Trading Damian Lillard affirmed Joe Cronin’s commitment to the Portland Trail Blazers’ youth movement. Retaining Jerami Grant and acquiring DeAndre Ayton and Malcolm Brogdon gave the Blazers a chance at remaining competitive in the present, but the team’s timeline revolves around the younger Anfernee Simons and its deep group of rookies and sophomores.
The approach of the season’s 30th game marks a chance to evaluate the Blazers’ youngsters and the progress they’ve made since the start of the regular season. Ranking the team’s top three rookies and sophomores at this point reveals some surprises relative to preseason expectations.
Ranking the Blazers best rookies and sophomores: Honorable mention
Scoot Henderson began the season as the team’s starting point guard and an expected centerpiece of the franchise’s rebuild, but early struggles and an injury landed him on the bench.
Henderson has shown some positive signs since moving into that role, such as flashy finishing and creative passing. However, struggles with turnovers and shooting continue to limit his effectiveness and leave him on the outside of the Blazers’ top group of rookies and sophomores.
A positive surprise for the Blazers this season has been the emergence of Australian rookie Duop Reath as the team’s backup center. Since Robert Williams III suffered a season-ending injury, Reath has helped stabilize the second unit with effective floor spacing and defensive mobility.
He’s quietly been a favorite of on-off metrics, boasting a positive net rating of 13.5 as of Dec. 22, the best on the team. Reath recently hit a three in 10 consecutive games, setting the franchise record for the longest streak of games by a center with a three.
Despite the benefits of his spacing, Reath’s minutes have recently declined due to Chauncey Billups’ decision to tighten the rotation, leaving him outside of the Blazers’ top three rookies and sophomores.
The Blazers’ 23rd pick of the 2023 draft, Kris Murray, has received a few opportunities, but he won’t get more minutes until he gains more strength and becomes more consistent as a shooter. On the Rip City Remix, the Blazers’ G League affiliate, Murray has hoisted up 7.2 threes a game, but he has only converted on 28 percent of them.
Portland’s other rookie, Rayan Rupert, has shown more promise as a shooter in the G League, knocking down 44 percent of his four 3-point attempts per game. If Rupert’s shooting develops nicely alongside the defensive tools he flashed at summer league, he could eventually factor into the Blazers’ rotation as a three-and-D wing.
Two other Blazers’ sophomores on two-way contracts, Ibou Badji and Justin Minaya, have demonstrated their defensive potential on the Remix. Badji, whose pathway to NBA minutes lies as a rim protector, has averaged 2.9 blocks per game in the G League this season.
Minaya has averaged 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks for the Remix. Neither has a direct path to minutes on the Blazers, but they may receive an opportunity if an eventual tank reduces veterans’ minutes later in the season.
The Blazers’ top three rookies and sophomores, though, have become fixtures in the team’s rotation, and they offer three different skill sets as a short-roll playmaker, a defensive stopper and a primary creator.