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A complimentary player

Aldridge raves about playing with Oden

LaMARCUS ALDRIDGE Portland outlook rosy LaMARCUS ALDRIDGE Portland outlook rosy

When LaMarcus Aldridge recently withdrew from the USA Select Team, it seemed almost fitting. Playing in the shadow of Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy last season and welcoming No. 1 pick Greg Oden earlier this summer, Aldridge often finds himself far from a main attraction with the Portland Trail Blazers. Hard to believe, since the Bulls selected Aldridge with the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft before sending him to Portland.

If Aldridge had joined the squad assembled to prepare the national team for the Olympic qualifying tournament, his comfortable low profile could have disappeared. But Aldridge withdrew as a precaution, taking time to nurse a sore left heel. With the Blazers building for the future around a nucleus of Aldridge, Oden, and Roy, arriving for training camp healthy matters most.

"We know that LaMarcus is a very, very important piece to this puzzle," said Blazers head coach and national team assistant Nate McMillan. "He will be the guy that we run a lot of our offense through -- LaMarcus, Brandon, and Greg. We're going to expect him to score, defend, do a lot of things for us. He showed that potential last year and we're looking for a little bit more this coming season."

After starting his rookie year slowly as he continued to recover from right shoulder surgery, Aldridge did not log enough playing time to earn consideration for the Rookie-Sophomore All-Star Game. He made up for lost time during the second half of the season, earning first-team All-Rookie honors. Averaging 9.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, Aldridge took his spot on the squad alongside Roy, Andrea Bargnani, Randy Foye, Rudy Gay, and Jorge Garbajosa.

Only a late-season diagnosis of Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome (a heart abnormality) interrupted Aldridge's progress. The diagnosis was made after he complained of dizziness in a game against the Clippers March 31. He did not play for the remainder of the season but received treatment and returned to action with the Portland entry in the Las Vegas Summer League in July, where Oden was the talk of the tournament.

"Do I feel underrated?" said the 6-foot-11-inch, 245-pound Aldridge. "No, I feel that hard work pays off. If I'm doing something and I don't get recognition for it, that's fine as long as we get wins. I'm not all about the recognition. I'm about working hard and getting better. If I keep working hard, people will be able to see how good I am."

Aldridge doesn't have anything to prove to Oden. After just a few summer league practice sessions, Oden saw all he needed to.

"When I got here, I didn't know he was that good," said Oden. "Believe me, he's very skilled. He does everything so well right now that it's like, give him the ball and I'll go rebound."

Mutual admiration led Aldridge to predict Oden will be "a Tim Duncan/David Robinson type of player."

Aldridge sees the perfect complement to his skills in Oden.

"Greg's going to help me get my outside shot more, as far as being a presence down low," said Aldridge. "My guy is going to have to go help [on Oden]. By me being able to shoot it and bring my guy out, it's going to give [Oden] more one-on-one coverage on the defensive end.

"And we can both block shots. If I get beat, he can block it. If he gets beat, I can block it. If a guard gets beat, we both can go get it."

McMillan and the Portland brass see the obvious potential in a collection of young players that also includes Jarrett Jack and Sergio Rodriguez. Beside an image of Oden flanked by Roy and Aldridge, the team website advertises "Big Games. Big Stars. Big Nights. Building a Big Future Together." Marketing considerations aside, that future is at least a couple years away.

"We know that in the next year or two, we're going to go through some growing pains where we're going to win some games and we're going to lose some games," said McMillan. "We feel we have a good nucleus.

"With two, three years of experience under their belt, they're going to be really good. And in two to three years, we will have cap space to add another really good player.

"That's the window. It's a three-year window where we want to be definitely in the playoffs and possibly going deep into the playoffs."

Ain't no stopping him

Just a guess, but Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe should become fast friends this season. Garnett loves teammates who challenge him in practice, who don't take possessions off, and who bring emotional intensity to the floor regardless of role.

"When he gets back onto the court for a drill, the intensity level goes up about five notches," said former Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey of Garnett. "If a guy's slacking off, he'll tell a guy, but he leads by example. He'll embarrass guys. He's always the first one to dive on the floor.

"He can't stand young guys not giving their all and working as hard as he does. If a guy matches his intensity in practice, he'll love that."

Casey hinted that Celtics coach Doc Rivers will have a tough time trying to persuade Garnett to conserve his emotional and physical energy.

"At the beginning of the year, we'd talk about how I was going to save him in practice and cut back his practice time and cut back his minutes during the season," said Casey. "Every year, once the games started, he wanted to play every possession. Once the season starts, everything kind of goes out the window.

"There's no question that it's going to be important as time goes on. He's still playing at a very, very high level, but human nature tells you to save your legs in practice -- not only his legs but the emotional energy he expends during practice and drills to be competitive all the time.

"You want to save some of that juice for game night. As he gets older, he'll help manage himself as far as that's concerned. He'll see the value of it.

"You do wonder when that flame is going to go out, but in the two years I was with him, I never had to say, 'Giddy up,' to him. That is a good problem to have with your superstar."

Having coached Ray Allen in Seattle, Casey believes the All-Star shooting guard will be a good balance to Garnett. Casey can envision Allen "saying 'whoa' emotionally and physically" to Garnett in the spirit of saving his best for game time.

They expect a boost from this retro Rocket

New Rockets general manager (and former Celtics executive) Daryl Morey looked to the past for his most recent player acquisition, adding Steve Francis to the roster with a two-year deal. The Trail Blazers bought out Francis's contract, reportedly for $30 million, in July, making the guard an unrestricted free agent. The Rockets thought he would be a good fit with his experience and ties to Houston.

"We feel very good about having him on the team," said Morey. "He is going to play a key role.

"He's a former Rocket -- that played an important role. We took a close look at his performance in New York. He's still one of the top 10 guys in the league at being able to get to the basket and get to the line. Players with that skill are at a premium in [coach] Rick [ Adelman]'s system."

When asked exactly what role Francis would play, Morey said Adelman "doesn't have any preconceived notions about how he's going to use a pretty deep set of guys at the guard positions."

But Morey was confident that the 30-year-old Steve Francis who rejoins the team is different from the three-time All-Star who was traded from Houston to Orlando in 2004.

"He is coming to the Rockets at a good time," said Morey. "He's very focused on winning. He turned down significant financial offers to come to Houston. He's taken steps in terms of what's important to him and that bodes well for his attitude in other areas."

Morey was busy last week in Las Vegas watching practice sessions with the select and national teams and the competition at the Tournament of the Americas. He kept a close eye on Houston players Aaron Brooks (select team) and Luis Scola (Argentina).

"The US team is obviously dominating," said Morey. "If this was the team in the World Cup, they probably would have gone farther."

Etc.

Fishing off the keys
The newest Paul Pierce signature shoe features a green design element in the shape of a shark fin. The print advertising campaign shows a cartoon likeness of the Celtics captain driving to the basket between two sharks with jaws open and teeth bared. So, what's the connection? Apparently, Pierce told quite a fish tale during a meeting with the folks at Nike, who were so entertained that they decided to incorporate a shark theme into the footwear. It began during the 2006 playoffs, when Pierce traveled to Miami to watch Antoine Walker and the Heat play the Bulls. When the series shifted to the Windy City, Pierce found himself with free time, so he decided to take his first fishing trip. After piling into Walker's BMW with a few friends, Pierce drove to a nearby marina. As soon as he boarded the charter boat, there was trouble. Pierce accidentally dropped the car keys into the water. He didn't want to bother Walker with the news during the playoffs, but knew he had to. Pierce called Walker to find out where he kept a spare key. Walker didn't have one. Pierce picks the story up from here: "I was like, 'OK, don't panic. Let's go fishing. We'll worry about this later. I'm sure we'll find a spare.' So we go out fishing and I'm figuring I'm going to get some catfish, bass, something you see on TV. Then I heard the captain and he's like, 'Paul, come get this. I can't get this. This thing is bigger than me.' I'm reeling the fish in and I'm like, 'What is this?' We get it to the side of the boat and it's a shark. We reel it in, come back, take pictures. Then, the sun is going down and I started thinking about Antoine's car and how I'm going to get home. The captain dives in the ocean and in 20 minutes comes up with the keys. I'm like, 'This is my lucky day.' I was ready to go to Vegas. This dude was a savior. Every time I go to Miami, I go fishing with this guy."

First impressions
When the NBA gathered 44 players just outside New York City for the annual rookie photo shoot, the league thought it would be fun to survey the players about the Class of 2007. The NBA.com survey provided some interesting results, especially when it came to which players would be most successful. More than 50 percent of the rookies predicted that Seattle's Kevin Durant would be Rookie of the Year, compared with 11.6 percent for Greg Oden. Durant was also voted the player who will compete in the most All-Star Games in his career. But Atlanta's Al Horford was the player deemed most ready to contribute immediately. The Clippers' Al Thornton was "most athletic," the Jazz's Morris Almond "best shooter," the Timberwolves' Corey Brewer "best defender," and the Grizzlies' Mike Conley "best playmaker." And which veteran NBA player are the rookies looking forward to competing against the most? That would be Kobe Bryant (24.4 percent), followed by Shaquille O'Neal (12.2 percent), Tim Duncan (7.3 percent), Kevin Garnett (7.3 percent), LeBron James (7.3 percent), and Steve Nash (7.3 percent).

London bridges
When the Celtics travel to London for a game against the Timberwolves in October, the trip will serve as something of a reunion. For most members of both teams, it will be the first chance to catch up in person after the blockbuster trade that sent Garnett to Boston and Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, and Theo Ratliff to Minnesota. Pierce knows exactly what he'll say to Jefferson. "I was really building something with Al," said Pierce. "Al is someone I'll still talk to from time to time, to check on him and see how he's doing. He's going to be a great player. I'll eventually talk to [all of the former Celtics] before the season starts. It's hard on them, especially being so young and being traded. It can scar a player that young. I'm just going to tell them to use it as motivation, to play that much harder and prove people wrong."

Crossover dribblers
The NBA will continue to be well-represented at Olympic qualifying tournaments this summer. At last count, there were 53 NBA players from 23 teams representing 22 countries slated to compete for their national teams, including 12 on the US squad. Of the foreign teams, France and Spain boast the highest number of NBA players, with four each. Among NBA teams, Toronto has the most players competing on foreign teams with five. The Celtics do not have any representatives on the US team or elsewhere.

Back to business
Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge returned to town last week after an extended stay with family in the San Diego area and predicted that second-round picks Glen Davis and Gabe Pruitt will be signed this week. "They'll be done shortly," said Ainge.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com

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