Damian Lillard’s series-clinching three-point shot put the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. However, in the Conference Semifinals, they received a stiff reminder about how far they still have to go from the San Antonio Spurs on their way to a championship.
With a young core and an improved second unit, the Trail Blazers hope to be better prepared to take on the West’s elite.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers.
Five Guys Think
Two years ago, LaMarcus Aldridge was intimating that he’d do precisely what Kevin Love just did and leave what was then a pretty uninteresting Blazers team for greener pastures somewhere else. Now, however, the grass is plenty green right where Aldridge is, thanks to an exciting first-round win in last year’s postseason and a roster that’s pretty flush with talent. Damian Lillard is an All-Star now, and with good role players like Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews, Dorell Wright, Robin Lopez, Steve Blake, Chris Kaman and C.J. McCollum, they’re deeper than they’ve been in years. The Western Conference is a tough place to live, but these young Blazers are champing at the bit to get back out there and give their title hopes another go.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
The Portland Trail Blazers were one of the league’s surprising teams in 2014 and should once again flirt with 50 victories and a playoff berth. At the top of the lineup are All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge driving the success. Aldridge was nearly out of the door a year ago, but the team’s direction has the veteran forward saying he’d like to retire with the organization. The 2014-15 campaign will be a big one for the franchise in regards to its future makeup. Aldridge, center Robin Lopez and guard Wesley Matthews will all be unrestricted free agents next summer. Forward Nicolas Batum will be a free agent in 2016. So while the club is basking in its recent success, if the team struggles you have to keep in mind their front office might have to pull off some moves to prevent a mass exodus.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
The newly acquired Chris Kaman will add something to a Trail Blazers team that has been capably led by stalwart Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The major concern for the Blazers will be one that often affects overachieving young teams—the want of more. Often, after young players experience some level of success, they tend to want more: shots, money and recognition. With Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez each entering the final year of their contracts, Blazers fans should only hope that the group collectively continues to be as cohesive and unified as they were last season. C.J. McCollum opened eyes up during Summer League play in Las Vegas, so whether he gets more minutes and opportunity—and whether he thrives—is a storyline worth keeping an eye on out in Rip City. Out in the Northwest Division, though, as long as Aldridge and Lillard remain healthy, it will be the Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder battling for the division crown while the other three teams are left fighting for scraps.
2nd place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
I jumped on the Portland bandwagon when they drafted Damian Lillard, as I was a big fan when he was at Weber State. However, he has exceeded all expectations in his first two seasons in the NBA, mine included. He’s already an All-Star and All-NBA player, which is incredible. The Blazers went from being a rebuilding lottery team to having one of the better one-two punches in the league in Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and they should remain a playoff squad as long as those two players are there. We saw what Portland could be when these players are clicking last year in the postseason when they upset the Houston Rockets in the first round. Portland didn’t make any drastic moves this offseason, but they really didn’t need to. Bringing back the same pieces was smart, as their chemistry will be good and they clearly have the talent to be an elite team in the Western Conference.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
For the second straight summer the Trail Blazers had a quiet, but very efficient summer. This team’s starting five is set, but last year they were exposed for their lack of a bench in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs. By adding Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, they solidified one of their two most important bench positions with guys who are proven to be capable starters. With their most pertinent needs addressed and a young core that is poised to improve off of the great experience they gained last year, few teams in the West should be feared the way they Trail Blazers are. As long as they stay healthy, it’s not out of the question that they could top the Oklahoma City Thunder and win the Northwest Division.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge. While point guard Damian Lillard has received a lot of the headlines, it is forward LaMarcus Aldridge who is the unquestioned top offensive producer for the Blazers. Aldridge was criticized early in his career for his lack of toughness, commitment to rebounding and ability to bang in the post. In his eighth year with three straight All-Star appearances, Aldridge has shredded those critiques to become one of the top power forwards in the NBA (if not the best). Aldridge is a mismatch nightmare against nearly every opponent he faces. His offensive versatility includes the ability to stretch defenses with his silky-smooth mid-range jumper, a variety of polished post moves and the strength and athleticism to overpower opponents. This unique skill set helped Aldridge continue improving his offensive production every year of his career once again with career-high averages of 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds per game and a team-leading PER of 21.8. Although Lillard and forward Nicolas Batum figure to become more involved on offense this year, the Blazers will still run the offense heavily through Aldridge as their go-to scorer.
Top Defensive Player: Nicolas Batum. Head coach Terry Stotts has made a commitment to including Batum more often in the offense since coming to Portland thanks to his unique skill set. The one skill Batum has been relied upon since coming to the Blazers as a 20-year-old rookie is his ability to play lock-down defense. Batum is one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA thanks to his 6’8′ frame, 7’1′ wingspan and great lateral foot movement. Since his rookie season, Batum has been tasked with guarding the best player on the opposing team whether it’s bigger forwards like LeBron James or Kevin Durant or even some of the elite point guards such as Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker. Batum has effectively limited the stars of the NBA to earn his best defensive rating of his career last season at 106. Batum has the ability to stuff the stat sheet on a nightly basis thanks to his defensive versatility, averaging .7 blocks, .9 steals and a career-high 7.5 rebounds per game. While Batum’s role on offense is expected to grow this season, fans can expect Batum to step up against the best player on the opposing team and pepper the stat sheet on both offense and defense.
Top Playmaker: Damian Lillard. Since coming to the Blazers as a rookie out of Weber State, Lillard has been given the keys to run this team and create plays on offense. Lillard was selected to his first All-Star game last year in just his second season by averaging 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and .8 steals per game. With his career-high scoring and electric offensive play last year, Lillard announced himself as one of the elite guards in the NBA. Not only has Lillard increased his offensive production, he has also developed a more complete grasp of the Blazers’ offense. Lillard is the spearhead to Stotts’ offensive game plan, creating opportunities with his incredible speed and athleticism. In an offense that requires hitting open shots when available, Lillard is in a great situation with shooters like Wesley Matthews and Batum surrounding him as well as Lillard being unafraid to take the open shot himself. To go with his elite speed and athleticism, Lillard has also improved his three-point jumper to 39.4 percent on nearly seven attempts per game. Lillard’s threat as a three-point shooter makes him nearly unguardable at moments and opens up offensive opportunities for his teammates drastically with his ability to drive, shoot, draw fouls or pull up for a mid-range shot. Lillard will be counted on along with Aldridge to be the top offensive producers this season, but also will be in charge of keeping his teammates involved and the offense balanced.
Top Clutch Player: Damian Lillard. Not only is Lillard the top playmaker for the Blazers, he has also displayed the ability to hit the clutch shot repeatedly in his short career. Everybody remembers his amazing series-winning, last-second three against the Rockets last year in the playoffs to push the Blazers past the first round for the first time in 14 years. However, Lillard really has been clutch since coming into the NBA and the stats show it. According to NBA.com, of the top 25 players in clutch field goal attempts for the regular season last year, Lillard finished with the second highest FG percentage at 47.3 percent, trailing only LeBron James (48.4 percent). Lillard was equally clutch when it came to hitting shots from afar; 44.2 percent of them came from three-point range, which ranks second among players in the top 25 of clutch three-point attempts last season. It’s safe to say Lillard is unafraid of the big moment and has proven to be the best option in late game situations. Expect Lillard to continue having the ball in his hands at the last second and don’t be surprised if he continues to hit game-winning shots.
The Unheralded Player: Robin Lopez. With Aldridge and Lillard getting all the attention, even some of the most attentive Blazers fans forget what a huge presence Robin Lopez has been since coming to the team last year. The 7’0 center was brought on with limited expectations. However, Lopez immediately stepped up as the starting center and became a defensive force for the Blazers. After being limited in his career by injuries, Lopez managed to remain healthy throughout the season and averaged career-highs 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as well as 11.1 points per game. Lopez has also brought toughness to the front court with his defensive presence and focus on controlling rebounds. More importantly, Lopez’s presence allows Aldridge to move back to his natural position of power forward and gives him more options to attack offensively. In the past, Aldridge was forced to play center due to injuries and personnel, which limited his ability on offense and matched him up against bigger players. Lopez is definitely under-the-radar in terms of his production and his important role on both offense and defense. While Lopez may not be the center of the future that fans hope for, he’s the perfect fit for the team right now.
Best New Addition: Steve Blake. In what will be his third stint with the Blazers, the team signed point guard Steve Blake to add depth and a veteran presence to the Blazers’ backcourt. With limited cap space, the Blazers were not able to make a big free agent splash, so they managed to get a player they are comfortable with and knows the organization in Blake. Blake will assume the back-up point guard role from Mo Williams, who left in free agency, as well as run the offense for a young Blazers bench. While Blake may not have the offensive potency that Williams showed, he is a calming veteran presence who can run the offense effectively, play pressure defense, not turn the ball over and hit the three-point shot. Blake will be a huge influence on the young Blazers’ guards like C.J. McCollum and Will Barton as well as bring toughness off the bench that will be needed in late-game situations and in the postseason. For his price and potential impact, Blake is the best addition to the Blazers this offseason.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
Who We Like
Neil Olshey: Blazers GM Neil Olshey came to an organization starved for the playoffs and a team that was decimated by injuries to their young stars. Olshey quickly rebuilt the Blazers to a playoff team with the help of established players like Aldridge, Batum and Matthews while adding a star in Lillard through the draft. After a series of fired GMs, it seems apparent the Blazers found their man to manage the roster. Expect Olshey to continue to develop and add to the core going forward, even though he has already assembled a talented contender.
Terry Stotts: Stotts was hired as the head coach three years ago and has completely revamped the team’s offense from the Nate McMillan era. Going from one of the slowest paces and low-scoring offenses run by McMillan, Stotts has evolved the offense into one of best. Averaging 106.7 points per game, which ranked fourth in the NBA, and an incredible offensive rating of 111.5, which ranked second in the NBA, Stotts has shown he’s one of the best offensive coaches in the NBA. Stotts has made this offensive transformation by allowing freedom to his stars Aldridge and Lillard as well as giving opportunities to players like Matthews and Batum thanks to an emphasis on moving the ball, feeding the post and shooting open three-point shots. Stotts appears to be the ideal coach for the Blazers this season and moving forward.
Wesley Matthews: While Batum may be the best and most versatile defender on the Blazers, Matthews is definitely the heart of the team on defense. Matthews has developed great defensive chemistry with Batum to create one of the best perimeter defensive duos in the West. Matthews’ toughness fires up the entire team and he’s always willing to take the big shot to electrify the team. Matthews has grown into a regular scoring threat as he enters his sixth season by posting a career-high 16.4 points per game on .441 percent shooting from the field. A true, blue collar player, Matthews does all the little things including playing solid defesnse, mentoring young players as a leader and stepping up to hit big shots that the Blazers will need this upcoming season.
Will Barton: Third-year guard Will Barton emerged as a spark plug of offensive energy last season from a bench that was heavily criticized for its lack of production. Barton uses his electrifying athleticism and shooting stroke to put up points in a hurry. While Barton has struggled with consistency since entering the NBA, the Blazers hope another year of seasoning and focus on development will push Barton to become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who is an offensive threat off the bench.
C.J. McCollum: Second-year guard C.J. McCollum was hampered by a foot injury that caused him to miss 44 games last season as well as losing minutes to veteran Mo Williams off the bench. However, with Williams’ departure and McCollum being fully healthy, expect his role to increase this year as the team searches to find an offensive spark off the bench. McCollum’s ability to create his own shot and his strong shooting stroke along with increased minutes should prove that he can be the answer to the Blazers’ troubling bench production.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
The Blazers’ strengths have definitely shown through the last two seasons under Coach Stotts on offense. The Blazers’ incredibly effective offense relies on their great three-point shooting and offensive versatility. Thanks to the team’s stars in Lillard and Aldridge, they have two go-to players on offense who can take over a game. However, the Blazers stay balanced by running the offense through the post, moving the ball, attacking the hoop and hitting open shots. Another key strength for the Blazers is their match-up ability on defense. Led by Batum and Matthews, the Blazers can match up with some of the best perimeter attacks in the NBA. Meanwhile, the size and presence of Lopez allows him to match up with some of the elite big men while Aldridge can hold his own on defense with this great size, athleticism and length. The Blazers will continue to rely on hot shooting and riding their stars in Aldridge and Lillard to get the Blazers back to the playoffs and try to become an elite team in the West.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
While the Blazers are attempting to address their depth issues by putting faith in the development of their young players, the Blazers still have major issues once their starters take a rest. As their bench relies on young players who are still struggling with consistency, the Blazers routinely lost leads and were forced to over-play their starters last year. Veterans like Kaman and Blake may help, but it’s still a concern. With Stotts being forced to ride his starters to win games, it could also create another problem that Blazers’ fans know all too well: injuries. If the Blazers lose any of their starters, it could be a major blow to the team and with so little room for slippage in the West. The Blazers could go from battling for home court to fighting to even make the playoffs. Another weakness that hurt the Blazers last season was being too predictable on offense. Too often, the Blazers fell into a habit of jacking up three-point shots or trying to force feed Aldridge. The Blazers will need to be injury free this year, remain in a consistent, balanced offense attack and hope their young players develop into quality production off the bench to keep them from dropping off in a loaded Western Conference.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
The Salary Cap
The Trail Blazers are hard-capped at $80.8 million after using most of their $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception on Chris Kaman and their $2.1 Bi-Annual Exception on Steve Blake. With 15 guaranteed players, the Blazers aren’t near the hard cap, or even the $76.8 million tax threshold. Diante Garrett has a contract guaranteed for just $30k while Darius Morris and James Southerland have no guarantees. Barring a trade or a buyout with another player, the trio aren’t likely to make the team but may represent the Blazers in the NBA D-League once cut. The Blazers still have $505k of their MLE remaining, but given that’s less than the $507,336 rookie minimum contract – it isn’t enough to sign a player before the season. Joel Freeland and Victor Claver are both eligible for extensions (until Halloween), otherwise they’ll be restricted free agents next summer.
– Eric Pincus
I consider the Blazers more likely to regress because so many of their players had career years, but some are still young enough to improve, especially on defense. That is where all the slack is for the 16th-ranked team on that end, and improvement there will likely be needed to offset regression on offense for a squad that benefited from a lot of career years a season ago. In this scenario, Lillard improves significantly on defense (which happens for a lot of third-year players), while Batum also gets even better on that end, building on his all-tournament performance at the World Cup. Batum has the length and athleticism to be an All-NBA caliber defender, but his upright stance and wavering intensity have prevented it. Lillard also improves his distribution and finishing at the basket. Aldridge and Matthews prove that their shooting a year ago was no fluke, and Coach Stotts is able to cobble together an effective bench rotation from Kaman and the young bigs. Blake plays well enough to avoid the wrath of Portland basketball Twitter, which has reviled seemingly every Blazers’ backup point. Most importantly, the Blazers continue to have near-perfect health.
But even if everything goes as well as it can, this was a 52-win team a year ago by point-differential, so 57 wins seems like the ceiling.
The crazy good health run ends, as the Blazers regress to the mean. If Lillard or Aldridge miss significant time, they really have no adequate replacement for either who has proven capable of playing big minutes at this point. The squad goes a little colder from three-point range, and a great offensive squad regresses to merely good even when healthy. Coach Stotts proves unable to improve the defense (he has never presided over a great defense in his head-coaching career), which regresses slightly. Teams below Portland like Golden State, Memphis, Phoenix, Dallas, and New Orleans all improve, and the Blazers end up with a winning record but out of the playoffs.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Can the Blazers stay healthy enough to reach elite status in the West?
While the Blazers were able to remain largely healthy for most of last year (and more importantly, the end of the year), the Blazers have a sad history of seasons being derailed by injury. With their lack of depth, any major injury to not only their stars Lillard and Aldridge, but any of their starters could be catastrophic to their playoff chances. The Blazers proved to be one of the best teams in the West when healthy and confident last year. But with no room for error in the West, Stotts will need to manage his starter’s minutes and hope the young player are ready to contribute consistently to the team in order for them to reach the next level of the playoffs.
– Kyle Cape-Lindelin
Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”
Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.
The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.
Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.
With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.
One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.
“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”
Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.
“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”
In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.
“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”
Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.
While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.
Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.
“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”
The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.
Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.
“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”
Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.
NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.
The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.
Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.
Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.
There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.
Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.
In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.
Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.
Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.
This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?
There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.
Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.
Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.
The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.
There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.
The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.
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NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.