The Lehigh University athletic department caught up with Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, presumably while he was back on campus to attend his girlfriend’s graduation, about his rookie season in Portland. McCollum talks about returning to the court after missing the first part of the season with a foot injury, helping the team prepare during the playoffs and starting his sophomore season with a “clean slate” …
The Trail Blazers finished the regular season tied for the fifth most wins in the NBA, beating Houston in the first round of the playoffs before falling to San Antonio, a team currently in the NBA Finals.
“Being able to watch and see how each game plan is executed, taking part in the practices and just being engaged throughout the process definitely helps your development, whether you’re playing or not,” said McCollum. “A lot of lottery picks are on losing teams. They’re not able to play in the playoffs and advance to the second round against a championship caliber team like the Spurs.”
McCollum played a critical role in practice to help prepare his teammates for talented players like Jeremy Lin of Houston and Manu Ginobili of San Antonio.
“When you go through the playoffs, you go over plays from the other team,” said McCollum. “I played roles as other players, depending on the team and personnel. It was a good opportunity to learn other teams’ plays, see their schemes and see how we execute game plans against their schemes.”
Despite seeing limited minutes, McCollum continued to be a good teammate. When asked of his favorite memory from the season, he answered with a team highlight, even with several strong individual performances from which to choose.
“Obviously one of the best moments was when Dame hit that game-winner [in Game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals],” said McCollum. “If we go back to Houston, you never know what can happen. Being able to be a part of that and watch the execution down the stretch, it was a great moment for our team.”
The focus now shifts to next season. McCollum is looking forward to 2014-15 and a fresh start.
“A clean slate will give me a much better chance to develop and give the coaching staff an opportunity to continue gaining trust in me,” he said. “When you go through the system and you go through the trenches playing with your team, it helps you gain valuable trust from teammates.”
UPDATE: The team has officially announced that they have matched the Nets’ offer sheet to Allen Crabbe, though a “formal announcement” and Crabbe actually signing the contract will not occur until later in the week.
After finishing up their pursuit of new free agents, the Trail Blazers have wasted little time in turning their attention to the free agents on their own roster. After reportedly signing restricted free agent power forward Meyers Leonard to a four-year deal, the Trail Blazers, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, have matched the four-year, $75 million offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets tendered to third-year guard/forward Allen Crabbe, ensuring that the former Cal Bear will be back in Portland next season…
The Portland Trail Blazers have matched Allen Crabbe’s four-year, $75M offer sheet with Brooklyn, league source tells @TheVertical.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 10, 2016
Nets bid on Crabbe has been thwarted — and Crabbe returns to Blazers on four-year, $75M contract. Now, Nets wait on Tyler Johnson sheet.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 10, 2016
The message out of Portland ownership and management is clear: Blazers trying to win this year and beyond — loading up on this roster.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 10, 2016
As is often the case when it comes to restricted free agents, the Nets offer to Crabbe, who has averaged 7.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game through three season, was considerably larger than many assumed the 6-6 wing would receive in an effort to discourage the Trail Blazers from matching. And after the Trail Blazers signed free agent guard/forward Evan Turner to a four-year deal, some assumed that combined with the size of the Nets offer might result in Trail Blazers letting Crabbe walk.
But that would not be the case. Crabbe has been a favorite of the front office and coaching staff since the team acquired former Pac-12 Player of the Year via trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2012 Draft. And though he played sparingly in his first two seasons, he saw his minutes increase dramatically in 2015-16, as he appeared in 81 games and responded with averages of 10.8 points on 44 percent shooting and 39 percent shooting from three, 2.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists while serving as one of the team’s best perimeter defenders.
There were rumors that outside of the money and years, Crabbe, who has typically come off the bench for the Trail Blazers, was intrigued by the opportunity to start and play a larger role with the Nets. But for his part, Crabbe seemed more than satisfied that he would be returning to Portland…
— Allen Crabbe (@allencrabbe) July 10, 2016
With Crabbe now signed, forward Maurice Harkless is the last Blazer still available on the free agent market. Like Crabbe, Harkless is a restricted free agent, which gives the Trail Blazers the right to match any offer he receives from another team. It is also possible for the Trail Blazers to sign Harkless even if he doesn’t receive an offer sheet from another team, as they have reportedly did Sunday with restricted free agent power forward Meyers Leonard.
UPDATE: The team has officially announce that they have signed Meyers Leonard to a new contract. From the press release…
“Meyers is a core member of our organization and continues to show the promise and potential we anticipated when we drafted him,” said Olshey.
Leonard averaged career-highs with 8.4 points (44.8% FG, 37.7% 3-PT76.1% FT), 5.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 21.9 minutes in 61 games (10 starts) in 2015-16. He missed the final 14 games of the regular season due to an injured left shoulder.
“Today is a day which is hard to describe. I’m overcome with happiness and joy,” said Leonard. “I’m thankful for the people who have remained loyal and loving in my life. This is the product of a lot of hard work and time. I feel like I have found a new gear mentally and physically and really am excited for the next four years. The future is going to be bright with this team.”
The Trail Blazers and Meyers Leonard sat down at the negotiating table prior to the start of the 2015-16 season in an effort to hammer out a new contract in an effort to keep the 7-1 power forward from hitting the (restricted) free agent market. Despite mutual interest, the two sides were unable to strike a deal, though considering the Trail Blazers had the right to match any offer Leonard received as a free agent, it always seemed likely he’d be back even if terms on an extension couldn’t be reached.
As it turns out, an offer sheet from another team wasn’t needed for both sides to ultimately come to an agreement.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Leonard and the Trail Blazers have agreed on a new four-year deal worth $41 million…
Leonard, a restricted free agent, has built his value as a stretch four with an ability to spread the floor and deliver a presence on the defensive boards.
Leonard is part of a core expected to compete for 50 victories in the Western Conference this season.
Leonard, 24, missed the final 20 regular-season games with a left shoulder surgery in 2015-16, but has shown steady improvement in the past two years after being selected at No. 11 overall in the 2012 NBA draft.
The reported four-year deal is roughly the same as the offer the Trail Blazers reportedly extended to Leonard prior to the start of the 2015-16 season. At the time, it was reasonable to assume Leonard might receive a larger offer from another team, as his combination of size, athleticism and shooting are highly sought after in today’s NBA. But missing the final 20 games of the regular season and the entirety of the playoffs after undergoing surgery on his left shoulder, not to mention the widely-held assumption that the Blazers would match any reasonable offer for Leonard, likely cooled interest from other teams. And though he didn’t say it explicitly, it always seemed as though Leonard’s preference was to continue his career in Portland after being selected by the Trail Blazers with the 11th overall pick of the 2012 Draft.
“I was drafted here, I’ve been with Terry (Stotts) the entire time, Neil (Olshey) obviously drafted me, being here with now our franchise player Damian (Lillard),” said Leonard back in March. “So the future is bright here and I truly hope that I can be a big part of it.”
Leonard returns to a big man rotation that features Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh and Festus Ezeli, who signed with Portland as a free agent on Friday.
While Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey said the team is done chasing new free agents for the year, whether restricted free agents Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe, who received an offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets worth reportedly $75 million over four years on Thursday, return to Portland next season is still to be determined. The team has until 9 pm Sunday night to decide whether or not to match the offer made to Crabbe.
Typically in NBA free agency, it’s the duty of the team to woo the player they’re interested in signing. Seeing as how there are only so many free agents to go around every year, the competition between teams to acquire their preferred players can often times be intense. The Clippers all but locking center DeAndre Jordan in a house last year in order to prevent him from signing with the Mavericks being the most recent example of the lengths teams will go to in order to obtain or retain their respective free agent targets.
But some free agents are easier to convince than others. And sometimes, they don’t need any convincing. Such was the case with center Festus Ezeli, who signed a two-year deal reported to be worth $18 million, widely considered a ridiculous bargain in the 2016 free agent market, Thursday night. While the interest between Ezeli and the Trail Blazers was obviously mutual — shoring up the team’s interior defense was one of the main goals going into the offseason — it sounds like in this case, it was the player who initiated the negotiations, something that is a rarity in the era in which some free agents seem to relish the opportunity to be wined and dined by teams desperate to secure their services.
“My agent contacted and I said ‘I want to be a part of this franchise’ because, like I said, I see a bright future of this team,” said Ezeli Friday morning during his introductory press conference at the team’s practice facility in Tualatin. “It doesn’t come very often when you have such talented guards like CJ (McCollum) and Damian (Lillard) and such a complete team with everybody else. I know Al-Farouq (Aminu) just from playing with Nigeria, being around with the African scene, the African community works, I’ve known him through that. But I know that this team is full of high character guys and that’s a great start in itself, work ethic and all those things. I see good things happening here, I want to be a part of it.”
Having played for the Golden State Warriors during his first three seasons after being selected with the 30th overall pick of the 2012 Draft, Ezeli knows a little something about what a team needs to be successful. And having matched up against the Trail Blazers on numerous occasions, the most recent being the series between his former and current teams during the 2016 Western Conference playoffs, and seeing how they performed, competed and the way they were supported, Ezeli entered his own free agency thinking Portland might be the place for him.
“First of all, this organization is first class,” said Ezeli. “We played them in the playoffs so I’m pretty familiar with them playing in the West as well. I got to see a lot about the team’s character in those moments in battle on the court and that’s where you get to know the other team’s strengths and weaknesses. Their chemistry was something I really admired on the court. Second thing, the fans. I noticed when we came out here the fans were unbelievable. We take pride in our fans and as a basketball player you love your fans so when I saw that, saw the energy, I wanted to be a part of that. Great team, great coach, great fans. What more could you ask for from an organization?”
For the Trail Blazers, a team that has historically had a difficult time luring free agents, acquiring a player so enthusiastic about coming to Portland must have been a welcomed surprise, but it’s not as if a willingness to sign on was enough. There still had to be a need on the roster, which was luckily for both Ezeli and the Trail Blazers.
“He’s coming from a very good defensive system in Golden State,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “His defensive rating in Golden State on an exceptional defensive team was outstanding, one of the best on the team. So he’s going to have an impact for our team, whether it’s in pick-and-roll, whether it’s defensive rebounding, whether it’s altering shots at the rim. He’s athletic, he has a long wingspan. In today’s NBA, particularly with the plan of playing Farouq (Aminu) more at four, he’s going to give us the ability to play a smaller lineup and still have a defensive component to it… I think his presence in the paint on the offensive end is going to cause problems as well. Team’s won’t be able to switch pick-and-rolls. So I think he’s going to have a positive impact on both ends of the court.”
Much like the rest of Portland’s roster, Ezeli still has room to grow, especially considering he didn’t even pick up basketball until he was well into his teens. And he has had surgeries on both knees in the last two years, which is likely to give some pause (especially considering the history of the franchise) despite Ezeli saying he’s “100 percent healthy and ready to go.” But to acquire a player with Ezeli’s experience and skill set on a great value contract who also seems legitimately excited to play in Portland seems like an unmitigated success.
“I have to go home and kind of sit with my family and try to figure some things out, decompress a little bit, but I’m excited,” said Ezeli. “I love this city, I love the people so far and I hear there’s a lot of great food over here, so I can’t wait to get to that. I’ll be back later this summer, I’ve got to go figure out the whole moving situation, but I’m excited.”