Portland Trail Blazers: Examining Derrick Jones Jr. and other expiring players

Derrick Jones Jr., Enes Kanter, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Derrick Jones Jr., Enes Kanter, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /
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Derrick Jones Jr., Ja Morant, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies
Derrick Jones Jr., Ja Morant, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) /

What should the Portland Trail Blazers do with Derrick Jones Jr.?

When Neil Olshey made his comments about the roster not being at fault for the team’s defensive struggles, I immediately thought of Jones Jr., the player Olshey signed to a two-year/$19 million contract before the start of last season.

Stotts’ failure to incorporate DJJ into the rotation after the Norman Powell trade remains one of the most head-scratching parts of the Blazers 2020-2021 season. He’s never been a great shooter (29% from 3-point range in his career), earning most of his points on cuts and put-backs. However, after seeing Jones Jr.’s defensive instincts and raw athleticism on full display earlier this season in plays like this:

And this:

I have a hard time understanding how he couldn’t earn a spot in the rotation on this Blazers’ team that was this bad defensively. For those who point to his offensive struggles as a reason for his benching, I’d argue that the Blazers’ lack of passing and off-ball movement seriously limited what he brings to the table offensively.

Last season, the Blazers ranked last in passing for the second straight season, which is in part attributable to their lack of off-ball movement. Too often the Blazers ran pick and rolls with one of the big men while the other three players on the floor stood around the arc and watched, waiting for a pass for a catch-and-shoot three. This is not a good strategy to run consistently, because it allows the defense to not think too hard about their rotations, and only focus on the action taking place around the ball—making it harder for the ball handler (usually Lillard or McCollum) to get the look they want.

With a player like Jones Jr. in the fold, the Blazers could have taken advantage of his ability as a lob threat by having him set off-ball screens for one of their shooters then slipping to the basket for a dunk. With Jusuf Nurkic’s passing ability, they could have had a really fun connection if given more time on the floor together.

Another way they could use him is as the roll-man in a pick & roll like he did numerous times in Miami with shooters spacing the floor around him like this:

and this:

In Portland however, due to Nurkic or Kanter being out there the majority of the time, he was only used as a roll-man 16 times in total all season. He was extremely efficient in these situations, as the team scored 1.5 points per possession (99th percentile in the NBA for a roller), but it’s baffling that Portland couldn’t find a way to take advantage of his athleticism in situations like this more often.

Jones Jr. has a player option for just under $10 million next season, and while it remains to be seen whether or not he decides to pick it up, I believe he can play a big part on this team next year. Let’s just hope whoever is coaching the team next can be more creative in deploying him on the floor.

Next. What to expect from Nassir Little next season. dark