age or leaving early for the NBA. College or cha-ching. That's the essence of it all, isn't it?

Odom tells me a story about the April day in 1996 when he picked up Duncan on campus for a ride to the nearby Piedmont Triad Airport. They had to fly to Los Angeles for the Wooden Award ceremonies. Duncan was a junior and likely the No. 1 choice in the upcoming NBA draft.

"We were driving," said Odom, "and the azaleas are in full bloom, the leaves are on the trees, the birds are chirping, the girls are in bikinis, the dorm windows are open, the sun is shining and Tim turns to me and says, 'What are we doing?'

"I said, 'Well, we're going to Los Angeles.'

"And he said, 'No, I'm talking about me considering leaving all this. What's wrong with this?'"

Turns out, nothing was wrong with it. Not long after that drive, Duncan announced he was stiffing the NBA, the potential No. 1 pick and the millions for another year of Tim College. (Allen Iverson was chosen first that year. Kobe Bryant was chosen 13th, just after the memorable Vitaly Potapenko.)

Odom later asked him why he came back. "I got to thinking," said Duncan. "Why should I try to do today what I'll be better prepared to do next year?"

Odom still laughs when he thinks about the conversation. "Why didn't I think of that?" he said.

If I'm Thad Matta, I set up a meeting between the three-time NBA Finals MVP and Oden as soon as the season ends. Not because you're trying to talk him into something, but because Duncan can give Oden another layer of perspective. He did it with Peyton Manning, when the then-Tennessee junior quarterback showed up unannounced outside the Wake locker room after a Deacons win during the 1996-97 season.

Manning, who was projected as the probable No. 1 selection in the '98 NFL draft, asked Duncan for a minute or two of his time. "Tim spent 15 minutes with him," said Odom.

Maybe it was just coincidence, but Manning returned for his senior year and was the first pick of the '98 NFL draft. Meanwhile, Duncan's draft status wasn't compromised by a fourth season at Wake. He was the first pick in the '97 NBA draft.

"He wasn't into making a decision based on short-term gains," said Odom. "He doesn't live his life on fear. These agents tell these kids you've got to go because you might get hurt. Tim was never afraid of that. You could never frighten him into a decision."

Oden could get hurt. He's already spent his entire freshman season with a black, protective wrap on his surgically repaired right wrist. But now that his NBA-mandated, one-season stint in college is complete, Oden is free to leave if he wants.

"Why?" said Odom. "What's the hurry?"

Good question. To Oden's credit, he's the first to admit he isn't an NBA-quality center yet. "I feel like I have a lot of work to still do," he said.

But money -- lots and lots of NBA money -- talks. Is Oden listening?

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.