Oct 19, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts speaks with Portland Trail Blazers point guard Nolan Smith (4) and Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Will Barton (5) during a time out in the fourth quarter of the game against the Golden State Warriors at the Rose Garden. The Warriors won the game 101-97. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US

Pre-Season Basketball: Takeaways from Portland's First 5 Games

So we’re just about through with a week of pre-season basketball and, if you’re anything like me, you’ve seen some highs and some low lows to this sort of new-look Portland Trail Blazers squad. Portland looks great so far, but as usual, there’s always a few things they can improve on. This is just a quick look at the players I’ve thought have stepped up and/or stepped back:

  • Meyers Leonard has promise, but has a serious fouling problem
I don’t think there was a single game this week where Meyers Leonard wasn’t in foul trouble. I believe he had five fouls in six minutes one night, and he’s just making some simple rookie mistakes like over-playing a pump fake or getting a little too physical in the low post. Still, he’s been on the receiving end of some very nice alley-oop passes, and he’s getting used to how fast things in the NBA are moving. I believe he’ll win the starting spot over J.J. Hickson sometime in the near future.
  • Damian Lilliard is the Real Deal

There are some times out there when he’s looked a bit hesitant — usually in the first quarter — but once he settled down and got control over his nerves, Damian Lillard looked like the point guard that us Blazer fans have been begging for. He plays with a poise about him that’s just impossible to find in many rookies and he’s a much better passer than critics have given him credit for. Not to mention once he sets his feet behind the three-point line, it’s nothing but net.
What I’ve liked most about D-Lill (can I get away with that nickname?) is the way he’s managed the pick-and-pop with LaMarcus Aldridge. He’s been waiting until the absolute perfect time before delivering that bounce pass to a wide open L.A. for a knock-down jumper, and he’s been even better about reading the defense before making a decision.
Lillard’s also proven, against each team the Blazers have played, that he can get to the basket at will. He’s shown his ability to finish with both hands at the basket, and that’s something huge that Portland hasn’t had since.. well, since Brandon Roy.
There was also a really nice play last night against the Warriors where Lillard penetrated the lane and waited to the last second, sucking three defenders in towards him before tossing up the pin-point alley-oop pass to Meyers Leonard. The little things like that are going to make Portland’s star rookie a very good, likely All-Star caliber point guard in the foreseeable future.
  • Wesley Matthews has my vote for Most Improved Player of the Pre-Season
I can’t be the only person impressed with Wesley Matthews’ offense after these four games, can I?
I mean, last year he was ONLY a three-point shooter and a transition scorer, but this year? If this pre-season is any type of forecast as to what Matthews’ season is going to be like, we need to up our expectations and put ourselves in the 10-8 seeds in the West.
Not only does he still have that nasty three-point shot, but Matthews has been attacking AND finishing at the bucket. I even witnessed him create his own shot! He hit a little crossover towards the baseline and then took quick push-off step-back to drill the 18-footer. That’s how you properly utilize your time in the off-season.
If Matthews can truly step up and become an all-around perimeter scorer, it’ll take a load off of both Lillard and Aldridge, and the Blazers will be a better team for it.
  • I’m NOT impressed with the $50 million man, Nicolas Batum

So far, Batum’s been all talk and no work. He shot 5-for-12 against L.A., 6-for-14 against Phoenix,  5-for-16 against Sacramento, 1-for-8 against Denver, and was god-awful before turning things around in the second half against Golden State.
The only reason he sort of gets a pass is because he’s been playing above average defense, but aside from switching here and there on Andre Iguodala, he hasn’t had a top forward to guard this week.
Nic’s really going to have to step up and become the scorer we need him to be. He hasn’t shown any development from last year, and to be commanding such a big contract and not producing on the court can’t bode well for the locker room continuity.
I’ve still got faith in him to show something worthwhile, but right now, he’s not looking deserved of that money.
  • Will Barton can be an X-Factor for Portland
Everyone was saying that Will Barton at No. 40 was a steal, but it didn’t really register for  me until I finally saw him play in a few games.
And I’ve got to say, I’m very impressed.
The shots haven’t been falling, and that’s OK because he’s a rookie and he’s still trying to find his niche. But Barton’s been crashing the boards, playing pestering defense, and most importantly, he’s been relentlessly attacking when he has the ball.
Barton is so quick, he gets to the lane almost whenever he wants. And even though the shots aren’t dropping, they will start to as the season goes on.
I think if Coach Stotts puts some trust into the rookie guard, he can have a J.R. Smith type of impact off the bench and be that spark plug the Blazers need when the offense gets stagnant.
  • The Blazer defense looks almost perfect
I saw it all last night in the game against the Warriors. Stotts elected to keep the bench out there in the final minutes of the game, while Mark Jackson went with his starters, and the Blazer bench executed the defense to perfection.
Every player guarded their man, the big man (who was Joel Freeland last night) showed on the screens, and the Warriors just couldn’t get a basket to put the game away. Unfortunately, Portland’s bench couldn’t execute on offense either, but I’m positive their starters could’ve easily won that game had they been in that scenario.
Coach Stotts has brought the Blazers back to being a defense-first team, and with Paul Allen and Neil Olshey watching courtside, I’m sure they put on a good showing.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge is gearing up for yet another All-Star appearance
L.A. put his entire offense in the spotlight last night when he ate up the Golden State Warriors for 18 points in 27 minutes. He’s still got to work on rebounding — he only had two boards last night — but with the moves he put on display, there’s no way he doesn’t command a double team every night.
Aldridge was knock-down from the top of the key. He showed a smooth post-up fader, and an even better step back jumper that looks nearly unstoppable. It also looks like he’s extended his range out to near the three-point line, which begs the question once again: Will Stotts use L.A. like he used Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas?
  • Victor Claver has stolen minutes from Luke Babbitt
Victor Claver has lived up to every expectation that Portland’s had since he came overseas, and he’ll most certainly be a rotation player in the regular season. He left Friday night’s game against Golden State early after Carl Landry accidentally elbowed him in the nose, but he’s proven to be the versatile forward that the Blazers will need off the bench when Batum’s shots aren’t dropping. Claver dropped 13 points along with three rebounds and two assists all in 13 minutes in Portland’s win against Denver. Imagine what he could do in 25?
  • Coby Karl may have made the roster
From the moment he was invited to training camp, Coby Karl was determined to make the team. And every opportunity he’s been given, he’s capitalized on.
He pulled a DNP Friday night against Golden State, but he shined brighter than any other player against the Nuggets. Playing against the team his father coaches, Karl put up 11 points and five assists. He looks better than his counterpart, Nolan Smith, out there and has a real chance this off-season at making the Blazers’ 15-man roster.
And now, for some of the bad.

Nolan Smith looked terrible last night running the offense in the fourth. He blew a go ahead lay-up that, thankfully, Will Barton cleaned up with a put-back dunk, and he just couldn’t find his jumper whatsoever. If he can’t play at a high level off the bench, I’d rather see Barton get some minutes. It’s still a shame to see what we passed up on (Kenneth Faried) for this guy.

Joel Freeland hasn’t been able to find his jumper either. He had five points, all from the free throw line, in 18 minutes against the Warriors, and only had one rebound. He’s getting open looks, though, so I think the shots will start to drop if Stotts gives him more minutes down the stretch.

It seems as though this is the end of the road for Adam Morrison’s NBA dreams. After pulling a DNP Friday night against the Warriors, it doesn’t look like Terry Stotts is going to be utilizing him going forward. Sad to see what one big injury can do to a career.

@BriscoXCI | [email protected]

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Tags: Damian Lillard LaMarcus Aldridge Nba Pre-season Nicolas Batum Portland Trail Blazers Wesley Matthews Will Barton

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