Damian Lillard may lead Portland into a new era. He also may not. Credit: Douglas C. Pizac-US PRESSWIRE

Draft Reaction: New Era For Portland?

I’ve done a little bit of reading and reflecting. I’ve talked at length with a few honest and knowledgeable Blazer fans. I’m ready to share my feelings about Thursday’s draft.

Let me preface this by saying, going in to Thursday evening there were two basic criteria in my mind that needed to be met for Portland to have a successful draft.

First: the Blazers needed to use their picks; I mean actually use them.

If that meant drafting two touted blue chippers, fine. If that meant packaging one or both of the picks to move up in the draft to make a play for somebody like eventual number-two overall selection Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, also fine. If that meant making a deal with one or both of the picks that brought somebody like Rajon Rondo to Portland, also fine.

What wouldn’t have been fine or counted as using their picks would have been something like trading down in the draft or trading away their draft choices to get cash and more cap space to make a bigger splash on the free agent market. Sure Deron Williams would be a great add for Portland, but I would have been supremely disappointed had the Blazers chosen to forgo the myriad opportunities presented by the 2012 draft class because they thought a couple extra million would entice a marquee free agent to the Rose City.

Luckily, Portland used their picks.

Second: Should the Blazers use both of their picks on players that they are going to actually keep, at least one of those players has to be able to play right away.

Here’s my thinking on this. I have no problem drafting for talent and potential. I do have a problem with guys coming into the league that need to actually learn how to play basketball. You see a lot of guys that need at least two years of riding the bench and getting reps in practice before they are ready to take the court in a game situation.

This works OK for teams like the Spurs and the Lakers that often don’t need early contributions from rookies. A team like the 2012-13 Blazers, however, is going to need dudes that can have an immediate impact.

We all know Portland’s history. There have been many draft classes, basically every draft class in the Nate McMillan era that didn’t include Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, who spent a full season and then some waiting their turn to get into a game. We’re still going through this with Elliot Williams. We suffered through it with Jerryd Bayless. It’s something that happens a lot with the Blazers.

This coming season needs to be different. It could be different by default with Nate gone. Kaleb Canales had no problem playing rookies and young guys down the stretch. That being said, it’s looking more and more like Coach K won’t be Portland’s top guy on Opening Day. Whoever comes in to take his place might choose against playing rookies too.

That’s why I say, at least one of Portland’s picks had to be a guy that could play right away. Again, the Blazers seemed to deliver on this one, and mostly because they drafted for roster spots without redundancies.

Assuming Raymond Felton is gone for good, Damian Lillard is now Portland’s only point guard. Meyers Leonard isn’t the Blazers’ only center, but he’s about 20 years younger than the other guy on Portland’s roster listed at the center position.

Whether or not both of Portland’s first-rounders will start remains to be seen, but they’ll both play. They’re going to have to.

So, after that lengthy preface, how do I feel about Portland’s draft? Here goes.

It Went About As Well As It Could

The Blazers could have done better. They also could have done worse. And that better/worse dynamic will probably come down to one player, or maybe two.

When the Cavaliers used the fourth pick to select two-way guard Dion Waiters from Syracuse University, many, if not all, mock drafts were thrown out the window. When the Sacramento Kings used the fifth pick to select power forward Thomas Robinson from the University of Kansas, the Blazers had a choice to make.

As we know, they stuck to their guns and they selected Damian Lillard, the guy they’d liked since probably day one. Portland left two players on the board that very well might come back to haunt them: Harrison Barnes from the University of North Carolina and Andre Drummond from Connecticut.

Barnes would go seventh to the Golden State Warriors. Drummond would be snatched up in the ninth position by the Detroit Pistons.

Barnes, the UNC slasher and shooter with equal parts business and branding savvy and on-court talent, was probably the best player available when it was Portland’s chance to make their first pick. In fact, there was little reason to expect that Barnes would be on the board that late at all.

Drummond, a raw freak of nature athlete with a lot to learn but a very high ceiling, was projected to be right where he was when it was the Blazers’ turn to make the sixth selection.

Either one of these players could have made Portland’s draft much better. They also could have made it much worse. Bringing Barnes in would have meant selecting, as I mentioned, the best player available at the time he was picked; never a bad choice. But he also would have represented a redundancy on the Blazers’ roster. Barnes is a small forward. Portland already has a small forward: Nicolas Batum, in case you forgot.

The Blazers are in the process of lining up a deal to make Batum a long-term fixture of the franchise, drafting Barnes might not have thrown that deal into jeopardy, but it would have added an un-needed wrinkle.

It breaks down like this: Barnes wasn’t Portland’s top selection at the six spot simply because he was projected to go in the top four or five. When he falls all the way to Portland, selecting him means they’re scrapping the plan they came in with. Fine, but if you scrap your initial draft plan, it better be for an improved plan. If you think Harrison Barnes is better than what you were planning to draft, then you better play him when the time comes. That means, for Portland, moving Nicolas Batum to the bench, or maybe trying to trade him. That means limited or no Nicolas Batum. That’s OK, not great but feasible, if Harrison Barnes turns out to be as good or better than Nic. The problem, though, is that some people, who in mixed company might like to call themselves experts, think Harrison Barnes won’t make that great of a pro. If Barnes turned into a bust and that bust cost the Blazers Nicolas Batum, then that’s a problem.

As for Andre Drummond, taking him with the sixth pick would have been more about whom it meant Portland wouldn’t have been able to select. Coming in, the Blazers needed a point guard and a center. Drummond at the six could have been that center. But now the Blazers would have had to wait for the eleven pick to get their point guard. Damian Lillard wouldn’t have been available at the eleven spot, so Portland would have likely gone with Kendal Marshall.

Again, not a terrible choice, but along with a serviceable point guard, the Blazers need a reliable second scoring option. Marshall is a pass first kind of guy. Not a knock, but not really what Portland needs, especially if the guy they take at center with the sixth pick has a lot to learn about the NBA game.

In the end, the Blazers made the right choices for what they needed. They might have left a couple high profile guys on the board, but they also avoided a big question mark and a redundancy in Barnes and a project in Drummond.

If either Drummond or Barnes blows up in their rookie year, we’ll naturally have to revisit how bad/good Portland did in the draft. But until that time, I’m satisfied that the Blazers did it right with Lillard in Leonard.

Portland left Harrison Barnes on the draft board by selecting Damian Lillard. Will that come back to haunt them? Credit: Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE

That being said,

There Are A Few Things That Scare Me About Portland’s Draft

I’m excited about this draft; don’t get me wrong. The grades for Portland have been good, very good in fact. In the B and A range. I give the Blazers a solid B+ with the chance to raise that to an A-/A depending on the outcome of free agency and the maturation rate of Meyers Leonard.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few things that frighten me somewhat. Let’s start with Leonard. This is an easy one. I talked with my dad on the phone right after leaving the Blazers draft day media event. The first thing he asked me was did Portland draft a center. Yes, actually they did draft a center, I replied. He burst out laughing. Not because he doesn’t like Meyers Leonard. He, like everyone on earth at this point, knows Portland’s history with drafting centers.

During Leonard’s first interaction with the local press corps as a Blazer, he was asked how he felt about the hexes or curses or what have you that seem to befall those individuals unlucky enough to be seven feet tall or more and a draft choice of the Portland Trail Blazers. Leonard said he was unfazed. However, his injury history was then summarily discussed and deconstructed: a stress fracture in his foot between finishing high school and starting college, a minor strain to a knee ligament at Illinois that didn’t result in missing any games.

No red flags there, not really. And I’ve never been a proponent of the injury transference by osmosis theory. But still. It doesn’t take a statistics expert to know that Portland’s track record with the centers they have drafted is not the greatest.

The upside to the Blazers’ futility with rookie centers is that the bar for success is pretty low. If Meyers Leonard appears in every regular season game of 2012-13 and only a single playoff game, should Portland get to the playoffs, he will have recorded more professional games in one season than Greg Oden did in four.

As for Damian Lillard.

Again, drafting a point guard, regardless of who it is, is risky business in my opinion. The point guard position is arguably the most difficult position in the NBA. All-Star point guards are few and far between. Effective point guards too. Some take years of grooming to reach the elite level. Some, expected to reach elite status, never get there. Some drafted outside of the lottery turn into All-Pros. Drafting a point guard is a crap-shoot, and I’m not just talking about for the Blazers.

Add to that who they decided to draft. I’m a fan of Lillard. I’ve read up on him and looked at his videos. Listening to him in interviews, it’s obvious that he is going to be a high level contributor in the NBA. My issue is where he came from.

Weber State competes in the Big Sky, a conference that has now sent a grand total of three players to the NBA by way of the first round of the draft. I’m not an expert on college basketball, but one thing that I do know is that competition in college is a good way to gauge how a player might do at the next level.

Division I college basketball players are some of the best basketball players on earth, but the level of competition varies greatly from conference to conference. Lillard torched the Big Sky in his four years at Weber State, but he wasn’t taking on future NBA players every night of the week.

Not getting a chance to match-up with the Kentuckys and Dukes of the college basketball world doesn’t mean Lillard won’t be able to make the transition to contributing NBA point guard. But it might mean he’ll need a couple weeks, maybe months, to catch up to the pro game. If Lillard is Portland’s first rounder that ends up playing right away, an extended period of rough play at the start of the season might end up being tough to recover from.

That being said, drafting a point guard was the best way to avoid what is undoubtedly the worst case scenario for 2012-13: a second season of Raymond Felton.

It might take only a single season for Meyers Leonard to play more games as a Blazer than Greg Oden. Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

In Conclusion

The Blazers did well. Unlike in previous drafts they directly addressed pressing roster needs. As in drafts previous, Portland picked guys at high value positions that have been historic draft bugaboos. Some good. Some speculative, leaning towards good but with the possibility of being not so good.

As we’ve been saying since the end of last season, the Blazers have a lot of work to do before Opening day 12-13. So far they’ve added a General Manager, and that General Manager has asserted himself and put together a good/great draft. But it’s not over yet.

A new GM by himself won’t make Portland a contender next season. Neither will two first round picks and a steal in the second round. Portland will become a contender by having all the disparate elements of this off-season lineup just right. That means hiring the right coach and working the free agent market to bring in the right complementary pieces.

The Blazers took their shot in the draft. Right now it looks like a hit.

email me: [email protected]

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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