For those of you who might still be smarting from the Trail Blazers choosing not to made a trade to acquire a pick in the 2014 Draft, Will Barton is here to assuage your concerns. While the 2014 class goes down as one of the most hyped in recent memory, Barton says he’s confident the that he and his fellow young players can more than hold their own against the a bunch of rookies.
“I’m not worried about no kid coming from college,” said Barton before the draft. “I don’t feel like any of them kids are better than me, one through 60, that’s about to get drafted. That’s just honest. I’m saying, I don’t think no one in that draft is better than CJ (McCollum) or AC (Allen Crabbe).”
While Portland’s front office might not go that far when it comes to comparing the talents of the players just drafted to those already on their roster, they’ve made it clear that they like their collection of young players, so much so that they’re banking on the development of guys like Barton, McColllum and Crabbe to provide the infusion of talent they’ll need to keep pace in the Western Conference.
Portland probably could have made a trade to acquire a first or second round pick at some point during the 2014 Draft, but the cost of doing so, both in terms of what they’d have to give up and how another new player would impact the development of those already on the roster, wasn’t worth the price. So rather than neutralizing the growth of players already on the roster by bringing in more young players, Portland is going to ride with their young talent, a tact that Barton is obviously onboard with.
“Our approach is: Just give us a shot,” said Barton. “We’re still young, just as young as half the kids in that draft. You know what I mean? We’ve got youth but we got experience, so why not stick with guys like me, AC, CJ, T.Rob and Meyers and just let us grow and see what happens? I’m not a GM, I’m not a coach, so I don’t control that. I just control my work ethic.”
Which is why, despite scheduling himself three weeks of vacation, Barton got back into the gym early with the intention of proving he’s ready for a bigger role in 2014-15. That “work ethic” Barton says he controls does take on a mind of its own from time to time.
“With me it’s weird, because I tell myself before I’m going to take two, maybe three weeks off, and as it starts progressing I start feeling bad,” said Barton. “Like I’m not in the gym, I’m not getting better. Someone is getting better and I want to be the best so I’m like, I might start going in the gym early just because, when I’m away from the gym for a long time, I just don’t feel right.”
So spurred by his desire to improve, Barton is back in Portland participating in structured workouts with the Trail Blazers’ coaches. He’s been especially focused on improving his skills at point guard, which is something he’s been steadily working on since last season.
“We’ve been thinking about it since last summer,” said Barton of playing the point. “Mo (Williams) might be coming back, Mo might not be coming back, but it was something I was thinking about either way. That’s my whole thing, I really never worry about what’s going on around me because I can’t control that. I can’t control if Mo comes back or if he does. I can’t control if Coach chooses to play Mo or if he doesn’t. My thing is: What can I do? So I wanted to sharpen my skills at point guard. I feel like I have a mindset for it and a skill set for it, so now it’s just like, let’s put it into action and see how he look doing it. I feel like, so far, I’ve been looking real good doing it.”
With the Las Vegas Summer League right around the corner, those of us who don’t get to watch practice will soon have a chance to see just how far Barton has come as a ball-handler and distributor. The play at Summer League tends to be guard-centric, as running an offense with non-roster players with just a week of practice can often lead to a lot of freestyling by ball-handlers, but Barton says trying to run the point, rather than scoring them, this year in Las Vegas.
“I’m not a guard that just thinks about scoring, and that’s what helps my offense, because I’m out there just trying to make the right play,” said Barton. “If it’s getting to the basket, I’ll do it. If it’s finding my teammates, I’ll do it. I’m the type guy that prides myself on my teammates enjoying playing with me. That’s getting up and down, running, finding them, hitting guys like AC for threes when he’s open, finding CJ early and letting him push, finding T.Rob for a dunk or Meyers for a dunk, Joel for a pick and pop. I want my guys to say ‘I like when the ball is in Will’s hands because I know he’s going to make a play for us.’
“That’s my main goal as I’m transitioning into trying to play point guard. I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s a new experiment. I haven’t played point guard in the long, long time. I’m having a lot of fun doing it and I enjoy it.”
Though he made great strides in his second season, so much so that head coach Terry Stotts tabbed him as the team’s most improved player, Barton is quick to point out that, while his quality of player was improved in 2013-14, he actually played more minutes as a rookie than he did as a sophomore. But he’s reached a point where he feels confident in his ability to grow as a player in Portland, which is one of the reasons, along with his standard supreme confidence, Barton isn’t worried about no college kids trying to take what he’s hard earned.
“I feel more comfortable, so that’s always a big plus,” said Barton. “I know more of what I’m getting into, so that’s better. It’s just that grind is the same. I’m still working to get into that rotation, still working to get more known and get the coaches more comfortable with me and working to secure a spot on this team and in this league… That’s why I’m going into my workouts like, now I want to play more and produce like I was doing. Now it’s just going harder and hopefully I can get to a better situation where I’m playing more. That’s all it’s about, playing more and winning. That’s all I want to do, help contribute to the team.”
The NBA’s July moratorium isn’t even over yet, so we’re still a ways away from knowing what Portland’s roster will look like come the start of the 2016-17 regular season. But there is no such mystery, at least not anymore, regarding who the Trail Blazers will be taking to Las Vegas.
On Tuesday, the team announced their 2016 Summer League roster and as expected, current Trail Blazers Noah Vonleh, Pat Connaughton, Cliff Alexander and Luis Montero are all on the team, as is rookie second round Jake Layman out of Maryland, who was acquired from the Magic during the 2016 Draft for a future second round pick and cash considerations. As for the rest of the roster, it’s rounded out with undrafted rookies, players who recently saw time in the D-League and overseas and even a few familiar faces…
Both Johnsons (no relation) have had previous runs with the Trail Blazers, with the lanky Chris playing a combined 30 games over the course of two seasons in Portland while Omari, a former Oregon State Beaver, was a training camp invite in 2015. There are other recognizable names on Portland’s summer league roster, from Pierre Jackson, who seemed to be on the cusp of cracking the NBA before blowing out his Achilles in a summer league game back in 2014, to Stacy Davis, who finished his career at Pepperdine as their all-time leading scorer, to Russ Davis, who won a national championship with Louisville in 2013. Assistant coaches Dale Osbourne, David Vanterpool and Nate Tibbetts will share head coaching duties (as is often the case at summer league).
Though many of these players, if not all of them, have been working out at the team’s facility in Tualatin, summer league practices officially run from July 6th through July 8th, with their first game scheduled for July 9th at 1 pm versus the Phoenix Suns at COX Pavilion on the campus of UNLV. That game, along with their contests versus the Spurs on the 10th, the Jazz on the 12th and whenever and whoever they play in the summer league tournament, will be broadcast on NBA TV.
LAS VEGAS — The Portland Trail Blazers completed pool play at the Las Vegas Summer League Tuesday afternoon with a 79-75 loss to the San Antonio Spurs at COX Pavilion on the campus of UNLV. With the loss, the Trail Blazers move to 1-2 at summer league, meaning they’ll start tournament play Wednesday at 7:30 pm versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Trail Blazers had a chance to tie the game late in regulation, but rookie Pat Connaughton’s baseline jumper missed the mark with 4.3 seconds to play, tipping the scales in San Antonio’s favor.
“It’s a learning experience,” said Connaughton, who was selected with the 41st pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Nets before being traded to Portland. “Whenever you lose a game, you’ve got to learn from it. The last shot is something I’ll think about for a while, but it’s not just the last shot. I was more or less disappointed in myself on being short on the majority of shots I missed. The ones I made, I wasn’t short. As a shooter, you never want to be short and the end shot was just a little short as well. It’s a matter of trying not to think about shooting it, you’ve got to just shoot it. You’ve got to trust in yourself and it’s something I’ll learn from moving forward. The older guys have done a great job helping me with that and a phenomenal job to draw up the last play for me.”
Connaughton finished with 8 points on 4-of-9 shooting, seven rebounds and a steal in 25 minutes. Dale Osbourne, who handled head coaching duties for the Blazers Tuesday afternoon after Nate Tibbetts ran the first two games, said Connaughton turned in his best defensive performance of the summer league, though that effort might have played a part in the 6-5 shooting guard missing what would have been a game-tying jumper.
“Noah Vonleh set a good screen and Pat was wide open,” said Osbourne. “Pat’s young, he plays hard. This was probably the first game he understands what it means about locking and sprinting and chasing guys around screens, so he expended a lot of energy on the defensive end, kind of lost his legs a little bit in the second half. But he’s going to be fine, very coachable and works hard.”
While Connaughton hitting what ended up being Portland’s final shot of the game would have put the Trail Blazers in a better position to come away with the victory, it was in no way the reason they lost the game. That honor goes to turnovers. The Trail Blazers gave the ball away 22 times, which the Spurs turned into 24 points, or roughly a third of their total Tuesday afternoon.
“That hurt,” said Osborne. “That’s a good team, they do a good job executing. When you look at the stat sheet, our defense was really good, but you can’t give a team like that opportunities to score and score and score. That kind of hurt us. It’s a learning process, obviously we’re a young team and we’ll continue to get better.”
The Trail Blazers were led by Noah Vonleh, who turned in yet another quality performance Tuesday with 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 7-of-8 shooting from the free throw line to go with eight rebounds and an assist. Vonleh hurt his right knee in the second half, but said post-game that he planned on playing in Wednesday’s contest.
Allen Crabbe went 7-for-13 from the field for 15 points, two rebounds and two assists, though he turned the ball over a game-high seven times in 31 minutes.
Malcolm Thomas went a perfect 6-of-6 from the field and 3-of-6 from the free throw line to finish with 15 points and four rebounds off the bench. Tim Frazier added eight points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes.
The Spurs were led by Kyle Anderson, who shot just 5-of-14 from the field but went 9-of-12 from the line to finish with 19 points in 29 minutes.
Though it comes one day late, Noah Vonleh is ready to make his summer league debut as Portland Trail Blazer.
After sitting out Portland’s 85-76 loss to the Boston Celtics Saturday night in the Trail Blazers’ 2015 Las Vegas Summer League opener with a sore left ankle, Vonleh, a 6-10 power forward out of Indiana, will play in Sunday night’s game versus the Dallas Mavericks at COX Pavilion on the campus of UNLV.
“I went through shootaround yesterday, I felt really good,” said Vonleh, who the Blazers acquired along with Gerald Henderson from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Nicolas Batum. “I went through it this morning and I’m feeling even better, so I’m definitely going to play tonight.”
There is probably more interest among Trail Blazers fans in Vonleh than any other player on Portland’s summer league roster. Not only is he new to the team, but after playing in just 25 games during his rookie season in Charlotte, Vonleh is still a relative unknown. And while summer league performances aren’t typically a great gauge of how skilled a particular player is, the book on Vonleh is so small that any game reps, even in Las Vegas, could prove enlightening even in a guard-dominated environment.
“I don’t think that limits me,” said Vonleh of the guard-heavy play at summer league. “I’m a real versatile player. In high school and college I played on the wing so I’m used to covering guards and using our versatility. I like when teams go small, it just creates a mismatch problem for me on the other end.”
The addition of Vonleh to Portland’s summer league rotation comes at just the right time, as the Trail Blazers gave up 15 offensive rebounds to a much smaller Celtics team in Saturday night’s loss. One assumes Vonleh, who looks to have added quite a bit of muscle since his rookie season, will be able to help in that regard.
“Last night the Celtics were just playing real hard against us, they were beating us on the boards,” said the 19-year old Vonleh. “They had a small lineup in, so it was crazy how they were beating us on the boards but we picked it up in the second half. I think it’s going to translate to the game later tonight. We’re going to be aggressive on the boards and try to stop second-chance points.”
Vonleh also gives Portland another big to throw the ball to in the paint, something they did too infrequently in the first half of Saturday night’s loss.
“I think we needed to get that first game under our belt,” said Allen Crabbe, who scored 15 points before fouling out Saturday night. “During the minicamp that we had, we were playing against each other and everybody knows the plays, we kind of cheat, so I think it’s different once you play against another team who hasn’t seen your sets. The way we played in the second half was good. The guards didn’t just take all jumpshots like the first half, we kicked it into the post, let them feel a little good about themselves instead of just having them run up and down and rebound and not getting any touches.”
As the only big man on Portland’s summer league roster who is also under contract with the Trail Blazers for next season, you should expect to see Vonleh get the majority of those touches, though Malcolm Thomas and Daniel Orton both had success at times in the paint Saturday night.
But more than anything, just getting a chance to see Vonleh in game action as a Trail Blazer for the first time, regardless of how many touches he get or points he scores, will be a welcomed event considering the hopes many have pinned on his development in Rip City.
“Tonight, just try to go out there, play hard, help my team win the best way I can,” said Vonleh. “I’m going to rebound the ball really well, go after every rebound, offensive, defensive, and just try to help my team win. When they find me open looks on the offensive end I’m just going to try to go to work down there and try to create for the other guys.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7 pm on CSNNW and 620 AM.