Nov 8, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) reaches in to try and poke the ball away from Portland Trail Blazers center Joel Freeland (19) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Moda Center. The Blazers won the game 104-91. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Freeland's Improvements & Where there is room for More

After a rough introduction to the NBA last year, Joel Freeland looks to have finally settled in. This was first apparent when Head Coach Terry Stotts announced that he had won the backup center position over Meyers Leonard. I was, and still am, hoping for Leonard to turn it around, but seven games into the season (he missed one due to injury) Freeland has been a pleasant surprise.

Statistics are still somewhat iffy this early into the season, but general trends are still worth looking at. To start with, he is earning a full five more minutes of playing time a game, which indicates that Stotts made good on his word to utilize him as the backup center. Another massive difference is Freeland’s offensive rating (points produced per possession). Thus far it has skyrocketed to 103, up from an abysmal 94 last season. This is by no means a stellar mark, but it is a substantial increase.

Another area in which Freeland has shown great statistical improvement is in offensive rebounds. He is hauling in a robust two per game, in only fifteen minutes of playing time. This would be equivalent to grabbing over five a game if he played 36 minutes, and already twice this season he has hauled in four in a single game. Now, no one will mistake Freeland for Dennis Rodman, Mr. Rebounds himself, but those are still fairly impressive numbers. They may well dip as the season continues, but if not, Freeland could find himself solely responsible for generating two extra possessions per game for the team.

This is completely corroborated by my eye test, which this early in the season, I have to rely on more than I would like to. Freeland looks energetic out there. He is hustling, pulling down those boards, and trying hard. “Trying hard” is often thrown around as a backhanded compliment, particularly in the NBA where many players can coast by on talent, but I appreciate the effort. In a Western Conference that will surely see playoff spots determined by a single game, every loose ball tracked down, every diving save, and every hustle play could mean the difference between the Blazers making the playoffs or not.

During an 82 game season, this mindset is incredibly hard to maintain. The mental grind gets to you, the physical grind takes its toll, and next thing you know, you’re thinking about your bed back home in Portland during the last game of an East Coast road trip in the middle of February. Thus far, the Blazers have looked incredibly focused, and willing to go all out on nearly every single play. Freeland has been a huge part of this culture, because when other players are setting such an example, it makes it easier for the rest of the team to buy in.

Freeland still has room for improvement, though. He is actually fouling more per minute this year than last year, which hardly seemed possible (a cool six fouls per 36 minutes). This is somewhat puzzling to me, because it seems like he is doing a far better job of maintaining his “verticality,” as Mike and Mike like to constantly point out. Additionally, in a Mike and Mike mentioned in an interview that he spent much of the off-season working on defensive positioning, which I have also noticed. He is more often in the right place at the right time.

Lastly, despite the aforementioned jump in offensive rating, Freeland is still shooting a paltry 40.8% from the field. He has looked more assertive, and is earning more free throws, but this is still a pretty low number for a big man (or any man, for that matter). However, he is not a primary focal point on offense, so he doesn’t have much of a chance to get into a rhythm. You would like to see this number creep up as the season progresses, though, especially if he remains firmly implanted in the rotation.

All in all, Freeland has justified Stotts’ decision thus far. His energy and rebounding in particular have been a huge boon, and he simply looks more like he belongs on the NBA court. I am glad that his choice to train instead of playing for his national team has paid off, and it looks like it will benefit the Blazers as a whole.

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