What's Up With Luke Babbitt?

Last week, the Portland Trail Blazers assigned rookie forward Luke Babbitt to their D-League affiliate, the Idaho Stampede. Babbitt, who left college after two seasons at Nevada, was taken with the team's first pick in the 2010 draft and projected to be a bit contributor at both forward positions during his rookie year.

Unfortunately for Babbitt, the highlight of his rookie season has been killing the Dougie at Fan Fest.  Issues with his confidence, which first surfaced during Summer League in Las Vegas, derailed his chance at earning real playing to start the season, and he was moved to the inactive list to make room for fully rehabilitated center Joel Przybilla earlier this month.

Back in July, you might remember that Portland's Assistant Director of Scouting / Salary Cap Analyst Joe Cronin schooled us on each of Portland's major Summer League contributors.  On Wednesday night, Cronin explained that he was dispatched to Idaho by Blazers GM Rich Cho to accompany Babbitt during the first week of his D-League stint. 

"From the get go, as soon as Rich got here, one of his big points of emphasis was player development," Cronin said. "As soon as we decided to send Luke to Idaho, Rich said, 'Well, Joe, I want you to go with him.' I was there with Luke the whole first week, just spending time with him, talking to him, being there for him, but also working with him [in the gym]. We have our hands on these [young] guys like crazy, to help channel all these things so we can optimize these guys as players."

Cronin said Cho's player development plan for Babbitt has extended to other members of the organization as well. "The support that we're giving Luke is not just from myself. [Assistant GM] Bill Branch went to one of his games. [Director of Pro Scouting] Mike Born went to a different game. [Player Development Director] Hersey Hawkins is down with Luke right now."

So is all that touching and feeling off the court paying dividends with Babbitt's game?

Through three games, Babbitt is averaging 19.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in 26.7 minutes, shooting 43.2% from the floor. Cronin said he is seeing progress in a number of aspects of Babbitt's game, but says the main focus throughout this D-League stint has been, as you might expect, confidence-building. Cronin pointed to questions about Babbitt's position (he played four in college, but is probably a three in the NBA), the natural adjustment process to the NBA's speed and skill level, and Babbitt's team-first mentality as contributing factors to his wavering confidence throughout the fall.

"I wouldn't say he had less confidence than any other rookie or player his age," Cronin said. "I think him being passive was a normal expectation that we had. We thought that he would, just as we thought Armon [Johnson] would or Elliot [Williams] would, or [Jerryd] Bayless before that. There is shellshock for all of these young guys to come in and play against players at this level, how talented these players are.

"With Luke, he's a good team guy, he just wanted to fit in. At times, [Babbitt thought], 'Well I need to lay down for the vets. I need to just work the ball, I need to not go get my own shot, I need to just fit in. Be a part of the system and not break any of the plays or anything like that.' I think he's learning at our level that this is what you do. We need you to go get your offense. We need you to be assertive and look for your shots."

So far during his time in Idaho, Cronin says Babbitt has been "a lot more assertive than we've seen him be." He said the Stampede are giving Babbitt time at both forward positions, with a special emphasis on getting him the ball in the high post, a spot that he was quite effective from in spurts during the preseason. "We want to see him take advantage of those mismatched four opportunities. When he can take a big guy out to the perimeter and break him down off the dribble. See him in a little pick and roll where some of these bigger defenders will have trouble staying in front of him. You're still seeing a lot of his high post, top of the key, isolation stuff. That's great, because that's where he thrives. He's a tough cover in that midrange area. They are putting him in his good spots, seeing him post a little bit, seeing him step out. We're seeing Luke's whole arsenal."

Given his gym rat reputation and competitive personality, there were never any question about how Babbitt would handle what some players might view as a demotion, a slight or a punishment. "We were thrilled with his attitude and still are, obviously. He came in and he just wanted to play. He knew this was a terrific opportunity to get down there, get some minutes, get up and down [the court], to work on some of the things he needs to work on. Right away from the moment we discussed sending him down, he completely embraced it and he's just been terrific. The whole first week, he was ready to go, wanted to play, wanted to get into the gym and work, he just sees it as an opportunity and he's taking advantage of it. Some guys see it as a demotion but Luke didn't look at it like that at all." 

The D-League is a far cry from the NBA quality of play, its pace is much faster and there are a lot of score-only guards looking to get signed. "It's a tough league because there are a lot of guys who could potentially have their own agendas, because all these guys are trying to get to the next level," Cronin admitted. "With Luke, he came in with such a good mentality, let's win some ballgames, let's get some playing time. He wasn't worried about his shots or his position, he just wanted to play and help. It was a treat to be around Luke, to spend that time with him, to see his attitude, to see that he gets it." 

The plan for the rest of Babbitt's year hinges on the health of his Blazers teammates. More than likely, he will bounce back and forth between Portland and Idaho, to ensure that he gets practice time with his NBA teammates but also continues to get floor time in the D-League. 

And, yes, Babbitt has been learning a thing or two from a certain veteran teammate, former NBA all star Antoine Walker, who is attempting an NBA comeback and was assigned to the Stampede last month. "Antoine was guiding him, teaching him some tricks of the trade," Cronin said. "Someone like Antoine who has been through it all on the floor, I think you can learn a lot from a guy like that. I think it's good that Luke can wrack his brain, because their games are somewhat similar, they are skilled big men."

The NBA can be crazy like that. One day, you're shaking commissioner David Stern's hand after being traded for Martell Webster. The next, you're in an Idaho gym, learning old man game from the shimmy shake king.  

Back in Portland now, Cronin reflected on what's next for Babbitt, a player whose NBA future could go a number of directions. "Skill-wise, he is very talented. He just has to put it all together. I think that sometimes he doesn't even know what he's capable of yet, and this is why being down in the D-League is such a good opportunity to work on these things and learn his game. Morph into what he is capable of becoming." 

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com

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