Now My Whole Team Here

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For a draft that had been billed in the lead-up as one of the worst of the past decade as the Cleveland Cavaliers had spent the last few weeks trying to re-gift the #1 pick around the league like a tacky set of novelty picture frames, Thursday night was surprisingly interesting. The Cavs eschewed the conventional wisdom of drafting the skinny, offensive-challenged center from Kentucky coming off a season-ending knee injury, instead doubling down on their investment in Canada (Tristan Thompson is also from the Great White North) by shocking Bill Simmons with the selection of Anthony Bennett, the outstanding forward from UNLV with a picturesque offensive game and a statuesque defensive game. David Stern, in his last draft as commissioner, had his snark-meter dialed up to 11 as he nearly goaded the crowd at the Barclay’s Center into throwing batteries, bags of urine, and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the podium. Even while the suits were somewhat tame by NBA Draft standards, 16th pick Lucas Nogueira’s hair opened up at least 17 Tumblr pages with its performance last night. But while the popularity of the event that led to the 2.6 Nielsen rating last night – the highest of any draft since Darko’s (and LeBron and Carmelo and Bosh and Wade’s) 2003 class – may come from the carnival, somewhere underneath Nogueira’s solar-eclipting afro is the real power of the draft, the opportunity for fans to glimpse the garrishly suited image in which their team’s front office would like to build the future. For Portland fans, this draft revealed the outline for how Neil Olshey and the Vulcanites wish to rebuild (again…) the Trail Blazers.

For a team that had virtually no bench at all last season, the Blazers’ need for a contributor right away superceded any positional need. So with trade rumors abounding for the last few weeks and many Blazer fans clamoring for a center, either a draft pick or a veteran, the pick seemed to have infinite possibility, even up until the time when David Stern announced the selection. Speaking for myself, I spent those last few minutes in a state of terror, both from the worrying prospect of Steven Adams or Kelly Olynyk and nearly being struck by an automobile while staring at my phone as I walked home through downtown Seattle, constantly refreshing Twitter. Then, Stern read the name of C.J. McCollum from Lehigh and a great relief settled over me. McCollum’s game tapes, interviews, and legendary performance to upset Duke in 2011, all suggest a very intelligent, competitive, and well-prepared player who will get everything he can out of his ability at the next level – a sort of basketball Russell Wilson for you fans of the tackle football. Although he has a similar game to that of Damian Lillard, their existing relationship and their versatility should allow them to work together well as a kind of smarter, savvier version of the Steph Curry-Monta Ellis tandem in Golden State a couple years back (h/t Jack Ward), so long as they both improve defensively to make up for their lack of size. Worst case, the Blazers have a solid rotation guard to bolster the bench, and best case, the Blazers have a dynamic guard pairing to anchor the franchise for the next 10 years in a guard dominated league – not bad for the 10th pick in an allegedly weak draft.

In the second round, the Blazers may have found similar value with Allen Crabbe from California and Jeff Withey from Kansas. At 6’6’’ Crabbe has good length for a wing defender which, combined with his elite spot-up shooting ability, gives him key tools to stick in the league at his position if he can find a motor somewhere in there, or if Paul Allen can just fly up Cal coach Mike Montgomery once a week to hit Crabbe in the chest. With Withey (seewutididthere?), Portland might have found the best value for his position in the entire draft. Why Withey, who only set the all-time Big-12 career blocks record and was named Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year for his role in anchoring the defense of one of the nation’s best teams last year, was somehow rated below Steven Adams’s 7 points and 6 rebounds per game at Pitt, or Rudy Gobert’s 8-foot arms, or Mason Plumlee’s everything except that one reverse tip-dunk, is beyond me.

Withey was knocked for being a limited offensive player but he averaged nearly 14 points per game and had the highest TS% (true shooting percentage) in the entire draft. Also, Withey’s perceived lack of lower body strength was a concern but he can’t be any weaker than Gobert, who’s body grades out closer to a used-car lot Wind Dancer than an NBA center. Sure, Steven Adams is big and strong and athletic but like Gobert, he hasn’t yet shown that he can play basketball at even a moderately high level, so there’s that. Whatever, when Withey is a defensive stalwart in the next few years while Steven Adams is still exploring the mechanics of a jump hook with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Rudy Gobert is out of basketball and exploring the feasibility of human winged flight, I won’t be mad. (ed. note: This is a transparent shot at my deep, abiding love for Rudy Gobert, who will not be “out of” basketball in a few seasons unless “out of” means “above” or “transcendent” in the way of an out of body experience.) The Blazers then rounded out their draft with Arizona’s Grant Jerrett, who was promptly sold to Oklahoma City, and Marko Todorovic, a 21-year old center from Croatia by way of Catalunya who will stay stashed overseas only to one day dazzle in Las Vegas Summer League before disappearing forever like the legend of Petteri “the Finnish Steve Nash” Koponen. 

With McCollum, Crabbe, and Withey, the Blazers have a nice haul of players who should be able to contribute this season. For a team that probably would have competed to the wire for a playoff spot last year had they had any contributors coming off the bench, that bench should be stronger this year and the playoffs seem like a reasonable goal. The team even filled some positional needs with a second guard, another wing, and a defensive big man, even if it may seem to some that the front office discounted the need for a center by waiting until the second round. The jewel of the class though undoubtedly appears to be McCollum, a potential star who can build a partnership with Lillard in a backcourt that hopefully will become the engine for a faster paced dynamic style of basketball – Olshey said as much to the Portland press after the draft anyway. At least, that’s how it all looks for now. This draft might have just turned out to be Paul Allen stockpiling more assets to trade for Marcin Gortat. After all, zany possibilities are the fun of the draft. Speaking of which, I heard the Celtics sold their whole team to some Russian dude in Brooklyn. I’m not sure if that was real though, I couldn’t really see around Lucas Nogueira’s hair.

Most Known Unknown

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Damian Lillard might be another defensively deficient, single-minded scorer, too small to play shooting guard and too self-reliant to run the point. He might be Steve Francis or Kyrie Irving or Dave Bing or any of the perceptions of Damon Stoudamire. In the darker havens of Internet alchemy, where things like Win Shares tend to play fast and loose with the laws of physics, Lillard can even start to look like Tyreke Evans or Chuck Person or Derrick Coleman. Lillard might be the new savior or the ambitious upstart who managed to seize power in the post-Roy wasteland or maybe just something in between. Approaching the end of his first calendar year as a Portland Trail Blazer, the young guard has shown evident game, but it’s his mystery and game yet to be realized that allow for such variety of perception and led to the environment of discovery that made his first season in Portland so exciting. 

The fan experience of truly discovering an unknown young player has become endangered in the modern NBA. Of the 12 other lottery picks in Lillard’s 2012 class, 11 came from major conference schools with Final Four appearances in the past decade – 10 from schools with national championships in that same time period. The top two picks came from the then-reigning national champion and even the quasi-outlier from a school without a Final Four appearance, Terrence Ross, had just won the PAC-12 regular season championship at the University of Washington. All of these players entered the professional ranks as blue-chippers with long pedigrees that had been in the machine for a long time. In high school, they had Sonny Vaccaro-spawn basketball tastemakers to build their hype as they each introduced themselves via YouTube videos, corporate-sponsored AAU teams, and the high school all-star game circuit. Then in great ceremony, they selected the college to be blessed by their brief presence, where under the panoptic eye of CBS, their identities took shape in the theater of Gus Johnson’s shouting, Dick Vitale’s less coherent shouting, and the ethereal presence of Ashley Judd. By the time they even put on a Las Vegas Summer League uniform, let alone the 190-gram polyester of an NBA game uniform, they had already been cast in their characters and the only mystery that remained was how closely their success would follow the expectation of their narrative. All except Damian Lillard, that is.

The 6’3’’ guard came to Portland straight from oblivion, by way of East Oakland and the Big Sky conference. Interestingly, Lillard immediately chose to underscore the importance of those places in his mysterious narrative by picking the #0 jersey to signify Oakland, Ogden (Utah, where he was a 4-year player at Weber State), and Oregon. Yet to the observer, nothing in his background seemed to reveal any deep insights into his identity as a player. Oakland has produced greats like Jason Kidd and Gary Payton, among others (Leon Powe!), but The Town doesn’t have a pervasive basketball stereotype like that of the slick point guard from New York City who grew up on the black top or the Indiana shooter who grew up in a Norman Rockwell painting. Rather, Lillard’s hometown only suggested the sort of general toughness ascribed to any player with a forged-in-the-ghetto back story along with a likely affinity for the music of Mistah F.A.B. et al. That Lillard played four years toiling in the very un-Mistah-F.A.B.-ulous town of Ogden, Utah, after being an under recruited prep coming out of Oakland High School (alma mater of Jack London!) presumably put a proverbial chip on his shoulder, but shoulder chips can come in all shapes and sizes. At their extremities, they can create focused incentive (Jordan) or total destruction (Iverson). Lillard’s place within that spectrum, as with all players, would probably dictate his capacity for development and thus ultimately define his career, so without any other clues, his choice of jersey number carried greater importance. His first act as a Trail Blazer, while trivial in the greater happenings of the universe,  appeared to indicate an underdog mentality grounded in a sense of loyalty and a humble appreciation for the external forces that had allowed the opportunity to him succeed. Of course, all kinds of romantic theories are possible when the unknown has yet to even lace up its player-edition Adizeros.

The rumors began filtering out of the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas last July. Those at Summer League, or watching NBATV, or streaming on websites of questionable legality told of the 6’3’’ rookie for Portland who looked ready for the league. Hope started to resemble reality, or at least the alternate reality where Petteri Koponen was a star and Nate Robinson has his jersey retired. Then on Halloween night, when Lillard stepped into the Rose Garden for his first meaninful game in front of his new home fans and hung 23 points and 11 assists on the Lakers, that same hope burst into true regular-season reality. Those first few weeks became the most exciting part of the season. Like Lewis and Clark beyond the Missouri River or Flynn finding the Isomorphic Algorithms in The Grid, discovery became a constant occurrence. With every crossover blow-by, explosion to the rim, or deep jumper that punished all ye who doth voyage beneath hither ball screen, text messages rippled outward towards friends and family, filled with hyperbole normally reserved for Mike Rice. Not that Lillard was doing things that hadn’t been done, or a budding superstar, or even the best player on his own team as LaMarcus kept doing that 21 and 9 thing that he does, but getting a $100 out of the ATM is a different experience than finding $20 on the ground for five straight days – dig it? The excitement and wonder of watching an unknown player take shape and find immediate success in the crucible of the Association highlighted an otherwise forgettable season of Trail Blazer basketball. Even though seasons that don’t end with the trophy named Larry O’Brien are supposed to be irrelevant, Lillard’s Rookie of the Year trophy mattered because it legitimized that collective experience as something worth remembering and something worth celebrating.

After the excitement and celebration waned, the inactivity of the off-season became, as always, a time for fans to dissect perceived flaws and dwell on festering fears. At first, the negativity centered around a lack of efficiency, that Lillard was too old to develop further, and his troubling defense. Then, two guys got smacked up in Old Town and Lillard’s name popped up in a headline with “altercation” and “entourage,” and a certain sect of Trail Blazer fans took to comments sections all too eager to dredge up names from the not so distant past like J.R. Rider, Qyntel Woods, Zach Randolph, and Z-Bo’s infamous “Hoop Family”. Never mind that the details of the incident were sketchy and that the police had cleared Lillard’s name almost immediately, fear finds what it needs to sustain and Lillard briefly became a victim of his own mystery. The lack of prior perception that made the discovery during the season so much fun now allowed scared minds to race towards whatever hyperbole they wanted to see. Yet any insight from the already largely forgotten incident reflected more onto Portland than onto Lillard, and deservedly so. There’s a special place in irony hell for self-righteous and hypocritical morality standards imposed on basketball players by a homogenous city that sees itself as the vanguard of progressivism. Altercations at 2AM outside bars are unfortunately not irregular, and plenty of good things do happen to people after midnight, just not to Cinderella.

His flaws as a player seem clear enough now: defense, playmaking, consistent jumper; so whether Lillard’s first year in Portland was the brief blessing of a fairy godmother or the foundation of a long career will depend entirely on his development, which gets back to the mysterious nature of that chip on his shoulder. In an interview with SLAM Online that ran in late May, Lillard emphasized team defensive improvement starting with his own play, but followed that with a subtle callout of his teammates in pointing to a need as a team to play with more desire and energy. As with everything else here, the meaning of the comment could vary based on the biases brought by the reader. Look for an arrogant young player questioning his teammates in the media and there it is. But contextualized with the limited identity of Lillard thus far as a tough, humble player who’s spent his basketball life climbing out of oblivion and the comment reads more like the honest opinion of a player self-reliant enough to be unafraid of outside perception, self-aware enough to acknowledge his own responsibility, and with enough humility to understand that he needs the strength of his teammates in order to collectively take the next step as a team. At least, that’s one optimistic perspective afforded by the unknown. Whatever the case though, he really does need to get better at defense.

Draft Panel: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

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Draft time produces several of the most time-honored and enjoyable of sport rites for lottery teams: know-nothing analysis, flights of fancy, and wish fulfillment bolstered by statistical claims almost nobody has the energy to fact check. Except on the Internet! Where we bring you the most rigorous analysis, poring over tables, charts, and video to totally eliminate any uncertainty from the process wherein old guys look at young guys, say weird stuff about their butts (center of gravity) and arms (wingspan), and decide if they will be good professional basketball players in a decade.

At PRS, we’re elevating this process even further. We’re combining the considered expertise of four writers to analyze a series of prospects the Blazers might be considering at the tenth pick. Our first topic: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, of the University of Georgia. One of the strongest Kentavii to come out of D1 hoops in some years, Caldwell-Pope has been floated as the possible shooter/explosive wing scorer the Blazers might incorporate into their long-term plans.

And so, without further ado, here are our thoughts on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, potential 10th pick in the 2013 draft:

Danny Nowell: Blazers fans are prone to reading individual players through archetypes; the long search for a Point Guard of the Future finally ended in Damian Lillard, the specter of the injured big man looms over the franchise’s every development decision, and ball-dominant shooting guards like Clyde Drexler and Brandon Roy round out a sort of trinity of holy player types in Portland’s history. With a sort-of awkward pick in a back-loaded draft, the Blazers are in a decent position to take a swing and find their archetypal 2 guard to pair with Damian Lillard. If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope falls to the tenth pick, I figure he’s the best bet in his draft range to blossom into stardom.

Caveats: As I will repeat often, I don’t think the Blazers are going to keep the 10th pick. It’s an ungainly spot to be picking in this draft, and perhaps more valuable as an asset to a team that has a few holes, a moderate amount of money, and a GM with a reputation as an able facilitator for surprising deals. Further, there are some holes in Caldwell-Pope’s game that suggest he might not pan out at all: he, uh, sort of can’t dribble, and he spends most of his time chucking jumpers. Still, he’s only 20, a prototypical athlete for the off-guard spot, and a decent bet to be a defensive mainstay. If he’s there, and the Blazers are still picking, I would be excited to watch his development in Portland.

Joe Swide: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is 6’6”, an explosive athlete, lockdown perimeter defender, aggressive help defender, devastating shot blocker in transition, tough rebounder, reliable three-point shooter, and ferocious dunker. These are not opinions. These are facts. Watch the scouting report video up top from the folks at Draft Express and see for yourself.

Every runout ends in a violent act of fury as though he’s dunking over an army of rim protectors that only he can see, made up of Patrick Ewing clones and Robeasts from the Planet Doom. He treats the rim like it wronged him, like it just ran over his dog, burned his Deion Sanders Falcons jersey, and told him that OutKast didn’t really come into their own as artists until the second half of the Speakerboxx/The Love Below record (editor’s note: Joe would like you to know he has a passing understanding of Georgia icons).

Opportunities in the half court are met with equal vigor as weakside help defenders become stains on the floorboards. By the way, dunking might not even be the strength of his game. He’s an absolute padlock as an on-ball perimeter defender. As a help defender, he plays the passing lanes and rotates aggressively to create turnovers, always thirsting for more runouts to fuel his existence. In the event that someone on the opposition might actually get a shot up at the rim, he’s a rugged rebounder in traffic who seems to leave a crater of fallen forwards around him as he snatches another board and wheels around to throw an outlet that might lead to, yes, another runout. Oh, and when tracking back on transition, he tends to favor beating would-be layups off of the glass, baseline cameramen, or back off the heads of unsuspecting guards. KCP leaves a lot of destruction and strewn bodies in his wake.

But more than just another Gerald Wallace high-motor defender and athlete, KCP has developed a fairly prolific three-point game. With his good elevation, high-release, and ability to shoot off of the dribble or in a catch-and-shoot situation when running off of screens, he can get his shot just about whenever he wants and his range seems to be anywhere between 20-30 feet. So yeah, at worst he’s another Ironman Jimmy Butler and at best he’s a more violent Paul George.

As far as negatives, I think I heard something about his shortcomings as a ball handler and midrange player. Also, maybe he doesn’t smooth his socks in the way that Mr. Wooden recommended to prevent blistering; I really couldn’t tell you. I didn’t stick around for that part of the video. Instead, I went back to the beginning to watch him dunk some more.

Grady O’Brien: Portland had two glaring weaknesses this year: bench production and interior defense. The Blazers clearly aren’t getting the premier rim protector of the draft, Nerlens Noel. That being said, I think they should look to address the depth problem. Basically, I think anybody who has an immediate translatable skill and could conceivably handle minutes off the bench right away is the priority. Project centers or guys with huge upside might work in other drafts, but if this one is as weak as pundits describe, then the Blazers might as well grab a safe, immediate-yield option. 

Caldwell-Pope just might be that guy. He is young, only 20, but seems to possess a refined skill in his scoring as primarily a jump shooter. He had excellent raw scoring numbers and decent efficiency in his sophomore season (19.6 points per 36 and 58.6 true shooting). He shot 37.3 percent from 3 and over half of his shots came from deep. Basically, he could probably work as a spot up guy while Lillard or Maynor (or even Batum) facilitates the offense. Looking at videos, the stroke appears good. Additionally, he’s big (around 6’6”) and gets solid lift. 

There’s also some good future indicators for Caldwell-Pope. His defensive potential is high with great speed and agility numbers at the combine and definite ability to get steals by jumping passing lanes. His arm measurements aren’t cartoonish like some of the other guys, but there are a lot of tools there. Add in that he put up solid rebounding numbers in college (7.5 per 36 minutes sophomore year) and he might be able to add more than just catch-and-shoot floor spacing. 

Like any prospect, there are causes for hesitation. In his Draft Express video, they chose to highlight some bad decision making and some of the stuff was egregious. Like, get you benched in the big leagues bad. However, he was basically the only option on a not so great team (he also used a ton of possessions), so mistakes are bound to happen. He also is very prone to pulling up on jumpers no matter the situation. Again, if he’s mostly spotting up next year, this won’t be a problem, but hopefully in time he can learn to improve his handle and be more aggressive. 

Looking at various mock drafts around the internet, I think Portland would be happy to land Caldwell-Pope and throw him into immediate use in the rotation. 

Sunny Ahluwalia: If the Blazers end up keeping the 10th overall pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could be a nice fit, and his athleticism and jumper are easily the biggest selling points.

From the clips I’ve seen, KCP has clean mechanics on his shot, doesn’t need a lot of space to get it off and already looks comfortable shooting off-screens, off the dribble and off the catch. Those are NBA-ready skills and when you combine that with his athleticism and the pride he seems to take in his defense, KCP has something the Blazers value greatly in this draft: the ability contribute from day one

On the negative side of things, jumpers accounted for an alarming 73.7% of all the shots that he took.

That’s three out of every four shots he put up, and to say he settled for jumpers looks to be an understatement. The highlights and clips show an interesting combination of confidence and hesitation, which sometimes ends in unnecessary pump-fakes leading to an even more contested shot. His reluctance to put the ball on the floor also seems to lead to some head-scratching shot selection, especially considering time and score in some of the clips.

Another issue is where KCP fits into the rotation. Depending on how the Blazers roster shakes out, Caldwell-Pope could either be a great piece off the bench and potentially a starting SG in-waiting, or he could join interesting but flawed mix of bench players (Victor Claver, Elliot Williams, Will Barton, Eric Maynor) who are scrapping for very few wing and backcourt minutes.