Thanks to Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers young bench is finally coming alive, as Nassir Little and Gary Trent Jr are now becoming regular contributors
Damian Lillard has been overly great in the past few weeks, he’s the hottest player in the NBA and I’m pretty sure everyone is aware of it. However, Dame’s been great before, and as we’ve seen before, this doesn’t always lead to wins.
In what has been their most impressive stretch of the season, the Trail Blazers have won four straight, beating the Rockets, Pacers, Lakers and Jazz on the bounce. For context, before this streak, Portland had just five wins over .500 teams all season, now they have four on the trot.
But while Dame’s historic run has clearly played a big role, it hasn’t just been him; the Blazers young bench, which has been largely non-existent all year, has finally turned up. Gary Trent Jr, Nassir Little, even Caleb Swanigan (to an extent). We’re now starting to see what they can really do, and how important they are to this team’s success.
Gary Trent Jr
Gary Trent Jr has become the Blazers go-to guy off the bench in recent weeks, a remarkable development. At the start of the season, Anfernee Simons was touted as the youngster who would make the biggest contribution from the bench, and fill the hole left by now Mavericks guard Seth Curry. But after starting strongly, Simmons has fallen off a cliff, as his shooting dropped to the level of his defense (which isn’t good).
Luckily, in stepped Gary Trent Jr. Opportunities were limited in his rookie year, but injuries and a roster shake-up have given Trent Jr the chance to play a bigger role this season, and he is certainly taking it. Over the past 7 games (in which the Blazers are 5-2), GTJ is averaging 13.4 points, and shooting 48 percent from the field, and 43 percent from three. These numbers line up with 2018/19 Seth Curry really nicely; Curry shot 45 percent from both the field and from deep last year, averaging 7.9 points a game.
Here, Trent Jr hangs on the perimeter, waits for Dame to attract the double team, and when the pass comes, knocks down the triple with ease.
But in this clip, we can see where the guard has improved. Teams now have to respect his shot, giving him more space to drive into the lane. This video also shows he’s capable of creating his own shot, as he drives past his defender and hits him with a nice spin move in the paint.
If GTJ can continue his impressive career arc, it opens a lot of doors for the Blazers. His rookie contract runs through next season as well, meaning they can keep him around for very cheap. His shooting could become a key factor off the bench, whether that’s this years playoffs or part of a re-loaded team next year.
Trent Jr now does much more than keep defenses honest when guarding Damian Lillard, he looks like a playoff calibre player. His shooting is important to this offense, to Lillard’s defensive coverage, and to the Blazers second unit.
Nassir Little is a player I am constantly rooting for because well, it’s really hard not too. After being drafted at #25 last year, Little has played somewhat sparingly, and has struggled at times on the offensive end. He’d shown some intriguing flashes, particularly defensively, and has become known for his tremendous energy and hustle.
However, just like GTJ, Little has slowly began to contribute over all areas of the court, and seems to be finding his place in this Blazers rotation. Over the last few weeks, Little is playing a few more minutes a game, and has doubled his PPG, but this is far from the most impressive stat.
In the last four games, Little is 12/15 from the field, and 4/6 from three. A small sample size, but it comes as no surprise that the Blazers won 4 games in a row after getting production from the bench. If Little can become a solid shooter from deep, he is a serious future in this league, because his game from close-range is already pretty good.
This play vs the Rockets shows how Little’s shooting opens up his offense entirely. If Lillard can trust him to knock down shots from the corner, and teams respect that shot, Little can use is athleticism to finish on the inside.
In particular, Little cuts to the basket very impressively, something that this Blazers team has really missed this year. The comparison feels too easy, but Little is showing traits of a prime Moe Harkless. His defensive potential, along with backdoor cuts like this, show off why.
Nassir Little is a guy who I remain extremely high on, and someone I think will become a permanent fixture in the Blazers rotation. There’s not many skill-sets where he doesn’t have a high ceiling, and the rookie seems to have the right work ethic to maximize his potential. Similar to Trent Jr, Little’s rookie contract gives the Blazers plenty of flexibility if he does keep improving, as he is a cheap way into some much-needed defensive help on the wing.
The Blazers have a few more young pieces who have shown flashes, but Little and Trent Jr remain ahead of the pack. As mentioned earlier, Anfernee Simons’ progression has stuttered slightly, but he’ll likely remain untouchable in trade talks for a little longer.
Caleb Swanigan, who was traded back to the Blazers a few weeks ago, looks a lot more comfortable on an NBA court than he did his rookie year, and could be an intriguing piece to hold on to. ‘Biggie’ is obviously still a little raw, but has is already a solid rebounder, and if his Summer League highlights are anything to go by, he clearly has an offensive game.
If the Blazers are to go anywhere this year, or want to save some money in the offseason, then the development of their young players must continue. If they continue their steady arc, I can envision all four players having a spot in the rotation over the next two years, especially Little and Trent Jr.