Two-time Rookie of the Month Damian Lillard has had himself a very nice first half of 2012-13. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

41 Down (Part One): Player Grades (The Rotation)

My first round of player capsules sprawled a little, so I decided to break part one of my two-part mid-season recap into two parts of its own. Since I started with the players with the least total minutes played to build up towards the Blazers’ top guys, my first player grades were for the end of the bench. My second player grades will be for Portland’s rotation.

As a refresher:

Each capsule will include a few important stats to help gauge level of play, a paragraph or two of my personal feelings about each player and his performance, and a letter grade.

Grading is standard school-style, and breaks down as follows:

A: Excelling Above Average

B: Above Average

C: Average

D: Below Average

F: Failure

I: Incomplete

And here we go again:

Luke Babbitt

Stats: 12.9 minutes per game, 4.5 points per game, 3.2 three point attempts per game, 33% shooting from three, 47% Effective Field Goal Percentage

Your guess is as good as mine as where to start with Luke Babbitt. On the one hand, I like to see that he is getting consistent minutes (some of them even meaningful minutes), but I don’t like how totally inconsistent he has been in those minutes. I like that more and more he is starting to realize that being a stretch four means actually shooting threes and not trying to drive to the hoop, but I don’t like that his shooting percentage from three-point range is down considerably from last season (43% last year 33% this year).

It’s that shooting percentage stat that is the most distressing. Luke’s numbers from deep are down, while his number of shots per game are up (from 2.5 in 11-12 to 3.2 in 12-13). There’s a possibility that Babbitt is not the sharp shooter he was supposed to be, and that some of his stats were padded last season by the meaningless nature of Portland’s games down the stretch.

This season, Luke has posted games where he his numbers from deep were 0-of-5 (at home versus Toronto), 0-of-4 (at Cleveland), 2-of-10 (at Golden State), and 3-of-8 (at home versus Milwaukee). Comparatively, Babbitt has a single game with four made threes (4-of-7 at home against Denver) and only one game with at least three made threes on more than three attempts (3-of-4 at Charlotte). The handful of one- and two-miss games speak of the possibility of Luke becoming consistent. He’s got a scant 41 games, though, to prove he deserves to be paid as if her were a consistent three-point gunner.

Grade: C- (should probably be a D+, but a few games in which he actually influenced the outcome, Charlotte especially, raises him to passing)

Ronnie Price

Stats: 13.5 minutes per game, 2.9 points per game, 1.9 assists per game, 4.4 assists per 36 minutes, 2.5 turnovers per 36 minutes

Absolutely nobody on the Blazers’ roster benefits more from the poor play of a counterpart than Ronnie Price. Signed as kind of an afterthought right before the start of the season and initially thought of as nothing more than a roster filler, Price has seen dips in almost every statistical category. He’s posting a career low in field goal percentage, his points per game at the mid-point of the season is his lowest since his first year in the league, and his field goal attempts per game are down for the first time in three seasons.

By comparison, though, Ronnie Price just might be one of the biggest surprises on Portland’s roster in 2012-13. Where Nolan Smith has mostly fallen on his face, Ronnie Price has seen a modicum of success. He’s even been something of an impact player on more than one occasion. Ronnie was the first Blazer bench player to score in double digits, and as long as he plays within himself, he tends to do more harm than good.

It’s that playing within himself that can be a problem, though. Ronnie has a tendency to do too much, and that tends to get him in trouble. Price’s numbers also suffer due to Portland’s overall lack of scoring off the bench. Ronnie is no scorer, and when he has to provide the Blazers’ offense, things usually end up not looking so great. A Young Sabonis sums up Ronnie Price basically as best as it can be done.

Grade: C+ (even if by comparison he’s doing well, I can’t in good faith more than just pass him)

Meyers Leonard

Stats: 16.5 minutes per game, 4.8 points per game, 56% shooting, 86% free throw shooting, 10.4 points per 36 minutes, 3.5 rebounds per game

OK, so we can take it easy on Victor Claver and probably Joel Freeland since they’re coming from overseas and at the end of the day might not be that important to the long-term development of this Blazer team. One rookie we shouldn’t take it too easy on, though, is Meyers Leonard. Taken with the 11th pick overall from a highly reputable Big 10 school, Meyers didn’t have to be NBA-ready like his co-lottery pick, but he shouldn’t be as serious as a project as he’s turned out to be.

Leonard, at times, seems to not really understand how to play basketball. Worse, he really hasn’t shown that much improvement. Although he’s getting better at shooting and getting more confident with his shot, he’s still miles away from being strong on the defensive end, and his rebounding ability leaves much to be desired.

A successful second half for Meyers will include vast improvements in rebounding and significant increases in minutes played, along with a sustained slow-down in fouls per game (right now he’s at 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes, which means if he played Damian Lillard minutes he would probably foul out every night).

Grade: D (I’ll get into this more in Part Two of my mid-season warp-up, but let’s just say he gets no quarter from me)

Meyers Leonard’s first half has been a little disappointing. Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

J.J. Hickson

Stats: 29.3 minutes per game, 12.4 points per game,10.9 rebounds per game, 15.2 points per 36 minutes, 13.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, 21% Total Rebound Percentage

And we’ve reached the point of Portland’s roster that actually means something. It’s fitting that we start with J.J. Hickson. Picked up on waivers after being released by the Kings last season, Hickson was added to help the Blazers tank, and ended up playing his way into an extra one-year contract. He’s been very solid, might I even say good, in the first half of 2012-13, so solid in fact that Portland Roundball Society’s Danny Nowell went from hating Hickson on Day One to penning a two-part game-of-mind blog entry (Parts One and Two).

The Hickson Conundrum (as I like to call it) comes into effect when you start to think about the long-term intentions of this team. Hickson just doesn’t fit into the plan. The core of this team, the untouchables as Neil Olshey has called them, are Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum, and not J.J. Hickson. He’s out of position on the Blazers, at times seems to be completely incapable of playing defense, and isn’t worth the money he’ll probably get offered as a free agent in the off-season. It becomes a conundrum when you realize how important J.J. has been to Portland’s first half success. The Blazers need him while they also very much do not need him and need to be rid of him.

The best part of J.J.’s first half performance is that his play should likely net the Blazers a valuable pick when they opt to trade him before this season’s deadline instead of overpaying him or letting him walk for nothing.

Grade: B (a very solid above average first half, goes up if/when Olshey pulls the trigger on a deal)

Wesley Matthews

Stats: 35.4 minutes per game, 15.4 points per game, 2.5 assists per game, 78% free throw shooting, 19.8% usage percentage

Sean Highkin, also of Portland Roundball Society, hit the nail on the head with his assessment of Wesley Matthews in his half-season recap. He says “(Wesley’s) dreadful 2011-12 season is looking more like an outlier than a genuine regression.” A more true statement about Wesley Matthews seems very unlikely. Wesley wasn’t awful last season, but he fell way off the pace he set for himself in the first year of his huge contract in Portland. He’s back on track in 2012-13, and has very clearly either recovered from the injury that slowed him down last year or addressed the issues that were holding him back.

Wesley is back to scoring in transition, his jump shot looks pretty great most nights, and his dribble penetration has been much much better. Beyond all that, Wesley continues to improve in his decision making, taking fewer horrible shots every night, and thus far hasn’t disappeared for games at a time, failing to score in double digits only five times in 35 games (he scored zero points against Phoenix on the 22nd of December but I didn’t count that because he played less than 10 minutes).

An injury sidelined Wesley for six games in 2012-13’s first half, ending his streak of consecutive games played, but he’s been close to Portland’s most reliable late-game scorer. His performance against Miami only earns him a passing grade.

Grade: B+ (not everybody gets an A, Wesley’s free throw shooting brings his grade down just a touch)

LaMarcus Aldridge

Stats: 38 minutes per game, 20.5 points per game, 8.9 rebounds per game, 26.2% usage percentage, 2.5 assists per game

As has been said before, the Blazers are making a strong push for LaMarcus Aldridge to be back in the All-Star Game. The team sites the following reasons LA belongs in the ASG: he is the only player in the league averaging 20 points and 2 turnovers or fewer per game, he trails only LeBron James in number of games (three) with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists, and he is tied with LBJ and Kobe Bryant for the number of games (three) with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds. LaMarcus is also eighth in the NBA in scoring and leads the Blazers in both scoring and blocks per game. The NBA is a scorers league. Being the eighth best scorer in the league should make him an All-Star.

But this season isn’t just about getting LA to Houston. Right now, keeping LaMarcus happy is the most important thing this team can do. If there is a chance for this iteration of the Blazers to compete at a high level, LA is going to be a major part of that. On the keeping LaMarcus happy front, everything is going pretty darn well. Sure Neil Olshey maybe admitted that he erred on the side of caution too hard and threw away a key year of LA’s prime, but the improvement in his fellow untouchables and his obvious chemistry with Damian Lillard should show LaMarcus that there is a future for him in Portland.

Beyond all that, the measure of a player’s importance is how good his team can be without him. If LA wasn’t a part of this team, they would be no where near 20 wins at the mid-point of the season.

Grade: A- (fourth quarter free throws, and this is an A no question)

Nicolas Batum

Stats: 39 minutes per game, 16.7 points per game, 6.9 three point attempts per game, 52.1% Effective Field Goal Percentage, 4.5 assists per game, 6 rebounds per game, 1.5 steals per game, 1.1 blocks per game

If you asked me which player on this Blazer team needed to have a career year in 2012-13, I would have probably said Nicolas Batum. Even so, Nicolas Batum having a career year is easily the most important thing of the first half of Portland’s season. Batum’s stats are at career high levels across the board (minutes played, field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and most importantly points scored). His shooting numbers have dropped some, but that’s caused by the increase overall in the number of looks he is getting. Nicolas Batum should be an All-Star (he won’t be though), and if there is any common sense around the NBA, he’ll be on the short list of Most Improved Player of 2012-13.

Batum’s improvement is a by-product of Portland’s offense, but it also comes because Nicolas is now the man on this team at small forward. Batum is probably one of the more confident players in the NBA. This season is what happens when you let a guy who believes in himself do whatever he wants to do.

There are still areas of improvement for Nic, he’s too loose with the ball, he sometimes makes very bad passes, and he doesn’t attack the rim nearly enough, but on a game-by-game, play-by-play basis, Nic’s good outpaces his bad nearly two to one.

Think about it like this: there have been two major statistical nights in Portland’s first half, a very rare five-by-five and a not so rare but still special triple-double, both of them have been recorded by Nicolas Batum. Nicolas was once the picture of potential. He is now the picture of potential realized. What we have to ask is, where is his ceiling. I feel like he’s nearing it, but I do know that he works very hard on his game, and he’s clearly not satisfied whit how his team limped into Game 42.

If his admission that his first career triple-double (the first for the franchise since Brandon Roy) doesn’t count is any indication, Nicolas still has a lot to offer in 2012-13.

Grade: A+ (head of the class)

Damian Lillard

Stats: 38.5 minutes per game, 18.3 points per game, 15.4 field goal attempts per game, 35.9% shooting from three, 6.6 assists per game, 23.7% usage percentage

As they did for LaMarcus, the Blazers have sent out a packet designed to promote Damian Lillard’s bid for the All-Star Game (they sent them out for Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews too). Although Dame making the ASG is a long-shot, they have a compelling case. Lillard is 17th in the NBA in points per game and 14th in assists per game, he is one of six players in the league with averages of at least 18 points and six assists per game, and he tied the NBA record held by Rudy Fernandez with at least one three pointer made in his first 20 games.

Dame may not be the first guard since Michael Jordan to make the All-Star Game as a rookie, but he certainly has separated himself from his co-rookies. Apart from being two-time Western Conference Rookie of the Month, Lillard leads all rookies in scoring, field goals, free throws, three point field goals, assists, and minutes played.

But what has defined Lillard through 41 games (side note, he is the only player on the roster to play in all 41 games) has been his poise and demeanor. He is at times a kid from Oakland who is happy just to get to play basketball for money. At other times, he is a savvy star in the making with ice-water in his veins who isn’t rattled by anything. Through it all, he has maintained the most even keel in the league. His passion and skill are understated while also being obvious. His athleticism is the same. He doesn’t have flashy speed, but nobody in the league should be surprised the next time they seem Damian rise up and turn a big man into a poster (if those are still even a thing).

Yes, Damian Lillard is a bit older than your average rookie so maybe he won’t be able to grow as much as a basketball player (I’m not so sure about that, but I’ll save that argument for another day). And yes his defense is lacking and at time downright bad. Defense is something every NBA player learns, and I don’t want to be the person to say Damian Lillard can’t get better just because he entered the league at 22 and not 19 or 20.

The cries for someone else to be Rookie of the Year are coming, don’t think they aren’t. But if Damian’s second half is anything at all like his first, those cries for Andre Drummond because of his PER and Anthony Davis because of his weird Anthony Davis-ness will most likely fall on deaf ears.

Grade: A (not an A+ for two reasons. 1) this is not as good as he is going to be, and 2) every good grader knows to give only one A+ so as not to screw up the curve and to help breed a little competition among the top of the class)

Upcoming (hopefully before tomorrow’s game)

Part Two: Best, Worst, Biggest Surprises and Disappointments

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

Nicolas Batum has arguably been Portland’s best player in the first half of 2012-13. Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

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Tags: Blazers Damian Lillard J.J. Hickson LaMarcus Aldridge Luke Babbitt Meyers Leonard Nicolas Batum Player Grades Ronnie Price Wesley Matthews

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