MIAMI — Every step of progress can be labeled significant when you’re a former No. 1 overall pick who hasn’t played in nearly four years due to chronic knee problems.
For Greg Oden, Monday’s milestone was participating in his first 5-on-5 drills with the Miami Heat.
“It felt good to be out there and get some up and down,” Oden said. “I got a little frustrated with myself because I’m not as back as I want to be, but it’s little steps, and today was another step just getting out there.”
Waking up Tuesday with little to no knee swelling would be another one.
“That’s the main goal,” he said
Portland’s top overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, Oden missed his rookie year after undergoing right knee surgery. The 7-foot center then played in a total of 82 games the next two seasons before suffering a fractured patella in his left knee in December ’09. He hasn’t played since, undergoing a couple of microfracture surgeries.
Seeking to add some low-post presence in anticipation of a competitive Eastern Conference this season, the Heat signed Oden as a free agent in August.
That didn’t mean Miami would be in a rush to give the big fella quality minutes.
“We’re evaluating it week by week, day by day,” coach Erik Spoelstra said after the workout. “We’re looking at the big picture, not an every-day development. I know everybody wants to know the next-day development, it’s not about that right now.
“It’s about a guy who’s really put in a lot of work to give himself the best opportunity now. Who’s shown incredible discipline and resolve despite all the struggles physically that he’s gone through. It shows the mental character and fortitude that he has.”
With reports circulating that he would play in at least one preseason game, Oden was asked if he expected to play at Washington on Tuesday night or at Brooklyn on Thursday night.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I would love to but we’re taking it slow. Probably not.”
At least Oden will be on the Heat bench, a foreign place to him as a free agent last season when he attended a couple of games, mostly to see former Ohio State teammate Mike Conley with the Memphis Grizzlies.
“This past year, with not being on a team … I became more of a fan of basketball again,” Oden said. “It brought back the little inner kid, going to the games and watching, being excited about playing, and who’s going to play and what guys are doing what.
“I think that’s what really fired up me to come back.”
Oden’s perseverance has not been lost on his new teammates.
“As a guy who has gone through some injuries, I know there’s always the ‘Why me?’ kind of feeling,” Dwyane Wade said. “You just want to be in there to show what you can do and show what you have, especially him being the No. 1 pick. I’m sure it’s been frustrating but a day like today is a positive day.
“For a guy who hasn’t played for a while, he still understands what made him great, in the sense just being big, being aggressive. It was good to see him out there and explode at different times.”
Oden said he made LeBron James miss once during practice, though the King responded by scoring on him twice.
James was asked if he could imagine not playing basketball for three to four years.
“It would have been very tough,” James said. “We all love the game so much, and we worked our whole lives to live out a dream, and when that dream is taken away from you because of an injury, it sucks.
“For him to to stick with it and be here today, it’s a testament to him just keeping his composure and believing in himself, his family believing in him, and he’s back where he belongs and that’s in the NBA.”
Chris Bosh also went against Oden, whom he called “a beast” in the paint.
“The thing I love most about Greg is that he’s hard on himself,” Bosh said. “He was mad at himself for making mistakes. I was like, ‘Listen, dude, you just got here, it’s a new system, and you just started playing again. So don’t worry about it. Just stay with it.’
“As long as he does that, I think … we just stay behind him and encourage him all the time, he’s going to help us when it’s time.”