With the Trail Blazers season tipping off today in Phoenix against the Suns, it’s time to wrap up the offseason by looking at where every player on Portland’s 15-man roster from the perspective of what they’ve accomplished during training camp and what the Trail Blazers will need from each of them in order to have a successful 2013-14 campaign.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: LaMarcus Aldridge battled a few minor injuries during training camp, which kept him out of three of Portland’s seven preseason contests, but it hardly seemed to matter. When Aldridge did play, his performances were dominant yet effortless, signaling that he’s reached the point of his career in which the run up to the regular season is more about building chemistry with his teammates than anything else.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Aldridge, who named as the team’s only captain this season, will be asked to be Portland’s dominant force in the post, both on offense and defense. The addition of Robin Lopez takes considerable pressure off of Aldridge at the defensive end, but with JJ Hickson, who averaged 12.7 points on 56 percent shooting last season, now in Denver, Aldridge will need to increase his scoring average, albeit marginally, to give his perimeter-oriented teammates room to operate.
Secret Scout: “Aldridge’s scoring versatility makes him a matchup problem. He has the ability to be a major headache in the low post, but he can fall in love with perimeter shots to the point that he’s letting the defense off the hook because he’s so big and talented. He’s a very capable shooter, but he has to be more of a physical presence, a guy who is willing to go down and battle in the post.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Remain one of the best, if not THE best, power forwards in the NBA. Aldridge is smack-dab in the prime of his career and Portland will need him at his best on a nightly basis if they’re to end their playoff drought in 2013-14.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: After a summer traveling through China with fellow adidas athletes and lining up alongside the best young players at the Team USA Mini-Camp, Damian Lillard entered training camp in Portland with all confidence you would expect from the reigning and unanimously-selected Rookie of the Year. He finished the preseason Top 5 in scoring and, like Aldridge, looked capable of doing most anything he wanted whenever he wanted while playing in all seven of Portland’s exhibition games.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: You can pencil Lillard’s name in as Portland’s starting point guard with the most permanent of inks. After playing in all 82 games as a rookie and leading the NBA in minutes played while doing it, Lillard enters his sophomore season as one of the future superstars of the NBA, which is how the Trail Blazers will need him to play in order to fight for a spot in the postseason.
Secret Scout: “Lillard was so good as a rookie that he kind of spoiled you. But there is room to get better as a playmaker and defender. He has to improve at breaking down defenses, getting to the rim and getting to the foul line. There’s also room to get better as a leader, to make sure as the quarterback of the team that guys are in right positions. But what a great way to start a career.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Build on an impressive rookie season by scoring more efficiently while improving defensively, both of which have been areas of emphasis this offseason for the Oakland native.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: After a summer of playing in Europe with the French National Team, which culminated with France winning their first European Championship, Nicolas Batum entered training camp in great shape and brimming with confidence. Suffering a concussion one game into the preseason schedule kept Batum off the court for 10 days as he went through the NBA’s mandated concussion protocol, but if there was anyone who could miss a significant portion of training camp, it’s the guy who spent a month playing against high-level international competition.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Batum has been the Trail Blazers’ designated “do a little bit of everything” player since his second season in Portland, though various nagging injuries have slowed his development since he came into the league as a lanky 19 year-old. This season, in addition to being Portland’s premier wing defender, Terry Stotts has looked to Batum to find a balance between creating opportunities for his teammates (he averaged nearly five assists per game last season) while also making plays for himself. Batum is capable of filling both roles, as well as the stat sheet, and in many ways his maturation in the second year of a five-year contract will determine Portland’s fortunes in 2013-14.
Secret Scout: “There’s a tremendous amount of room for Nicolas Batum to grow. He played very well in the first half of last season, but he had some injuries that really nagged him down the stretch and affected his performance. But I don’t think he’s even entered his prime, at age 24, because he’s still learning as he plays. He’s always been able to make three-point shots, and he’s so athletic that he can make plays in transition and finish at the rim. What he has developed lately is the ability to come off screens and shoot and also the ability to post up. And on defense, this is a 6-8 guy who’s long and makes an effort, so all the skills are there to become an impact defender.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Stay healthy while proving he is the third piece of Portland’s core that Neil Olshey has pictured him being since matching a restricted free agent offer from the Timberwolves during the 2012 offseason.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: For the first time in maybe his entire life, Wesley Matthews took some time off this summer to let his body heal. After having a PRP injection in his right ankle and arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow, Matthews was forced to dial back his legendary offseason workout regiment. And during training camp, Matthews experienced an irregular heartbeat during practice, forcing him to miss the final preseason game against the Warriors. But in true Matthews fashion, he was cleared and back on the court by time the team returned from Oakland.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: While Matthews has developed a reputation for being a “three and D” guy, as in, a player who is a rugged defender who can also shoot three-pointers at a better-than-average percentage, he’s quick to point out that he’s not going to be pigeonholed as a player only possessing two useful skills. But with the additions of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and (when his broken foot heals) CJ McCollum, Matthews’ most valuable trait will be his defensive prowess.
Secret Scout: “Wesley Matthews is a very well-rounded, professional player. He can make shots, score off the dribble and defend shooting guards and small forwards. For a guy with only four years of experience, he has some maturity to his game. With Aldridge, Batum and Lillard, the Blazers don’t necessarily need a fourth or fifth guy who can score 20 points a night, but Matthews can do it if called upon.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Fill in the gaps in the starting lineup. As the Secret Scout notes, the Trail Blazers won’t need Matthews to be the high scorer every night, but knowing he can be is invaluable for Terry Stotts.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: After a 2012-13 season in which Portland’s interior defense was all but nonexistent, the arrival of Robin Lopez, acquire from the Hornets in a steal of a deal that required the Trail Blazers to give up rookie center Jeff Withey, a future second-round pick and cash considerations, changed the entire dynamic at training camp. Defense was almost the entire focus during the run up to the regular season, something that was made possible largely because of Lopez’s status as a defense-first, paint-clogging center.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Is it too obvious to just go with “defense” here? While Lopez’s task of being Portland’s last line of defense won’t be easy, it is all he’ll be asked to do as a Trail Blazer. He instantly improves Portland’s interior defense simply by stepping on the court, and even the threat of offensive production (he averaged 9.1 points per game during the preseason) will force opposing teams to think twice before putting their biggest defender on Aldridge, which was not the case last season.
Secret Scout: “Lopez was a solid pickup. He is by no means an upper-echelon NBA center, but he is at least a legit center. He has size and can hold his ground as a defensive presence in the low post. He will rebound, he will block shots and he complements Aldridge significantly better than J.J. Hickson did last season.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Defend the paint, stay out of foul trouble and hit every shot he takes within five feet of the basket. Anything else is pure gravy.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: The last-minute surprise addition of Mo Williams via free agency was the cherry on top of Neil Olshey’s already impressive offseason transformation of Portland’s bench. Lineups consisting of Williams playing alongside Lillard were some of Portland’s most fun to watch throughout Portland’s preseason schedule, if for no other reason than it was a medical-grade breath of fresh air having a competent ballhandler who could also score coming off the bench.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Williams will serve as Portland’s super sub, running the point with the second unit while playing off the ball at times, particularly in lineups with Lillard. He might not start, but it would not at all be surprising to see Williams on the court at the end of games. Terry Stotts’ offense has always prominently featured the three-point ball and the addition of Williams all but ensures that Portland will set a record for three-pointers taken and, hopefully, made.
Secret Scout: ” I would not be surprised if Mo Williams ends up playing off the ball alongside Lillard quite a bit and Watson ends up playing a lot of the minutes behind Lillard as point guard.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Williams is another Blazer who has fought injury issues over the last few years (he missed much of the 2012-13 season with an injured thumb), so staying healthy, especially until CJ McCollum is able to return, is paramount for Portland’s playoff hopes.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: Dorell Wright dislocated his right middle finger early in training camp, so he didn’t make his Trail Blazers debut until the fourth preseason game, which he started in place of Nicolas Batum (concussion). That didn’t keep Wright from developing camaraderie and chemistry with his new teammates, who have praised his veteran leadership and sense of humor during training camp.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Much like Mo Williams, Wright serves as a significant upgrade over anyone coming off Portland’s bench last season. He stated when he signed as a free agent that he knew he was coming in as a backup, a role he has no problem filling. Fourteen of his 22 shot attempts during preseason were three-pointers and that ratio isn’t likely to change once the regular season begins, nor should it.
Secret Scout: “Dorell Wright, like Williams, is another guy who can make shots and certainly is a significant upgrade over their backups at the wing positions last year.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Hit the corner three at an above-average clip and play solid defense while Batum is on the bench.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: Portland’s 2013 training camp served as a reset for Thomas Robinson. After a rookie season that saw him drafted fifth overall by the Kings, only to be traded four months into his career to the Houston Rockets, who then traded him to Portland during the 2013 offseason to clear cap room to sign Dwight Howard, Robinson was in need of a fresh start. He performed well during Summer League and has worked with Portland’s coaches on emphasizing his most useful skills, rebounding, while cutting out the rest.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: As long as LaMarcus Aldridge is healthy, Robinson will remain as Portland’s backup power forward, though it is possible he sees minutes in a smaller lineup featuring Aldridge playing center. While he would probably like to have more of a role on offense with the second unit, his role is that of the typical NBA “garbage man,” meaning he’ll be called upon to work the boards and get shots primarily off offensive rebounds. He finished second on the team to Robin Lopez in rebounds during the preseason, which is a great start to what the Trail Blazers are hoping is a long, prosperous and cost-effective relationship.
Secret Scout: “Thomas Robinson was a great low-risk, high-reward pickup… Robinson has some challenges to overcome: He is a little undersized for his position, he doesn’t play above the rim and he gets a lot of shots blocked. He has trouble finishing around the rim. But because of how hard he plays and his potential as a rebounder, I’d take that gamble that Portland made every day of the week.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : The player everyone thought he would be coming out of Kansas. And on the flip side, Robinson needs the Trail Blazers to be patient with him as he rebuilds his confidence.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: The team has preached patience when it comes to Meyers Leonard since he was drafted with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 Draft, so it was somewhat perplexing (at least to this reporter) that the reaction to Joel Freeland beating out Leonard for the backup center position in training camp was met with so much surprise. Terry Stotts noted that Leonard had improved, particularly on the defensive end, but that it was more about the performance of Freeland in the preseason than anything regarding Leonard’s growth as a center.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Regardless of where he’s at in the rotation, Leonard’s role is the same: improve defensively, crash the boards with reckless abandon and shoot only when absolutely necessary. While Freeland is Robin Lopez’s backup going into the regular season, there’s no guarantees that will be the case come season’s end. Whenever Leonard’s number is called upon, and it will, he has to be ready.
Secret Scout: “The Blazers are going to be banking on improvement from center Meyers Leonard, their second lottery pick from last year, after Lillard. They’re going to want him to push Lopez for playing time at center or, at the very least, not produce a big drop-off when he does play. He showed glimpses as a rookie, particularly on the offensive end, where he displayed some shooting range and finishing skills, but he has a lot to learn. He was pretty raw coming out of college.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Continue to make incremental improvements, particularly defensively, and prove that it is he who should be second in line at the center position.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: After a rookie season that couldn’t be described as anything short of dreadful, Joel Freeland rededicated himself this summer to finding his NBA niche, so much so that he sat out playing for Great Britain during EuroBasket 2013 in order to improve his chances of cracking Portland’s rotation. That decision paid off, as he’s been the most improved, let alone surprising, holdover from Portland’s 2012-13 bench unit.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Freeland won the right to backup Robin Lopez by selling out on defense at every possible opportunity during the preseason. That’s what Terry Stotts will be expecting from him in the regular season, especially since every minute Freeland plays is a minute that Meyers Leonard isn’t being developed. Any let up in effort or willingness to sacrifice his body for the good of the team could result in demotion, so Freeland will be expected to give everything he’s got every second he’s on the court.
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Prove he’s an NBA-caliber big man who is worth playing over Meyers Leonard.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: In a training camp that was overwhelmingly positive, the one truly sour note was CJ McCollum once again breaking the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, the same injury that ended his career a Lehigh in January of his year.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: McCollum’s role will depend on how fast he can get up to speed after his foot, which was treated with a non-surgical ultrasound procedure, fully heals. Challenging Wesley Matthews for the starting two-guard position wasn’t entirely likely to begin with, and after the injury, that seems like an even longer shot.
Secret Scout: “When rookie CJ McCollum returns from his broken foot, he should be a guy who can play either guard spot and make some shots. Because of Williams’ presence, McCollum won’t face as much pressure to be that guy right away. But he has the potential to help them in the near future.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Be patient while his broken foot mends. He’ll surely be anxious to get his professional career started, but his long-term health must take first priority.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: Earl Watson was signed to help teach Portland’s young guards what it takes to make it in the NBA while playing a little third-string point guard when necessary. He played just 12 minutes during the preseason, sitting out all but one game with a calf contusion, but at age 34, Watson’s value comes more by way of his presence in the locker room than from his on-court production.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Watson could conceivably be called upon to play backup point guard minutes should anything happen to Damian Lillard or Mo Williams, but his role is really more of a mentor to the likes of Lillard, CJ McCollum, Will Barton, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson. In what could very well be the final season of his career, Watson, a 12-year veteran, will probably look to transition from playing to coaching, which seems like a logical next step for a player who Neil Olshey has described one of the best leaders he’s ever been around.
Secret Scout: “Earl Watson knows how to run a team from the point and has some savvy.”
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Act as a leader both on and (primarily) off the court, while teaching Lillard and McCollum the tricks of playing perimeter defense in the NBA.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: After starting at power forward and playing a prominent role on Spain’s National Team this summer (they finished third at EuroBasket after losing to France in the semifinal), Victor Claver has had a hard time finding minutes at either forward position during training camp. The addition of Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson almost ensure that, unless there’s an injury to either player, Clavers minutes will be extremely limited.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: Claver showed spurts of promise and confidence at the end of the 2012-13 season, but there’s only so many minutes to go around. It’s possible Claver sees situational minutes (it could be argued he’s a better defensive option against stretch four’s than Robinson) but at this point, he’s on the outside looking in.
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Work hard in practice and remain ready should his number be called.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: Before CJ McCollum broke his foot, one could have been excused for assuming Will Barton would be the odd-man out of the shooting guard rotation. But with McCollum out until at least January, Barton has the chance to prove he deserves minutes behind Wesley Matthews. The way Terry Stotts has allocated Barton’s minutes during the preseason (Stotts started Barton against the Warriors only to sit him for the entire second half) signals that Stotts is willing to give the second-year wildcard from Memphis a shot, but for a limited time.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: For whatever limitations he might have shown his rookie season, Barton was one of the few players coming off Portland’s bench in 2012-13 who played with the confidence one needs to cut it on an NBA court. That was enough to get him spot minutes last season, but it won’t be the case this season.
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Find a way to harness the energy and confidence that makes him a useful player while limiting mistakes and playing within the system.
The Takeaway From Training Camp: At the start of training camp, it looked as though Crabbe might find his way into the regular rotation. He drew praise from Terry Stotts for playing heady defense early in the preseason, something that seemed to bode well for a player primarily known as a three-point shooter coming out of Cal. But a bout of gastroenteritis that kept him out of practice for a week seemed to rob him of whatever momentum he had going into the end of the exhibition schedule.
Role For Trail Blazers In 2013-14: The Trail Blazers sent two future second-round picks to Cleveland for the rights to Crabbe, who was taken with the first pick of the second round of the 2013 Draft, so they’re likely willing to be patient as he acclimates to the NBA game. Missing much of training camp hurt Crabbe’s chances of cracking the regular-season rotation, but if he can knock down the outside shot and play passable defense, it’s possible he finds spot minutes at both the two and three.
The Trail Blazers Need Him To … : Stay patient while he waits for his opportunity.
(All secret scout information taken from Sports Illustrated’s Trail Blazers preview)