Blazer rookies will get their baptism under fire
Dispense with the cute nicknames the Kiddie Korps, the Diaper Brigade but understand the situation as the Trail Blazers near the start of the 2012-13 regular season.
Five rookies are going to play a fairly major role on a Portland team that has turned over a good portion of its roster to the future.
Their roles are disparate, from crucial (point guard Damian Lillard) to promising (Meyers Leonard) to potential rotation players (Will Barton, Joel Freeland and Victor Claver).
Its not a good thing for the now for an NBA team to be so reliant on rookies, but thats what the Blazers are stuck with in this first year of the Terry Stotts coaching regime.
The rookies are getting there, said veteran guard Wesley Matthews after Portlands 101-97 exhibition loss to Golden State Friday night at the Rose Garden. But its not just them, its all of us. New system, new schemes for everybody.
True. But the Blazers (2-3 in the preseason) are going to need some production from the neophytes if they are to get much accomplished in terms of win-loss record.
They got no choice but to contribute, Matthews said. Theyre going to play. Theyre going to get minutes. They need to produce and we need to help them along. They can help us along, as well.
Lillard, who returned to action after sitting out Wednesdays victory over Denver with a sprained ankle, is the marquis player of the first-year guys. He had a nice game against the Warriors, contributing 15 points (on 5-for-12 shooting) and seven assists with only one turnover in 31 minutes. The 6-3 point man taken with the sixth pick in the June draft out of Weber State dished out three beautiful bounce passes and would have been in double figures in the assists column had teammates been able to finish.
Thats the most comfortable Ive seen him for a full game, Stotts said.
In his four preseason contests, Lillard leads Portland with a 16.0-point scoring average, shooting .460 from the field, .348 from 3-point range and 1.000 (10 for 10) at the foul line. He has 22 assists with 12 turnovers and has mostly played with poise and savvy.
Damian has one of the toughest positions on the floor, but hes handling it well, forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. Hes playing smart, hes getting everybody involved hes been great.
Leonard has been a little more inconsistent, averaging 7.4 points and 5.0 rebounds in 21 minutes in his five appearances. The 7-1 center drafted with the 11th pick out of Illinois has a nice touch as evidenced by his numbers (14 for 18 from the field, 9 for 11 from the line).
On Friday night, Leonard collected more fouls (five) and as many turnovers as points (four apiece). For a spell, he was forced to guard Golden States 6-9 forward Carl Landry, who drive past him twice for baskets.
Hes very strong, a tough matchup for a lot of people, Leonard allowed. Its easier for me to guard bigger than shorter guys lower center of gravity.
Leonard also picked up a pair of offensive fouls while setting picks.
It comes with being a rookie and not only that, with being a big, he said. I have to work my way through the ranks. Sometimes im not in the right place and it is a foul. I need to learn how to guard the ball better in the post, and to find myself in the right position on both offense and defense so I dont get fouls.
No surprise there.
Bigs take longer to learn the game, Aldridge said. Theres more that goes into learning how to guard the post, running out, boxing out, rebounds putting everything together.
With Leonard, though, you see the glimpses the thunder dunk, the finish after running the court on the fast break, the athletic blocked shot to envision what the future has in store.
He makes some plays every night that make you see the promise is there, Stotts said. Meyers competes. He will make mistakes, but hes going to do a lot of good things, too, as his game develops.
The 6-11 Freeland has struggled with his shot through the preseason (5 for 18), but his stroke looks good, and he hustles at both ends of the court. Unless general manager Neil Olshey acquires a front-line veteran, Freeland appears ticketed for backup duty at both the power forward and center spots.
The 6-9 Claver look at him on the court, and a larger Rudy Fernandez comes to mind is active, can shoot and has good ball skills. He has plenty of competition to make the rotation at small forward, but he has a chance.
The 6-5 Barton also has a chance to see regular action in a less crowded backcourt, where hell vie for backup minutes with Nolan Smith behind Matthews at shooting guard.
The five rookies have been at it for three weeks, Stotts said. Theyve all gotten better. They have room to grow, but its not going to happen overnight.
Matthews with Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and J.J. Hickson the only veteran holdovers from the Nate McMillan era refuses to concede the Blazers are starting over from almost scratch.
I dont see it as a rebuilding process, he said. I see is as an opportunity to get better with a new group of guys.
Thats what every team does when they go onto the draft. They retool with younger players. Thats what happens. Im excited about it.
The veteran group is still young, with Matthews 26, Aldridge 27, Batum 23 and Hickson 24. Batum and Matthews, in particular, must step up into leadership roles.
I take that responsibility, Matthews said. Ive been a leader on every team Ive been on. Ill continue to do that.
The rookies are only a tad younger Lillard at 22, Barton 21, Freeland 25, Claver 24 and Leonard the baby at 20. Theyll have to get into lockstep with their more experienced teammates as soon as possible.
Theyre working at it, Aldridge said. There are going to be ups and downs, but overall theyre trying to get better. Theyre listening. Thats all you can ask from them.
Well need something from them this season. As we go along and they get more experience, they should be better.
How much better, and how soon, is the question.