Why Lamar Odom may be 'the most underrated player in the league'
One sequence that defines Lamar Odom's versatility goes like this: He grabs a defensive rebound, fires an outlet pass and his teammate finishes with an easy fast-break bucket. Or how about this: Odom grabs another board, leads the break and finishes with a coast-to-coast layup. Wait, there's another one: Odom directs the offense from up top, forcing defenses to decide whether they want to clog the lane to shut off Pau Gasol in the post or allow Odom to drill an open three-pointer. There's more: With Gasol already providing a formidable threat inside, Odom joins him in the post to relieve pressure. He either posts up and drives to the basket, settles for a mid-range jumper or kicks the ball out of a double team as the Lakers drain a three-point shot.
The various ways Odom remains a threat on the floor prompted Chicago Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau to say Odom "might be the most underrated player in the league." That comment prompted Odom to respond humbly, "I'm not looking for a title, but anytime a coach can give you a compliment, you take it." When I followed up and asked Thibodeau what particular part of Odom's game is overlooked, he said "everything," including his ability to post up, shoot, pass, rebound and play defense.
Ever since this season began, Odom has earned nothing but praise. After Odom played in the 2010 FIBA World Championships last summer, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson credited him with becoming the team's most conditioned player. After former Lakers greats Jerry West and James Worthy unveiled the NBA All-Star ballots, they argued that Odom should make the cut because of his double-double average of 15.22 points on 57.4% shooting and 10.4 rebounds per game. West took it a step further, arguing that "he's one of the most under-appreciated players on this Laker team. When I see the press get on him for not scoring, that's not who Lamar Odom is."
I'll agree with the sentiment that parts of Odom's game are overlooked. But lots of the criticism in previous seasons had little to do with his production level and more to do with playing to his potential. He was once deemed to be the next Magic Johnson, after all. That being said, Odom has played an outstanding season thus far and has showcased a few areas that may fly under the radar.
1. Team-first mentality: Whether you're a teammate, reporter or fan, Odom by all accounts treats everyone with genuine respect and humility. That goes a long way in the Lakers locker room, and it has helped establish Odom as one of the team leaders. That's a tall order considering that Kobe Bryant's skill-set and work ethic and Derek Fisher's experience and eloquence dictate the team's agenda. Odom has become the guy everyone wants to be around because of his lighthearted nature and sense of humor. That extends to the court, considering that every player feels comfortable around him.
2. Hustle plays: Odom is the most relentless player on the glass and doesn't solely rely on his wingspan to clean the windows. He's adept at sneaking into the lane and boxing out his opponent. That wide wingspan makes it appear easy for him, but plenty of those boards come from Odom putting himself in the right position. He carries the same mindset when he dives for loose balls and denies entry passes. Underneath Odom's laid-back exterior is a relentless and hungry player.
3. Adaptable role: He showcases this by his ability to play with numerous combinations. When the Lakers play big, he's one of the featured post players. When the Lakers go small, he can help direct the offense. When he plays with the starters, he finds a way to make an impact without that effort coming at the expense of anyone else's production. And when he plays with the bench, he provides a calming and veteran presence as he helps the unit work out any mistakes.
Odom demonstrates his versatility the most on fast breaks. He displays his amazing court vision when he fires outlet passes nearly cross-court at rapid speed. The Lakers lead the league in offense with 111.53 points per game, thanks to running the break, striking a perfect balance between pushing the floor when there are mismatches and keeping to their deliberate pace suited to their aging personnel. Odom's cross-court passes serve as one example in expediting that process without gassing the team out. When that option isn't available, Odom often runs the break himself and finishes with a coast-to-coast layup, as teams are forced to shut off passing lanes to deny easy looks. But with Odom's speed and athleticism proving hard to stop, teams are just as punished when they shut off passing lanes.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lamar Odom had a 21 points and eight rebounds for the Lakers, who defeated Chicago, 98-91, Tuesday night at Staples Center. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times