The Summer may have just begun, but the rest and relaxation that many Trail Blazers have earned will have to be put on hold. Of the 15 players that played for the Portland Trail Blazers’ this past season, 8 of them have summer basketball obligations. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge will both be working with USA Basketball and competing for rosters spots to play in the FIBA World Cup. Team USA training camp begins July 28th.
The other six – Will Barton, Allen Crabbe, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum, and Thomas Robinson – will be part of the Trail Blazers’ Summer League roster when the action kicks off from Las Vegas on July 11th.
What should we expect from each player, and how might what they show in July translate to the upcoming 2014-15 regular season?
Will Barton – Mr. Barton, The People’s Champ, The Thrill… call him what you want, but don’t call him boring. He’s never lacked dynamics, and can be a game-changing force at times: there’s little doubt that Barton’s energy and disruption was critical in helping the Blazers eek out their lone win against the San Antonio Spurs in this year’s Western Conference semifinals.
Look for Barton to prove himself as steady and reliable; adjectives not often used to describe Thrill. Against lesser competition, he could go hog wild in ISOs, sprinting off curls to greet lobs, and generally being a positive nuisance… but that’s not what he wants to show the Trail Blazers’ coaches. He knows that to get significant minutes next years – minutes which may be available if Mo Williams departs – he will need to demonstrate poise and defensive chops. My money is that he works hard to highlight those aspects of his game which have been lacking rather than trying to be an offensive dynamo.
Allen Crabbe – The Trail Blazers spent a few draft picks trading up to get the
Arizona Cal (thanks for the catch, Sam Tongue!) alum at the first pick of the second round last year, and they are probably not giving up on him. Despite limited minutes, Crabbe hasn’t given up on himself, either, and he knows that a good Summer League is the first step in rehabilitating his image as a deadly outside shooter. While the 6’6” Crabbe is long with a 6’11” wingspan and could be a serviceable defender, he would settle for showing he can stroke the three, from different places on the floor. He did shoot over 40% from distance in the few minutes he spent on the floor this past year. Expect there to be some buzz if he can replicate that with regular rotation minutes during Summer League.
Joel Freeland – After suffering a knee injury that cut 29 games from his season, he came back to play the last game, but was somewhat out of rhythm and never found his way into the playoff rotation. As disappointing an ending as it was, Freeland is nothing if not resilient and adaptable. After realizing his minutes were going to come from focusing on defense, he spent last summer beefing up his positioning, rebounding, and shot blocking, and it paid off. Look for Freeland to build from that this Summer League, but also don’t be surprised if he shows an eagerness to contribute on the offensive end. Before coming to Portland he was a score-first forward, and while his defense will get him on the floor next year, his offense might keep him there a few minutes longer.
Meyers Leonard – Nobody has more to gain or lose from his Summer League performance than Leonard. He was among the most asked about players during the Trail Blazers’ exit interviews, and not for good reason. His on-court performance has been well short of expectations, even from those who knew he’d need time to develop. Leonard knows this, commenting that he had something to prove, and that he wants to be an asset to the organization. That introspection is a good start. His teammates also commented that he just needs to play more. He played relatively few minutes in his two years at the University of Illinois, and was a guard in high school before a massive growth spurt pushed him into playing center.
If nothing else, Leonard needs to be aggressive. He needs to look like he owns the paint; that if you dare venture near him that you will be punished. He needs to keep his head up and rotate quickly, with confidence, and even if he can’t make a play on the ball, he needs to take a page from Freeland’s book and get his arms straight up. Given his athleticism and frame, he could be a scary player once the game slows down for him a bit. Whether or not that happens is up to him. Physically, there’s nothing holding him back.
C.J. McCollum – McCollum can relate with Leonard when it comes to managing expectations. After a sizzling Summer League last year, McCollum suffered a foot injury which left him sidelined through the beginning of 2014, at which point the Trail Blazers were firing on all cylinders and had no immediate need for him. With limited opportunity, McCollum played reasonably well, showing flashes of what he’s capable of, but not anything near what he showed in Las Vegas last year.
With another year comes another opportunity; look for McCollum to make the most of his. While his shooting may be his bread and butter, he also possesses decent ball handling, the ability to split the defense, and a nice floater. Combine all three of those with his shooting stroke and you get a pretty complete offensive player, and, another year older and wiser, McCollum will be looking to once again make the Summer League his personal playground.
Thomas Robinson – After being spurned both by the team that drafted him and by the team that traded for him all in his rookie year, Robinson is happy to call Portland home. By all accounts, the Trail Blazers are equally happy to have a high-energy, disruptive force on the block… the power forward version of Barton, in some ways. During his exit interview, Robinson remarked that he needed to work on his defense, and that he understands now that his offense doesn’t have to be the thing that keeps him on the floor. He showed plenty of growth in that respect this season, particularly down the stretch and during the playoffs, where he got significant rotation minutes.
Look for Robinson to continue settling in to the pace of the NBA, where his superior athleticism and (occasional) defensive instinct can dominate Summer League competition. As a bonus, I would personally like to see him bust out his patented T-Rob spin that results in something other than a block or a turnover. He’s got the speed and balance to do it. If he just started that move a little close to the hoop, it could turn into a vicious jam. I’ll take two drinks if that happens in July, even once.
While the Trail Blazers don’t have the draft to look forward to, they have the next-best thing in the Summer League, as much of the growth of the team will have to come from within. Some of that growth may present itself under the bright lights of Las Vegas.