Second-year center is no longer a bit player in Blazers' offense

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Trail Blazers center Joel Freeland defends Orlando Magic shooting guard Victor Oladipo during a game in early January at Moda Center. Freeland, who has been sidelined since Feb. 11 with a sprained knee ligament, has pushed back his probable return until the NBA playoffs.In recent weeks, Joel Freeland has told those who asked that he hoped to return to active duty with the Trail Blazers over the final week of the regular season.

That would give Portland’s second-year center/forward — who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee on Feb. 11 — at least a couple of games to prepare for the playoffs.

On Sunday night, before the Blazers’ 105-98 victory over Memphis, Freeland all but closed out that possibility.

“I’m pointing for the playoffs,” the 6-11, 250-pound Brit said. “Any time before that is pretty much out of reach. I’ll just have to see when it starts to feels better.”

So the goal of returning for the April 13 game against Golden State, or the April 16 regular-season finale against the L.A. Clippers, is gone?

“I’m still hoping,” he said, “but I think that’s a stretch.”

Freeland said he is taking his recovery and rehabilitation “day by day.”

“I’m approaching the seven-week mark,” he said. “It’s frustrating me a little bit. I still feel something in there and a little bit of instability.

“There’s no pain, it’s just loose. It’s much better than when I first started feeling it. But now, I’m ready for it to be gone. It should have gone sooner rather than later.”

Freeland is shooting daily and working out with assistant coaches, but is limited in what movement he can do. He hasn’t yet returned to the Blazers’ infrequent practice sessions and isn’t sure when he’ll be able to run full-speed.

“Lateral movements still get me,” Freeland said. “Running backward is OK. Running forward isn’t too bad, but I still can’t go 100 percent.”

Freeland was only a bit player a year ago, averaging 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in 52 games as a rookie. He earned a rotation role as a 5/4 in training camp this season and ran with it, averaging 3.3 points and 3.9 boards in 51 games while backing up Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge before the injury.

The Blazers were 36-15 when Freeland was injured. Since then, they’ve gone 12-12. Freeland’s absence isn’t the only reason, but it hasn’t helped.

“That’s quietly been ... I’m searching for the right words here,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We’ve missed his energy, his toughness, his intelligence on the court.

“His game complements (that of) L.A. and Robin, and Thomas (Robinson’s), too. He defends each position. He can make the perimeter jump shot. He can go inside and outside. He plays extremely hard. He’s one of those guys, when he’s on the court, you know he’s out there.”

JOEL FREELANDAssistant coach Dale Osbourne indicates there are few players he has enjoyed working with more than Freeland.

“Joel is always positive,” Osbourne said. “Everything we’ve asked him to do as a staff, he’s done. He’s a worker. His attitude has paid off for him in the long run. He never complains. He’s been a team guy from the beginning. He’s a great all-around person, and he’s been an important player for us.”

Freeland admitted to having difficulty dealing with the injury and his time away from the court.

“It’s not been good, especially when you know you could be helping the team,” Freeland said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever had a real injury and been out for an extended period of time. It’s a learning process, just something I’m going through for the moment.”

Freeland said he is trying to stay patient under the guidance of Chris Stackpole, the Blazers’ first-year director of player health and


“I don’t want to rush back if it will cause me problems in the future,” Freeland said. “I’m going to wait on Chris’ opinion, and the doctors’ opinion, and go from there.”

Freeland seems positive the knee won’t require off-season surgery.

“It will heal up by itself,” he said. “It just takes time.”

A commodity Freeland and the Blazers have precious little of right now with the postseason fewer than three weeks away.

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