Summer League Practice Notes: Back To Work

The Portland Trail Blazers held their first official summer league practice today at the team’s facility in Tualatin in preparation for their first game in Las Vegas versus the New York Knicks on July 12. Some notes from Tuesday’s practice …

— Even though the Trail Blazers didn’t draft a player in either round of the 2014 Draft, they still have plenty of players under contract for next season on their summer league roster. With Will Barton, Joel Freeland, Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, CJ MCCollum and Allen Crabbe all suiting up to play in Las Vegas, the Trail Blazers have an opportunity to see a good chuck of their second unit play alongside each other in a competitive environment.

“I think usually there’s at least one rookie, whether a first or second round pick,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Six guys who’ve been with us and know the program, just seeing the improvement they made from last summer to this summer, it’s unique … We’re a little bit further ahead of the curve and we can work on some different things.”

With no rookies on their summer league roster, the Trail Blazers are afforded the opportunity to work on specific areas of improvement during both practices and games, something that is much harder to accomplish when you’ve got players trying to learn a new system while dealing with the changes in the speed and physicality that comes when making the jump from the NCAA to the NBA.

“We’re in such a unique situation last year having eight players in their first or second year of their contract, so they’re all at the stage of their career where they need to get better,” said Stotts. “We need them to develop. That’s part of our job, that’s part of their jobs. I don’t know how things are going to pan out next season but for the sake of our franchise and the sake of their careers, this is a very important time for them.”

— As I reported about a week ago, Trail Blazers wing Will Barton has been working on his skills at point guard in hopes of being a more versatile player. That work continued at the first summer league practice, with Barton and CJ McCollum handling most duties bringing the ball up and initiating the offense.

“Sometime bring the ball up and initiate it, sometimes run the wings and just make plays that way,” said Barton. “Either way, it doesn’t matter. I just want to play and I feel like we’ve got a good understanding, me and CJ. We don’t fight each other on who is going to bring the ball up. We pretty much tell each other whoever is closest to it, just bring it up and go. We both can handle, we both can make plays for others. We have a good bond.

The Blazers do have players like Bobby Brown and Jonathan Gibson, players who have more experience running the point, on their summer league roster. But with the primary goal of improving the play of those under contract with the Blazers for the 2014-15 season, both Barton and McCollum are likely to get the majority of minutes at the guard spots.

“I do like the idea of Will and CJ , not necessarily being ‘point guards’ but being able to run an offense,” said Stotts. “I think they both handle the ball well enough. Last year, neither one of them was ready to do that and the improvement that they both made in a year, I think they’re both at a point where, if you have them both out there, we don’t have a point guard but we’ve got two playmakers.

Which is a role the Barton says he’s more than prepared to assume.

“I’ve been doing that all summer,” said Barton. “Sometimes I just look at how the game is going and say, ‘Let me get other involved. Let me get AC (Allen Crabbe) a three’ because I’m always in the scoring mode. I’m like ‘Have I taken two shots in a row? Let me get AC a shot, let me get Meyers a pick and pop or Joel a pick and pop. Let me get Thomas a lob or a roll to the rim or something like that. Kick it ahead to CJ.’ I try to make everyone happy on my team and guys like playing with me and I want to keep it that way. The only way you can do that is find the guys and have them run the floor and them knowing you’re going to give them the ball in their spots. That’s what I take pride in.”

— Having a good summer league performance might be the most important for second-guard guard Allen Crabbe, who was never able to find his way into the rotation after catching a nasty case of gastroenteritis during training camp. There have been rumblings that Crabbe, who was selected by the Cavaliers with the 31st pick in the 2013 Draft before being traded to Portland, has a shot at seeing a significant increase in minutes come 2014-15 due to his versatility and the belief that his skills are suited to playing alongside starters than in a unit comprised of bench players.

“Allen is a solid basketball player,” said Stotts. “He really fits in with whoever is on the floor. He has good length defensively, he’s a smart player, he can make open shots. He just kind of blends in with whoever is on the floor. Right now we’re not going to put him in positions to start the offense or be a playmaking guard, but we do what him to continue to develop his ball-handling skills and his decision-making and be able to create some offense.”

“Coach said that he doesn’t want me to just a shooter,” said Crabbe, who will likely start at small forward during summer league. “He said work on my playmaking, work on my passing, being more comfortable in the pick and roll situations, not just sitting in the corner all the time. I feel like that’s something I can work on. Being more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and going to the rack. Those type of things I need to work on.”