Early Draft Talk: Blazers Needs, Strategy & Names to Watch

With the NCAA tournament's bright lights shining on America's best college talent this week, what better time to look ahead to the Blazers' upcoming summer?  

Below, I'll briefly analyze what the Blazers roster will look like, what needs they might be looking to fill in this year's draft and which players might be worth paying a little extra attention to during this year's NCAA tournament. Consider this an early, early look.

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Roster Makeup

The Blazers return a good chunk of their roster and rotation next year which should make for a relatively quiet offseason.  Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster, Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham are all under contract for next season.  That's 11 players if you include Joel Przybilla, who we can safely assume will pick up his player option. 

That leaves just 4 players -- Marcus Camby, Travis Diener, Patty Mills and Juwan Howard -- that the team needs to make a decision on.  Of those, Diener is likely gone and Mills could go either way (although Portland seems a poor longterm fit for his skillset). Juwan Howard will try to talk himself into another year at the minimum and the Blazers will have to make a difficult decision on how much to offer Marcus Camby.

Aside from Webster, the arguments for keeping the 11 players already under contract through the summer are much stronger than the arguments for moving them.  Roy and Aldridge will be compensated handsomely and deservedly, Miller has proven over the last two months that his compensation is fair given his production, the Blazers have no choice but to bank on Oden as their starting center and Bayless, Batum, Fernandez, Cunningham and Pendergraph are all on rookie deals. Because Przybilla re-injured his knee, demand for either his skills or his contract will be significantly greater at next year's deadline so he's an unavaoidable flexibility anchor this summer.

Webster is really the only player, other than Przybilla, who is likely to play a smaller role next year than his $4.8 million salary suggests he should. Moving Webster and replacing him with a second round wing would save the team 80-90% of the salary obligation and, unless Nicolas Batum cannot stay healthy, wouldn't impact wins and losses much if at all.  When it comes to trimming roster fat, that's about the only place the Blazers can make a significant impact without significantly affecting their rotation. Given Webster's strong flashes this year, reasonable overall salary and team-first attitude a solid argument to just keep him can be made too.  A little extra depth never hurt anybody (especially the Blazers).

Draft Strategy

In terms of the assets that the Blazers bring to draft day, they are currently projected to hold the #19 pick (first round) and #41 pick (second round) , the rights to their foreign players and a single obviously tradeable piece in Martell Webster. That's not much compared to recent years.

If we start with the assumption that Diener, Mills, Camby and Howard all are not back, that would leave the Blazers with a hole at third string point guard, a need for some front court depth and, pending Camby, a glaring hole at backup center (unless you're a huge Jeff Pendergraph fan, which you probably shouldn't be). In other words, their potential draft night needs this year are looking very similar to their draft night needs last year.

Draft Express's early mock draft shows decent depth at both the 4 and 5 positions.  Given the lessons from this season, however, I think the Blazers are much more likely to address the 5 spot through free agency or trade rather than the draft.  If they don't re-sign Camby I think they will target a veteran backup center.  Weighing on that decision will be the continuing question mark that is Greg Oden.  The Blazers were comfortable playing spot minutes to Pendergraph but the roster and lineup juggling really began when Nate McMillan looked for ways to avoid playing him full time minutes.  With the addition of Camby, all of a sudden, lineup stability returned. That's no coincidence.  Any backup center the Blazers target is going to need to have the potential to step into a starting role.  That's unlikely to come from the draft.

Additionally, draft analysts seem to agree that this year's class, outside of presumptive top pick John Wall, is extremely thin at the point guard position, especially compared to last year's boon.  If you're the Blazers and you are strapped for salary cap flexibility, this likely makes you more inclined to re-sign Mills on the cheap, to import Petteri Koponen and get something out of his cap hold or to address that need through free agency at the veteran's minimum.   

So if there's a single sweet spot that covers the strengths of this year's draft class and the Blazers' needs, it is the 4 position.  With Travis Outlaw gone (and out of the Blazers' price range) and Juwan Howard aging (like a fine wine, sure, but still...), the Blazers could use one of the 17 4s that Draft Express currently has ranked in the top 30.  Those 17 names include combo 3/4s, pure 4s and combo 4/5s.  That's where the depth is in this draft and that's where the Blazers are likely to find the best value and fit given their positions in the draft order.

You can have a great argument revolving around what type of 4 the Blazers need most from the draft.  The Blazers will have Cunningham, usually seen as as a 3/4, and Pendergraph, pretty much a 4/5, coming back.  So a true, bruising 4 might make some sense.  Then again, Cunningham isn't able to provide much scoring punch off the dribble so the Blazers could be looking for an uber-athletic, change-of-pace combo 3/4 that can get his own shot.  Or, perhaps the Blazers think that Pendergraph's shot blocking and around-the-basket finishing ability make him more of a 5 than a 4.  In that case, a 4/5 that is able to defend both rangy 4s and slighter 5s might fill a hole nicely.  At this early point, I think it's fair to say that all of those possibilities remain on the table.  An extra body upfront is the clear need.

It's important to note that the Blazers are not in a position to easily develop young players going forward.  The most obvious recent example of drafting a player with the intention of developing him -- Jerryd Bayless -- occurred because the 1 spot was a relatively large question mark at that time.  That same question doesn't exist with this roster.  While I would personally be tickled to death if the Blazers used their first round pick on a guy like Texas freshman guard Avery Bradley based on his pure talent and potential, that would put Bradley in an even worse situation than Bayless was in: zero minutes in the short-term, lesser opportunity for minutes in the future and an even greater need for playing time to develop. It's hard to justify a first round contract to a player that will be put in that situation, given how limited the team's salary cap flexibility will be.  

For that reason, plus a relatively weak international class (Draft Express currently projects just three international players in the first round and none in the top 10), I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Blazers traded out of their first round slot this year.  I think the probability of them doing that this year is even higher than last year, especially with 3 Europeans already waiting in the wings.  

But if they do decide to use their first round pick on an American player, I think they'll be targeting the same thing in the first round as they will be in the early second: the power forward position. And, in particular, upperclassmen power forwards that require little development and are ready to step into a minor rotation role in the short term.  

To boil this all down, then, I would expect the Blazers to...

  • Work feverishly to re-sign Marcus Camby at a reasonable price and for a reasonable length of time.  
  • Retain Juwan Howard only if he agrees to move to the coaching staff.
  • Replace Howard in the rotation with Dante Cunningham.
  • Use the draft (ideally the second round of the draft) to find Cunningham's backup.  

That seems like the cheapest, most flexible and most forward-thinking approach to filling the bottom half of the roster given the Blazers' current projected makeup at this early date.

Click through for 6 names to watch during this year's tourney that might help fit the plan described above.

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

Names to Watch   

Here are 6 names that I'll be watching closely during this year's NCAA tournament with an eye towards the criteria described above.  

1. Damion James (Texas, Senior)

James takes the raw "I'm willing to sacrifice my life for you, coach" hustle of a Jeff Pendergraph and shrinks it down to the tweener 3/4 form.  He was briefly a hot name during last year's draft process but then returned to Texas for his senior season with the expectation that his stock would shoot up pretty considerably.  As Ford notes below, it's definitely possible James is off the board before the Blazers make a selection.  There's a lot to like about James and imagining him as part of a Terror Squad second unit is a fun mental exercise. Ford's line about improving over all 4 years should jump off the page given what we know about recent Blazers draftees. The knock on James is that he probably doesn't project to starter caliber but, obviously, the Blazers aren't looking for that.

Draft Express profile

James' biggest strength clearly revolves around how hard he plays... he runs the floor in transition, crashes the offensive glass, cuts and finishes at the rim, and just the overall toughness he offers. He is the leading rebounder in Big 12 history, averaging over 10 boards per game this season... Offensively, James appears to have improved his ability to operate off the dribble this season. While he's still not the most skilled guy you'll find, he has no problem operating comfortably off the bounce in the half-court or particularly in transition... 

Despite being knocked for most of his career for not being a very good defender, it was difficult to find much evidence of that from the tape we took in. Sporting a terrific 7-1 wingspan, a chiseled frame and standing nearly 6-8 in shoes, James has all the physical tools needed to be an excellent defender, especially when you consider his terrific toughness and aggressiveness. 

Chad Ford says...

James has improved every year in college. He is a warrior who can hurt you in just about every way now...   James is having a special season, but will he be a special NBA player? It's more likely he's a rotation guy in the Association...He's everywhere from No. 13 to the second round... Some teams are convinced he'll be an impact player; others think he's still an undersized 4.

2. Trevor Booker (Clemson, Senior)

Booker is short for a 4 but would offer the Blazers a look that they don't currently have: an athletic threat to score off the dribble. Reading through his profile you'll see a number of the keywords that mark Blazers targets: effort, toughness, etc. His poor 3 point shooting and DX's questions about his defensive awareness are worth keeping an eye on this week.

Draft Express profile

Booker is just 6'7, but he has excellent length and strength, which suggests that his transition to the next level should be smoother than expected from undersized post players. Similarly, his explosiveness and quickness in the open floor will help him overcome his lack of size at the next level... he has cut down on his turnover rate impressively, passing out of the post very well when he encounters double teams. His slow, but continued improvement throughout his four years at Clemson, combined with his toughness, suggests that he can continue to improve, though his ability to score against bigger and more athletic players at his size is still a very significant question mark. 

Though his size definitely is an obstacle that he must overcome and he must figure out how to adept accordingly in the post on both ends of the floor, players with Booker's aggressiveness and athleticism have found success at the next level, often in a huge way. 

3. Da'Sean Butler (West Virginia, Senior)

Butler is another short 3/4 scorer who can get his own shot which, as we've talked about, might complement the Blazers' current personnel.  His ability to catch and shoot, his experience handling the ball on the perimeter and the fact that he is used to a slow system are all big plusses. The big question this week: Is he too short?

Draft Express profile

The upperclassman's frame and physical attributes have been discussed at length in the past, specifically the solid size and length he possesses for his position. Given that he has undergone the gradual progression from undersized four to a perimeter player with the ability to operate against smaller players in the post, Butler has made himself an even more intriguing pro prospect in this regard. Unfortunately he remains a below average athlete...

He is at his best when he can catch and shoot, something that West Virginia utilizes a great deal by running Butler off of screens, an area he excels by hitting on 60% of all shot attempts. Certainly the ability to score with a quick release will help him at the pro level, as will his perimeter shooting... West Virginia plays at an extremely slow pace and Butler is forced to shoulder a considerable role as a shot-creator on this point-guard deprived team, something that clearly hurts his efficiency.     

4. Gani Lawal (Georgia Tech, Junior)

Like James, Lawal tested the draft waters last year but went back to school. Lawal is more of a true 4, athletic, big, long. He can rebound and defend.  Is that too much overlap with Cunningham and Pendergraph?  Maybe, maybe not.  If you haven't noticed by now, a noted work ethic goes a long way to getting on this list.

Draft Express profile

Sporting an excellent physical profile highlighted by a 7'0 wingspan, Lawal has always been lauded for his athleticism and tremendous work ethic...

His post footwork looks substantially better for example, being far more assertive these days. He's still not adept at making counter moves on the block and loses control when he tries to do something overly complicated, but his ability to create space for his turnaround jumper has improved considerably.
...
Away from the block, Lawal remains limited.    

Chad Ford says...

Lawal has had a good year. But when you're playing next to an elite lottery prospect sometimes the comparisons don't come out as favorable -- especially when you take away touches that scouts wanted to see Derrick Favors get. If Lawal can make the tournament and show scouts he is willing and able to sacrifice stats for wins, he's still got a shot at the first round.

5. Kyle Singler (Duke, Junior)

While Singler might be a stretch for Kevin Pelton and the Indiana Pacers at the #3 spot overall, he typifies the "we know exactly what we are getting" type of value that smart teams look for in the second round.  His NBA ceiling isn't sky high but he's smart, can shoot it much better than he's shown this year and will play hard every possession regardless of how much playing time he is given.  It's relatively easy to imagine Singler stretching a defense by sticking the corner three and the step-in 18 footer or playing actively in one of Portland's zone defense looks.  His lack of elite athleticism is perhaps less of a concern in a slow down style. Singler was definitely raised in a household that embodied Kevin Pritchard's Culture.

Draft Express profile

At 6'8, Singler still has good size for a stretch-forward... he lacks great length and explosiveness, which will not ease his transition into the next level.
...
His uncharacteristically bad shooting percentages are curious considering his fluid mechanics and quick release. Even though he does not get a tremendous amount of elevation, his size and fundamentals should allow him to be a more reliable threat from beyond the arc.

6. Quincy Pondexter (Washington, Senior)

As part of a prearranged deal with KP2, I was able to make my 7th Singler-to-the-Pacers joke this week as long as I included his Dawg Q. on this list.  Pondexter hits many of the same attributes we've already discussed: improved over a 4 year career, solid athleticism, good defense and some offensive versatility.  Like some of the others, he's on the short side.

Draft Express Profile

In another league athletically, as well, with excellent explosiveness and mobility...

On the offensive end, Pondexter has improved across the board, starting to look much more comfortable with his role and dominating all over the floor...

Defense reigns supreme, however, when considering Pondexter's NBA future. He has the ability to defend inside and outside, with lateral quickness that allows him to stay in front of guards and wings and suffocating length that helps him compensate for his lack of height in the post. His effort and focus-level has increased significantly this season...

Chad Ford says...

Pondexter is one of the most improved players in the country. He has elite athletic ability, but scouts always questioned whether he was a basketball player. This season he's proven to be more than just a high jumper. He is tough, plays hard and excels slashing to the basket... He's still working on his jump shot. He doesn't have a great handle. His shot selection is still pretty questionable....

His toughness, energy and explosiveness all should translate in the pros. He could be the second coming of Desmond Mason.

There are also a bunch of names that fit the general criteria described above that won't be appearing in this year's NCAA tourney. Those names include Larry Sanders fom VCU and Deon Thompson from UNC.  I would expect to see them and others come through Portland for workouts this year. 

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