Blazer fans have much more to look forward to this season than last, but which Blazers are likely to make a big leap this year? We’ll take a brief look at everyone on the roster who will definitely make it to the regular season, starting with the players least likely to spring ahead appreciably, rookies not included:
WILL NOT IMPROVE
Earl Watson – 34 years old
He’s 34. He’s a backup’s backup. And he’s the only player on the current Blazers roster born in the 1970s. Coincidentally, I just found another way to make myself feel old! Watson’s best days are behind him.
Mo Williams – 30 years old
Still in his prime, but nobody’s expecting Williams to get any better. His per-game numbers won’t be any higher since he won’t be seeing 30 minutes nearly as often as last year… at least we hope not. His numbers will drop even if his per-36 production stays the same.
Dorell Wright – 27 years old
His heyday was in Golden State’s run-and-gun offense where he averaged 38 minutes. Yeah, not gonna happen in Portland. His sub-40% shooting was his worst outing since he was a rookie, so while his productivity might glance up a tick, his stats won’t.
PROBABLY WON’T IMPROVE
LaMarcus Aldridge – 28 years old
How much would Blazer Nation freak out if our best player got even better?!?!?1? It’s just not in the cards. There won’t be any ground-breaking changes to the Stotts system, so we know how LaMarcus will be used. With more firepower around him there’s a chance that his numbers might even dip slightly. He did average a career-high in rebounds and assists last season, and there’s always the possibility that we’ll be surprised…
Wesley Matthews – 26 years old
We love Wes. He’s a tireless worker, a high-energy, high-character glue guy. Is he going to get any better? No. Unless he seriously upgrades his handles or starts finishing at the rim better, there’s really nowhere for his game to go. I suspect the near-15 points per game he got last season will be his peak.
Nicolas Batum – 24 years old
I struggled with this one. I wanted to put him in the next-best category, but I can’t. I honestly don’t think Batum will ever develop the consistency he needs to make the jump from “good” to “great” player. Even his EuroBasket play is nowhere near the level you’d hope. Of all the players I want to be wrong about in this list, Batum is the one I really hope makes me feel like an idiot.
PROBABLY WILL IMPROVE
Joel Freeland- 26 years old
He lost weight. He dedicated his offseason to the Blazers. And he wasn’t very good last year. All signs point to Freeland making some sort of jump, even if it’s from “non-factor” to “respectable deep bench player.” Here’s hoping he can hold it down a dozen minutes every few games without embarrassing himself.
Robin Lopez – 25 years old
This one is risky. He got career-high minutes last year, and he’s probably going to get just about as many this year. Will he get any better? History says “probably not,” but he’s going to get the chance to prove himself. I’d look for some slight statistical improvement, even if it’s not mind-blowing.
Victor Claver – 25 years old
He works hard. He looks competent most of the time. And he’s playing reasonably decent in EuroBasket play this summer. His three-point percentage has pretty much nowhere to go but up, and while he won’t get as many minutes, the Blazers have a more stable system with better players and well-defined roles. Claver will improve on last-year’s campaign.
Will Barton – 22 years old
If he played with all of the swagger but none of the head-scratching heroics, Will Barton would have been a lot better last year. Sure, he weighs like 90 pounds, but he’s not afraid of anything or anyone. After shooting an atrocious 13% from three, sound decision-making will make this year better than last. If he keeps working on his game and gains some weight, Barton has a chance to be a solid rotation player… just not this year.
Meyers Leonard – 21 years old
He’s got all the physical tools to be a good, possibly great (offensive) center. He can run and jump like a deer, he’s got a large frame, he has good hands, and he’s still got room to add a dozen or more pounds of muscle. He works hard and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. Having said all of that, he often looked totally lost on both ends of the floor. That’s not good. But it’s also worth pointing out that he really only played one meaningful year of college ball before getting drafted, and big men have notoriously long learning curves. I fully expect Leonard will get better, scoring more often and with more confidence. I’m not sold that his defense will take the next step.. that might have to wait until year three or beyond.
Damian Lillard – 23 years old
Sometimes the toughest act to follow is yourself, and that’s where Lillard stands coming into this season. He was so good last year, surprisingly good to most people who didn’t at least see him play summer league ball. Lillard led the league in minutes played, and was 12th in points per game, 16th in assists per game, and 8th in total three-pointers made. That’s out of everyone in the league. How can he get better? The same way he’s always gotten better: working hard, keeping humble, and being one of the most confident and driven people this side of the Mississippi. It’s clear Lillard sees success next year as nothing short of getting the Blazers to the playoffs and improving himself to All-Star status, even if he doesn’t make the team this year (and he won’t). Whether he improves from “very good” to “verier good” or “great” will probably be evident within the first 15 games, but we’ll have to wait until then to find out for sure.
Thomas Robinson – 22 years old
You have to feel for the guy. Drafted 1 spot ahead of Lillard, but with few outward signs of becoming the star that just 12 months ago everyone thought he’d be. Shuffled between two teams and two less-than ideal situations, Robinson comes into this season with a chip on his shoulder bigger than those you sometimes find in the middle of the bag where it looks like someone forgot to cut the potato. Terrible analogies aside, this guy is prime to have a break-out year. In a few interviews, he let on that he knows he hasn’t lived up to expectations, and he admits that it got to his head. He probably won’t get a ton more minutes, but his athleticism by itself is enough to have Blazer fans rubbing their hands in excitement. He has a decent-looking “J,” he’s not selfish, and he knows his role: rebounding. After the departure of J.J. Hickson, it’s a role that he could fill perfectly playing behind (and, perhaps for very short stretches, alongside) LaMarcus Aldridge. Robinson admits he played with little of the energy he electrified Kansas with, and his summer league play, while not overwhelming, showed a slice of what may come: endless hustle, opportune offense, and a high-energy flair that every team could use a little more of. If I had to guess, I’d say he gets his scoring into double-digit territory and his rebounds will follow a few ticks behind. It might be a lot to ask, but guys with his physical tools don’t come around every day. If he can put it all together, the Blazers might have gotten the steal of the offseason… not the offseason’s best player, not by any stretch, but the best player considering what Portland gave up to snag him: next to nothing.