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Blazers feel good about Aldridge

Rookie from Texas is unselfish, mature
by: Steve Moakley, LaMarcus Aldridge (left) entered the NBA draft after his sophomore season at Texas, where he averaged 15.0 points and 9.2 rebounds a game.

LAS VEGAS - LaMarcus Aldridge's numbers after three games in the Las Vegas Summer League - 28 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocked shots - don't jump off the page at you. Sometimes, it's the little things that make coaches fall in love.

'I like his poise,' Portland coach Nate McMillan says of the young man taken by the Trail Blazers as the second pick of the June 28 draft. 'He plays the game. He plays both ends of the floor. He's capable of scoring in summer league, but it hasn't distracted him when he hasn't received the ball. He continues to play at the defensive end. When he has his opportunities with the ball, he's making good decisions. I like that.

'When you have players like that, it makes for a better club. That unselfish play - not trying to do too much, just doing what he needs to do - can mean the difference between winning and losing.'

The 6-11, 235-pound forward-center from Texas made only 2 of 8 shots from the field and had six points in 34 minutes of Portland's 78-65 victory over Minnesota on Sunday. He also had nine rebounds and three blocked shots and acted like he belonged out there.

'He's active, he runs the floor, he blocks shots,' says Geoff Petrie, Sacramento's president of basketball operations. 'He's going to have to grow into the league like a lot of guys, but he should be a good player.'

That was the consensus among NBA scouts drifting through Cox Pavilion on Sunday. But the prevailing opinion is that this is a rose that will take some time to bloom.

'I'm just not sure,' one scout says. 'He's so thin and gets pushed around so much, and he's not even facing NBA-caliber players. It's going to take him at least two or three years to develop to where he can help a lot.'

'I had him 10th on my draft board,' one director of player personnel says. 'I had him behind (Duke's) Shelden Williams. He has some skills, but he needs to do a lot of beefing up of his body.'

That's no secret. Aldridge is candid about it.

'I need to get my lower body strong, so I can dig in and hold my position better,' he says.

Aldridge will be a focus of Blazer strength-and-conditioning coach Bobby Medina over the next couple of seasons. The Dallas native, who declared for the NBA after his sophomore year with the Longhorns, has had only one full season in the weight room since he missed the final 15 games of his freshman season to a hip injury.

'LaMarcus has really only been at the physical part of it for a year,' Texas coach Rick Barnes says. 'He's just getting started. But it's amazing how he has changed as a player in a year.'

Aldridge isn't afraid to mix it up. He gave as well as he took in the trenches in Portland's first three games here, totaling 17 fouls in 96 minutes.

'They allow us 10 fouls a game,' he says, grinning, 'and I've been using them up.'

Aldridge was a prep phenom who declared for the draft after his senior year in 2004, only to pull his name out before the deadline.

'That was kind of the thing for high school kids to do at the time,' Barnes recalls. 'He had people around him telling him, 'You need to explore this.' But he was very honest with us. LaMarcus has been one of the most honest, loyal people I've dealt with in 30 years in the business. From the beginning, he told us he wanted to explore it and see.'

'I was serious about it,' Aldridge says. 'I had a scout tell me if I came out, I would be first round guaranteed. But I had to ask myself, did I just want to be first round, or did I want to be somebody special and be one of the top picks?'

Before the 2004 draft, former San Antonio prep Shaquille O'Neal - who had heard about another Texas prodigy coming along - requested an audience with Aldridge. He imparted some wisdom that the teenager took to heart.

'What Shaq said was important,' Aldridge says. 'He told me if you go to (college), you're going to get memories you can't get back. You're going to learn a lot of basketball, and you're going to have fun.'

That's pretty much the way it went for Aldridge at Texas. As a freshman, he averaged 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting an amazing .663 from the floor before his injury. Last season, he was named first-team all-Big 12 and conference defensive player of the year while averaging 15.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks a game and shooting .569.

'Before the season started, I told him, 'Let's not let the NBA thing distract us from being the best we can be this season,' ' Barnes says. 'LaMarcus was great about it. After the season, when he said, 'I think it's the right time for me to go,' I said, 'Do it.' He handled it in a real mature way.'

Folks at Texas marvel at the maturity shown by the youngster, who will turn 21 on July 19.

'He's five or six years beyond where you ought to be mentally at that age,' Barnes says.

'LaMarcus is probably 10 years down the road from where he should be with the way he handles himself,' says Scott McConnell, Texas basketball sports information director. 'He lived off campus. If he were ever going to be two or three minutes late for a scheduled interview, he'd call and explain. He just has a great understanding of the big picture.'

Aldridge locked in on the Blazers during his pre-draft visit to the City of Roses.

'I didn't know if he would be gung-ho about the possibilities of playing in Portland, with the trouble they've had the last few years,' Barnes says. 'When he came back (from his visit), he told me, 'Coach, that would be a great spot for me.' He really liked Nate a lot. He was impressed with the whole situation.

'Of course, when I was young I'd enjoyed watching the Blazers through the Bill Walton and Dave Twardzik years, and I'd been telling him they love their basketball up there. They need a group of guys who will help bring it back. You couldn't have a finer person representing your organization than LaMarcus. I don't know if he'll be the face of the franchise in Portland, but he'll be one of them.'

Barnes believes Aldridge has just scratched the surface of what he can be as a player.

'There was a point early last season where you could almost see the light go on for him,' Barnes says. 'He'll go through that in the NBA, too. But he knows where he is in his career. He knows he'll struggle a little. But once he starts figuring it out …'

'We like what we see,' says Kevin Pritchard, Portland's director of player personnel. 'He's a long-term guy we're comfortable with because he's such a hard worker.

'Whatever his potential is, he's going to get there. He's had some big-time plays so far (in summer league). He's got to add some weight, but we think he can be an impact player in our league.'

Aldridge promises to work on it.

'My game is going to change a lot,' he says, 'from where it is now to where it will be four or five years from now.'

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