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For a team that had virtually no bench at all last season, the Blazers’ need for a contributor right away superceded any positional need.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.