Trail Blazers youth: Who will be the next defensive asset?


The Portland Trail Blazers are at an interesting developmental stage, possessing six players under the age of 25: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Will Barton, Allen Crabbe, Thomas Robinson, and Meyers Leonard. Most of these players have seen incredibly limited minutes off the bench and thus have remained unknown quantities from a contribution standpoint. Portland’s youth movement represents their biggest question mark entering the 2014-15 season.

The overarching question “Who will break out this year?” has a few interesting offshoots, but the one I am interested in today involves defense, which has been a weak point for the Trail Blazers since Terry Stotts was hired as Head Coach in 2012. Will any of these youngsters become legitimate assets on the defensive end?

As it stands, the Trail Blazers have one to three players that can be considered elite defenders, depending on who you ask and how you define “elite.” Wesley Matthews is inarguably the Trail Blazers’ best overall defensive player, but Nicolas Batum is solid in transition and on the perimeter, just as Robin Lopez excels around the rim.

Unfortunately, these high highs are mostly cancelled out by low lows, resulting in mediocrity as a whole. If even one of the Trail Blazers’ unknowns can step into a reasonable defensive role, the team could benefit substantially. So which vaguely square peg is malleable enough to be sculpted for a round hole?

At this point, I am not optimistic that it will be Lillard— at least not over the course of this one season. He struggles mightily with positioning himself for on-ball screens, as well as recovering from them. Considering that the Trail Blazers are going to encounter a pick-and-roll with every opponent they face, this is a considerable weakness that we would have ideally seen fixed by now. Lillard’s game will find completion at its own pace, but that pace is probably not quick enough to produce measurable, defensive improvement in 2014-15.

That is why a big part of me wants the answer to be McCollum. Though McCollum is anticipated to backup Matthews at shooting guard, he is a capable point guard as well. Being able to sub him in for Lillard, while keeping Matthews on the floor, during important defensive possessions would be a godsend. He shows promise off the ball, but may not have the lateral quickness to stay in front of an elite ball handler, so defensive elitism is probably a few years away if he decides to train toward that end.

Barton shows potential too, but has the opposite problem. He is quick enough to stay with his man, and even rabid enough to cause agitation, but he lacks court awareness at times. Defending isolation is great, but how often will he have that luxury against an opposing bench? Playing with blinders can get you in trouble just as much as lacking quickness. Thankfully, it tends to be a more fixable issue; especially with proper attention in practice. Barton could surprise us yet.

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I cannot speak for Crabbe though, as 100 minutes of garbage time in a rookie season is not enough for me to confidently form an opinion. It would be useful if he ended up as a 3-and-D wing like Matthews, but there is no precedent for belief that he will get there. Still, I would not mind seeing what he has to offer if he can find a scrap of playing time here and there.

Leonard, on the other hand, has shown what he has to offer, and there is a lot of room for improvement. He has a rim protector’s frame, but a rim protector’s skill set still eludes him. Despite his incredibly minimal role, he has received a disproportionate amount of criticism for his fouling, footwork, and general unawareness. I tend to approach 22-year old players with cautious optimism, so I am hopeful that he can turn things around, but I am not holding my breath this year while he sits behind Lopez and Chris Kaman.

Robinson is far more intriguing. He does alright applying steady pressure, but does not track his man well off the ball. Blown defensive assignments were the norm for him much of last season, resulting in easy baskets that desperately needed prevention. Regardless, he embraced a less nuanced energy role toward the end and proved valuable as a stripped-down version of himself. If he can rebuild on the bare basics of scrapping as a foundation, his physical tools could carry him to rapid improvement.

McCollum, Barton, and Robinson have the most opportunity and the most potential (almost as if playing time and skill level were related or something), so look to them to accept the defensive challenge first. I am suspicious that McCollum will end up splitting his offensive and defensive energy 70/30, while Robinson does the opposite and Barton lands in between. Take that as you will. Ideally, every Trail Blazer would excel on both sides of the ball, but grooming a young defensive specialist is in their best interest.

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