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Bonus situation

Give draft class points not only for talent but also personality

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Given the opportunity, Greg Oden played the room for laughs, proving to be a rare NBA commodity: a talented 7-footer with a personality almost as big as his frame. He engaged and entertained reporters at the Orlando predraft camp this month, drawing a crowd three rows deep for almost the entire half-hour of his availability.

Reporter: Do you have a suit selected for draft night?

Oden: "The suit is here. I'm going blue, pinstripes. That's all I can tell you. I might have some wild shoes. You all haven't seen [size] 19 shoes like this before. A pimp hat to the side. I'll be like, 'What's going on, Mr. Stern?' Just kidding."

Reporter: How do you feel about the prospect of playing alongside Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph?

Oden: "Big men that can shoot, thank you."

Reporter: Will a rivalry develop between you and Kevin Durant?

Oden: "I'm not going to be out there guarding Kevin Durant. It can be a friendly team rivalry, but one-on-one, I'm not going there. He's a great player and believe me, if we switch [coverages], I'm fouling."

While commissioner David Stern has called this probably "the deepest draft in a couple decades," he may be pleased to know that Oden, Durant & Co. possess personality as well as talent. After the 2007 Finals featuring the Spurs and Cavaliers did a record-low 6.2 television rating and 11 share on ABC, the NBA could use a draft class of players who steer away from clichés and toward humor and candor. Although the champion Spurs are admired for their fundamentally sound style and restrained team character, they remain hard for fans to embrace.

But the league's personality shortfall goes beyond dynasty-in-a-small-market San Antonio. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, and 35-year-old Shaquille O'Neal can't do it all. Neither can TV analyst Charles Barkley, perhaps the most entertaining personality around. Be honest, would the T-Mobile Fave Five commercials be memorable if Wade were not partnered with Barkley? Wasn't the race between Barkley and referee Dick Bavetta a highlight of All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas?

With professional sports becoming more and more about entertainment (music playing during live action, anyone?), the NBA needs to bring it, on and off the court. To that end, the league may benefit greatly from a serendipitous combination of factors regarding this draft class.

For one thing, this is the first class affected by the new age limit. No high school players going directly from the McDonald's All-American Game and mom's cooking to a house in the suburbs, competition against bigger, stronger men, and millions of dollars. Also, four players will come from two-time defending NCAA champion Florida, with three -- Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer -- almost certainly destined for lottery teams. Accustomed to national exposure and criticism, the Gators know how to put on a show. And in general, talent breeds confidence, and confidence breeds comfort in front of the cameras.

"How do I plan to market myself?" said Oden. "Just be me. If I'm me, I can't complain about what people write about me because that's me. Instead of trying to change and be something different, I know that this is 100 percent who I am."

College as a head start
For all the outcry this time last year that the league's age limit deprived Oden of his right to pursue a multimillion-dollar living, the center makes it clear he would have attended college regardless. Starting in 2006, US players had to be 19 (by the end of the calendar year) and at least one year removed from high school to enter the NBA draft. Underscoring how much Oden enjoyed college life was the Ohio State lanyard hanging around his neck during interviews in Orlando, the kind of accessory typically reserved for dorm keys and college IDs.

"I wouldn't have come out [after high school]," said Oden. "My thought was I was ready to go to college no matter what. I wasn't ready to be a grown man just yet. That year of college did me some good. It might help other people who think they're ready and get to go to college and learn otherwise."

Clearly, Oden and Stern are going to be great friends. But the remark was not designed to curry favor with the commissioner. Oden and Durant, who will be the top two picks in Thursday night's draft, believe they benefited in many ways from a year of college. Durant, who was a standout at Texas, may have benefited more, since he was not positioned for the jump from high school to the NBA coming out of Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.) the way Oden was coming out of Lawrence North (Indianapolis).

"That's one of the best decisions I made," said Durant. "I'm kind of glad they put the rule in. I matured so much in college as a player and as a person."

For someone admittedly focused on basketball his entire life who proudly states he "wasn't a regular kid" and enjoyed drill work while developing, Durant saw a chance to broaden his horizons at a big university. Durant likens his basketball upbringing to that of a European player, with a rigorous emphasis on fundamentals. As a result, he seems to have a perfectionist bent, which might help explain why Durant is reluctant to discuss a recent bowling outing with his two closest friends back home in Maryland.

"We just chilled out, had fun," said Durant. "We didn't talk about basketball. I don't think I should tell you all [my score]. It wasn't too good, 60 something. That's terrible, right? I think I picked the right sport."

Having presided over the NBA from the days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to Michael Jordan to O'Neal and James, Stern is keenly aware of the impact one player can make on a team, a city, and the league. But players take time to grow, and college undoubtedly provides a head start. And when it comes to first impressions in the NBA, the more mature the personality attached to the top talent, the better.

"In an era of recognizing [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, clearly we have a sport where great players can make a huge difference to a franchise for more than a decade," said Stern. "There are more very good players in our league than at any time in our history. That doesn't mean that there are more [Kevin] McHales, Birds, [Robert] Parishes, but the quality and the level of play has really gone up dramatically and it's going to get better because of the pressure that's going to be put on the league by the international elite players who are going to be taking up our game.

"I also think that the 19-year entry age is going to help as well because there won't be 18-year-olds who are going to be sitting on the bench developing. There are going to be 19-year-olds who have been evaluated , who you've now seen in competition. All is well for the league."

Gators are heard from
Some might say that the country has seen and heard too much already of Noah, the 6-foot-11-inch Florida forward/center. Then again, he was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 Final Four, he elected to remain in school for his junior year after scouts suggested he could go No. 1 in the 2006 draft, and he helped the Gators earn back-to-back championships. There were also his comments following the Gators' second title.

"After the [championship] game, I was telling everybody, 'Oh, we're going to party,' and this and that," said Noah. "I feel like I almost got a bad name for saying that we were going to party. But what else are you going to do after you win a championship? But I also feel like I'm somebody who works very hard and somebody who takes basketball very seriously.

"I learned a lot in my three years at the University of Florida, from not playing a lot [as a freshman] to getting all that attention my sophomore year to being under a microscope and everybody having so much criticism. I experienced a lot, and it's only going to help me a lot at the next level."

Noah brings his high-energy playing style and passion to interviews. And he makes no apologies for who he is or what he says.

"A lot of people have opinions about me, and a lot of people say what they have to say," said Noah. "But at the end of the day, I'm just being me. I enjoy the game of basketball. I love playing. I'm very comfortable around people. I speak my mind. Sometimes that's a good thing. Sometimes that's not a good thing. I have a big mouth."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers singled out Noah for his communication skills on the court, describing Noah's workout with Boston a few weeks ago as "the loudest in some time." Not that making a loud impression necessarily bolstered his chances of becoming a Celtic. According to league sources, Noah is not at the top of the Celtics' short list of candidates for the No. 5 pick. But his fellow Florida forward, Brewer, is in the mix.

Like Noah and Horford, Brewer will enter the NBA praised as a winner, schooled in handling the pressures of a big stage.

Upon visiting the Celtics for a workout, Brewer displayed some of the refreshing honesty that Rivers and Danny Ainge have said characterizes this year's draft class. The 6-9, 185-pound Brewer described himself as "skinny" and "awkward." When asked exactly what he meant, Brewer didn't back away from his comments.

"I'm a skinny guy, so I slither through a little bit," he said. "I make moves unorthodox, but I get it done."

Brewer also offered a candid critique of his skills, saying, "I feel like I am more NBA-ready on the defensive end than I am on the offensive end. I need a lot of work on the offensive end, but that's what I'm doing right now, working on my offense."

Commercial hook?
Recalling the television commercial in which Tim Duncan shoots free throws, Oden suggested he could star in a spot that features him launching hook shots. Then he wondered aloud how many people would change the channel. But the hook shots would be in keeping with the Oden mantra: "Just be me."

"Shaq is Shaq," said Oden. "Shaq is flashy. I'm not going to be that flashy. For one, I'm not that big and I can't do that. So, if anybody tries to say something about it, I can't be like, 'My arm is bigger than your body.'

"I feel like I'm an outgoing guy, but I don't know if I'm up there with Shaq. [I'll be] just a little bit below Shaq."

Oden just being himself should work out fine. The league hopes the same is true for the other top picks in the 2007 draft class.

2007 NBA draft
Where:
Madison Square Garden, New York City
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV: ESPN

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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