Trail Blazers Rising Stars: Then, Now, and Someday


Slam Magazine recently released the cover for the upcoming November 2014 issue. The issue features a very familiar cover photo and there is a buzz about it. The upcoming issue showcases players from the 2014 NBA Draft, in a recreation of a past Slam cover photo. In the February 1997 issue, Slam featured the 1996 NBA Draft class on the cover, which was tagged as the next generation of great players. The 1996 cover shot captured Kobe Bryant, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Antoine Walker, Steve Nash, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Ray Allen, and more against a brick wall with the title “Ready or Not… here they come!”

The 1996 NBA Draft is still considered to be one of the most talented and deepest drafts in the history of the NBA. Ready for a crazy statistic? More than one-third of the first round picks in the 1996 NBA Draft went on to become NBA All-Stars. ONE-THIRD! On top of that, that same draft produced three NBA MVP players (Bryant, Nash, and Allen Iverson). There was even one undrafted player, Ben Wallace, that went on to be an All-Star. Anytime you talk about talent, this group of players should always be included.

One player in particular from the 1996 draft class (that was featured on the Slam cover) has ties to the Portland Trail Blazers. Jermaine O’Neal was the 17th pick overall from Eau Claire High School in South Carolina. O’Neal was one of two high school players selected in the 1996 NBA Draft (Bryant was the other) and the Trail Blazers took a gamble on him.

O’Neal averaged 22.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 5.2 blocks per game in his senior season at Eau Claire. He was South Carolina’s “Mr. Basketball” and Player of the Year, along with being named First Team All-State. He was one of the top prospects and had college recruiting letters pouring in. Yet O’Neal was not sure college was the right path, as he had very poor SAT scores. One year prior, another South Carolina high school player (Kevin Garnett) made the jump from high school to the NBA and had early success. O’Neal was advised against mimicking Garnett by his high school coach but O’Neal felt like he could walk in Garnett’s footsteps.

Early success was not in the cards for O’Neal. The Portland depth chart had him behind Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, and Cliff Robinson. That frontcourt was stacked with future Trail Blazers greats. O’Neal also had a bone contusion in his knee that forced him to miss the first 17 games of the season. Making his debut in December 1996, O’Neal became the youngest player to play in an NBA game at 18 years, one month and 22 days old. He played in 45 games and averaged 4.1 points and 2.8 rebounds during his rookie season.

Even though O’Neal didn’t have success early in his career, he developed into a fantastic power forward. He is a six time NBA All-Star, has been named to the All-NBA second team once and the third team twice, and earned the NBA Most Improved Player Award in 2002. None of these accolades came while he was in Portland but he grew and developed in the Rose City.

This throwback to present cover got me thinking about the future of the Portland Trail Blazers. On the current roster, the Trail Blazers have two All-Stars and a core group of young talent. LaMarcus Aldridge has blossomed into one of the best power forwards in the NBA and could be on his way to another MVP-like season. Damian Lillard, only two years removed from college, is an NBA All-Star and one of the rising stars in the league. He is a promotional marketing machine and has gained fans from all over the world. Lillard, along with Aldridge, have also brought the spotlight back to Portland.

May 8, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward Thomas Robinson (41) shoots the ball as San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) defends in game two of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Are there any other future All-Stars hidden within the Trail Blazers’ roster? They didn’t have a single draft pick in 2014 but have a few second and third year players that will look to shine next season. C.J. McCollum averaged 5.3 points in 38 games last year during his rookie campaign. The Trail Blazers believe he has an opportunity to take it to the next level this season.

Allen Crabbe, the former sharp shooting stand out at Cal, only appeared in 15 games last season, averaging only 6.7 minutes. He has potential to turn into a lethal three-point threat. We will see if he is capable of taking on a larger supporting role this season.

I’m excited to see where Will Barton and Thomas Robinson fit in this season. Both players showed flashes of excellence last year and they will likely be used more in the regular rotation going forward. With a solid starting five, the Trail Blazers need their young reserves to step in and handle business.

Will McCollum be an All-Star? Not in the near future but only time will tell. Will Robinson be named to the NBA All-Defensive Team? That’s another distant possibility. Lots of questions surround the young Trail Blazers talent and we will see what develops soon as the 2014-2015 season is quickly approaching.

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