Talking Prospects With Mike Born

mike born

The plan was to take a day off this week and it just happened to coincide with an off day for Dave as well.  Our goal was to not leave you empty-handed in our absence. So here we are.  

The following is a transcript of a very long conversation I had with Blazers Head of NBA Scouting Mike Born on Wednesday afternoon.  The idea here is pretty simple: a brain dump from one of the men tasked with evaluating and selecting future Trail Blazers.  You've heard from Dave and I about Armon Johnson, for example, but what are the scouts seeing here in Las Vegas?  Have there been any surprises or disappointments this week given how much he's watched these guys play in the past and how familiar he is with their games and development? What's up with Elliot Williams? Where's Luke Babbitt's head at?

I've left the transcript pretty much unedited so you can continue to get a sense for how Born talks and responds to questions.  Going back through this after typing it I think his glass-is-half-full personality comes through really clearly.

Click through for the full transcript.  Buckle up and grab a sandwich because it's a long one. I hope you enjoy.

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

Questions are paraphrased and bolded.  Mike Born's answers are in blockquote.

You guys had a scrimmage against the Washington Wizards today.  How did it go and what's your take on John Wall?

John Wall is going to be a big time player. Seeing in him in the games I've seen, he's got big time talent, speed, size quickness. I think his shooting and decision-making is going to take some time to be really, really at a high level but he's a point guard that can score, he wants the ball in the big moments and he can make plays. He likes being in that situation.  When you combine all those other things with the fact that he likes playing with the game on the line, the fact that he's young, a point guard with size, he has a chance to be a really, really special player.

There are so many superlatives used to describe Wall.  What's the context for those?  Is he a once in a year player? A once in five years player?

He's a one year college player. He is to me one of those kids -- and I think part of it is that the point guard position is a hard position to find -- because of that I think that makes him even more important. Instead of saying he's a guy that comes along every once or two years, I think he could be similar to a Derrick Rose type of player. I think he has a chance of being one of the best point guards in our league. In the next 2 or 3 years I think he's going to be in that discussion. I think there are some high level guys with Chris (Paul) and Deron (Williams) and Tony Parker, there are some guys that still have a lot of career left in them. In the next 4 to 5 years he's going to be in that discussion if not sooner. 

How did Armon Johnson fare against Wall?

He actually did pretty well, he did. I think what Armon and what all of our guys do, it's been great to see the progression that he's made from our very first practice. Him and Luke and those guys were coming in where they're rookies, one's a junior, one's a sophomore. They don't come in with quite the seasoning that say Jeff or Dante did because they're just not four year guys.

With Armon coming in, I thought initially, and I didn't see the first couple of practices because I was in Orlando, but I think he came in and started off pretty good. Our coaches don't have a great feel for him so they're a little bit unsure of what he's going to be. Even for us, we know what we think he could be but until you see him do it against guys in Summer League practice and guys in Summer League you don't know for sure. I think he's definitely made good progress from each practice to where he got to the games, I think each game he's done really nice things. I thought today he did some really good things.

What we saw in him as a player we're continuing to see grow for him. We liked his size, we liked his athleticism, he's got good length, he's tough. He guards. Offensively he can run a team, he's going to have to continue to do a good job. At Nevada he scored 14 or 15 points a game, he did pretty well on assists and rebounds. Just finding that balance of how do I run my team and also not be a liability on offense. I don't think he's going to be a liability on offense but it's that fine line of trying to figure out how can I run this team and also be a capable scorer, because he's definitely a capable scorer.

Kaleb Canales talked about finding that balance before Summer League too.  On Tuesday I thought he might not have totally aced that test but he was doing a pretty good job.  People were getting very excited. 

I agree with you. I thought today he did a good job too. He was playing against John, John was pressing up on him. He handled his pressure and got to where he needed to get to.

One of the things that I know that I've liked in seeing him play is that he's got a good pace to his game. He does a good job in the pick and roll where he makes pretty good reads already, which is good. So he looks comfortable playing in the pick and roll. Sometimes with college kids they're not playing any pick and roll offense nearly as much as they will be with us. You get to see it, you get a feel for a guy. But if he's doing it five times a game or 10 times a game versus 30 or 40 or 50 times a game that can be a smaller sample size and you don't have a great feel.  

Just his pace is good. He's been patient, he's been poised when he's been in the pick and roll. He's done a good job you saw it last night. He's had a couple times each game where he's splitting the pick and roll, he looks comfortable with the ball in traffic, getting to a mid-range game. 

You mentioned getting comfortable.  Last night he didn't seem to get totally stuck too often without his dribble. If he drives he gets to the hoop or he passes out of it before he gets lost.

He gets into trouble a couple of times a game -- there's times where he's thinking he has something and all of a sudden he doesn't. But then he makes the basic pass and then goes back and gets the ball. I think any young player is going to have that. Shoot, guys who have been in the league might have that a couple of times a game.  

Defensively I can't remember a young guy like this in Portland at that position in a long time.

His energy on defense has been good. He's pressing up on people. When you're watching him, you can watch him play and how he's been playing in Summer League, you can see how a lot of those things will transfer to an NBA floor. He is up pressing on people as they are taking the ball out of bounds, or he's over halfcourt pressing up. His defensive energy, he's not quitting on plays, he's getting screened and he's still coming, or if a guy beats him, he'll run with him, he'll eventually get back in front of him.

On the defensive end he's doing those things and offensively if you're putting him out there as a backup or third point guard, he's doing a good job of running the team, pushing the ball, finding other people, he's out there knowing that he can score too and if they are going to play off of him we want him to be aggressive, we want him to attack, get in there and score or find people. If he's getting in there trying to score, he's big and athletic enough that people are going to come and help and now you get guys on the backside to get offensive rebounds.

After seeing him for a couple of practices and two Summer League games and a scrimmage, he's done a nice job with where he's at. He's got to get a lot better but we've been pleased with what we've seen so far.

I wrote earlier that his strength going to the basket was a surprise to me.  Some Nevada fans said that shouldn't have come as a surprise even now that he's advanced up a level.  Have you been surprised by his ability to overpower people going to the basket?

He was terrific at getting to the basket in college. Once he gets in there, especially if he has any sort of space, he's going to finish. He's a good athlete, he has good bounce, he can get to the rim, he's left-handed which is sort of different for some people. He's been good making shots in the mid-range. I think the one thing for me that I've really liked that I've seen from him is that he's really done a good job of handling the ball in a lot of pick and roll stuff and just making good decisions out of that. Because you're not seeing it a ton coming from Nevada. Just his poise and his patience and his pace have been pretty good so far. That's the one thing for me that I've definitely liked that would be sort of a surprise.

Hey, out of curiosity, did his workout in Portland have anything to do with the timing of that trade with Golden State?  I thought it was a funny coincidence it went down so shortly after you guys met with him after that workout. Was that a coincidence?

That had nothing to do with it. We were doing the trade for Golden State regardless of whether he was in our building or not. It was unrelated. I think that was our last workout too. Looking back on it, we definitely liked him and definitely knew prior to going in that he was going to be a guy whether we were at 34 or 44 we knew he was going to be a guy who was potentially going to be in the discussion. We're excited to have him, hopefully he can just keep getting better.

Now there's this developing storyline that it's Johnson versus Patty Mills for that third point guard spot.  Am I rushing to judgment if I conclude this is Johnson's spot to lose because his skills seem to fit better than what Mills brings to the table?  I can see why you guys would like Mills but maybe not love him as a fit.

It's not like we've had a great chance to really evaluate him. He spent some time in the D-League, we watched him practice, where you see the things he's capable of doing, the spot minutes that he played for us. That's hard because he's playing at the end of the game, 3 or 4 minutes here, maybe 6 minutes there, he doesn't play for 3 weeks and then he's put in the game, him coming from, he just came from the Australian national team, he's in good shape, he's got a good rhythm, you can tell he feels comfortable with the ball, how he's handling it, how he's shooting it.

His confidence is probably at a better place than it was back when he was playing with us. He's getting comfortable with his foot. We're definitely trying to use this as a tool here to evaluate both of those guys but it's still early. They've played two Summer League guys. We like what we've seen from Armon but we also know he's played two Summer League games and he's got a long ways to go. We want to let things play out with the next three games in Summer League, when both of those guys are coming in and battling for a spot just like the rest of the guys are.

Is there some truth to the idea that Paul Allen is a real big Patty Mills fan?

You know Paul, he likes all of our guys. He definitely likes all of our players. He definitely likes Patty but he does like all of our guys, he's constantly in touch with us about how guys are playing in Summer League. He's watching our Summer League practices. 

I bet your communication with Paul Allen has really increased in the last few weeks.  As outsiders we hear stories about his interest in the team and players.  What have been your impressions?

In terms of the relationship with Paul, I think Kevin and Paul obviously had a lot of exchanges that myself and Chad weren't involved in. But we also were involved in enough of it, some of it, to know how Paul will like to dialogue with you about players. And he does. He comes into the draft and he studies these players and some he likes better than other players, just like anybody else does.

If there's certain guys in a draft that he likes, he might like one guy more than another and there might be some guys that we can't draft that somebody else takes and he's like, "oh man, I wish we could have gotten him because I think he's going to be a really good player."

I think part of it is that Paul is interested in the game of basketball and he likes watching basketball players. Of course he likes to know what we think and there might be sometimes when he might be watching the game where he still wants to have dialogue with us via email, "What are you guys seeing? Are you liking the progress? How did such and such play in the game or scrimmage today?" We're always trying to keep him in the loop. Chad and I are doing that more now because of Kevin not being here, being involved in that dialogue but it's been fun. Paul cares. He wants the team to do well but he definitely cares.

Has there been any area in which Patty's skills have taken a big jump since last year?

I think he's a similar player. I think he's probably better in a lot of those areas, it's not like he's made significant jumps. I think Patty coming into last year was just a very solid overall player. He's got good ball-handling skills, he's comfortable in the pick and roll, he can shoot from the perimeter, he's quick, he's crafty getting to the rim, he's got a high basketball IQ.

He's played at a level where he was "the guy" in college and in the Olympics for where he's just a piece on the Australian national team. I don't think there's anything specific where he's definitely gotten better at that. His maturity and his confidence have improved.

Part of that just comes from breaking his foot and being out for six months, not being able to play. When you're coming back from that, shoot, I've been a player, when you're coming back from that, it's hard. You've missed all this time and now it's like you've got to spend time getting back to where you were before. You feel like you're losing ground and everybody else is moving ahead. He's watching Dante and other guys get better and it's tough when you can't do that yourself.

I think Patty once he was able to get back and get back into the groove, he's a mature enough kid and had a good enough understanding, he's got a great understanding of what it was going to take to get committed, to get healthy, I don't think it ever got him down or phased. He just knew it's going to take some time and once I can get back and get healthy and comfortable with my foot, get back and get rhythm, that he's going to be fine. And that's where he's at now I feel like.

Your other two returning guys -- Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph -- are in great shape and I think expectations for development in both of them have been very high.  How have they done compared to your expectations?

I think both Dante and Jeff have improved. I know both of those guys worked hard during the course of the season but I know when the season got done, both of those guys really got after being prepared to come in and be much better players in Summer League. With our Summer League team a couple of things stand out. The leadership we've gotten from Jeff and Dante and Patty has been great. Those guys have done a really good job of setting the tone for our team. Caleb and our coaching staff have done a really good job with that as well. We're going to come in and really compete, we're really going to play hard and we're going to have a good Summer League team and I think that's great -- that that's been the approach from our coaching staff and the guys coming back. I think our three veterans have set a good tone for not just our rookies -- the two that are playing -- but also the other guys that are in there as well.

When you look at our team this year, look at Dante this year. He comes in last year and averages 18 and 9. This year his numbers aren't as good so some people are thinking, "Gosh, maybe Dante hasn't improved and he's going backwards." Actually Dante has been great. He's been great in practice, he's been great in games. He set the tone, him, Jeff and Patty, how they came in and how hard they worked. He was terrific in practices. If you looked at his stats, he's regressed. He hasn't regressed we just have a better Summer League team because we have better players and he's taken a role on.  

Jeff has a better feel for how he's going to play on an NBA floor for our team. He's doing more of those things even in Summer League now which is going to help him once we're into the season. I think he showed last year once he got in and was playing with our team, these are the things I'm capable of doing. If I do those things effectively and efficiently I'm going to get a chance to play. I think we're hoping moving forward that he continues with that.

For Dante, Understanding his role and doing those things better. Be a better shooter. Be a better decision-maker. Still guard. Still rebound. Still play hard. Do all those things he's always going to do. Do all those things he's always going to do but sort of expand his game and I think both him and Jeff will be that for us.

 

Personality-wise it seems like Dante and Jeff have aged 10 years over the past 12 months, doesn't it?

I think any of those guys that just go through one year of NBA experience, it doesn't matter if you're a four year senior or a guy that has just played one or two year in college. That first year is huge for those guys, not just their development, but maybe the most important part of that is just your confidence grows, now that you belong in the league, you figure out that you belong in the league and find out what your niche and role is.  I think with Jeff you're seeing sort of the same thing. He came in, he's really worked. He worked hard during the course of the season and he's really worked hard once the season was done. Like he said, he wants to dominate the Summer League. He's done a lot of the same things he did last summer with us.  Just playing hard, playing physical, being a good leader, playing with energy. We've been happy with what we've seen from Jeff as well.

Not to throw the guys from New Orleans under the bus, but there was some bickering between their guys over shots and touches on Tuesday, which isn't uncommon here in Las Vegas.  That stood out to me though because we haven't seen that at all from this Portland group.

We work hard to put the Summer League team together, to try to find guys that do fit, accept their role.  Putting a Summer League team together is no different than putting together a college team or a minor league team or an NBA team. But we obviously have a big advantage over New Orleans or these other teams because we have five of our guys playing, and they're all healthy and granted you've got a couple rookies in there but the experience that Patty and Jeff and Dante have, it makes a difference. Having five guys that are potentially on your roster versus maybe a team that has two or three of its own guys that are rookies, there's definitely an advantage to having five guys out there, or like Memphis with six guys.  We expect to come in here and do well with not only the guys that we have but also the guys that aren't Blazers guys.  We expect those guys to come in and do a good job too.

I talked to Elliot Williams before the trip down here and he told me he was 100%, that his knee shows no swelling, no soreness, that he was good to go.  He even seemed miffed at the idea of wearing knee pads.  Why did you decide to hold him out of Las Vegas?  

With what had happened to his knee down in San Antonio, we had our doctors take a look at it. We felt like it's just Summer League, we would rather have him get fully healthy by rehabbing and making sure he's 100% going into September and October and November versus having him play Summer League. I think Elliot tells you he's 100% healthy but you know he's probably pretty close but I don't know if he's "100% 100%" We think he has a chance of being a really good player. Our doctors just felt like "Let's give this thing a little more time where you can strengthen your leg, and make sure you don't have any swelling, which he did have for a little bit. Let's make sure this thing is completely healthy because, again, it's Summer League, it's great that he wants to be out there and compete because anybody that's a player wants to. We know that's what he's about but we thought the best thing to do here is give it some rest and make sure it's 100% healthy going into August or September.

When exactly did that injury happen?  I think there's some confusion about the timeline and how that played into the decision because at the very first press conference after the draft you had already made the decision to hold him out.

Early June sometime. I don't think it was late May, I would guess early June. It was probably, it might have been 3 weeks or 3.5 weeks before the draft. For what had happened, how it was hit, and our doctors looked at it, Dr. Roberts felt like, look, "it's not 100% healthy. There's still a little bit of swelling, if we were going to play in the playoffs would he have maybe tried to play? Sure. You want to be careful with guys who have been hit and been hurt. He wants to be out there and I'm sure he's frustrated that he wants to play and I'm sure he's frustrated that he can't play but at the end of the day Summer League is a great chance to evaluate a player but I think we're always going to try to look big picture here.

We definitely felt comfortable with Dr. Roberts making that call. He was hoping we were going to say "it looks great, you can play" but he came in and had our doctors looking at it, keeping an open mind, knowing that there was a chance he might not be able to play. When we were talking to him around the press conference he wasn't fully healthy, he was around 90% or 95% percent at that time, if it's not fully healthy, why take the risk?

Everyone wants to know how Luke Babbitt will transition to the NBA.  Is it fair to say his head is spinning a little bit?

I think Luke is one of those guys when you look at him, he played a lot of four in college, he's going to end up being probably more of a three that can play some four in the NBA. Maybe a kind of spread four because he can shoot it but I think looking at Elliot, looking at Armon and looking at him, he's sort of going through more of an adjustment to try to figure out how to fit in because he did have the ball a lot in Nevada, he was their number one scorer, they ran a lot of isolations for him, pick and pops, that sort of stuff. I think Luke is one of those guys, he's a competitive kid that wants to win. We had lunch with him in Chicago, you felt like the most important thing for him was that he wanted to win.

I think he understands that he walked into an NBA team now, he's a young kid but he's a mature kid and a smart kid and he's walking into a building where he's playing with Dante Cunningham, Jeff Pendergraph, Patty Mills and Armon Johnson and he's out there playing against Reyshawn Terry and Demitrus Nichols. He has an understanding of the game and the respect for the game that he's not going to come in and impose his will on the game and force things and maybe do some things that wouldn't be who he is. So I think it's like he's trying to feel things out because he's playing with a bunch of new guys, it's a new coaching staff, it's a new offense, there's a lot of things going on.

He wants to be in there and he wants to do well and he wants to help his team win. I think he has more of a transition that he's going through trying to figure out how all of that fits together. He's playing small forward now pretty much exclusively, guarding guys on the perimeter almost exclusively, and so I feel like he's really working hard and doing a good job.

I talked to him after the first couple practices, "Man, just be patient, keep working hard but don't get down on yourself. He was like, 'things are good, I'm learning." I felt like his approach was really good, he gets it. He gets who he is and how he fits. I think sometimes when you're looking at guys in Summer League you've got to be careful because these guys have only played a few games and a scrimmage. How they play out here isn't necessarily how they're going to play with the varsity team. If you saw Jerryd Bayless and Nicolas Batum come out here you have a perception of what those guys are going to do with our team.  But that first year was the exact opposite.

The Summer League is great, it's a good chance to evaluate guys, there are guys that come in here and play really well and then they don't hardly even play with their team and then there are guys who are really quiet who end up being really good players. I think the biggest thing with Luke is keep working, be patient and find out how he fits in.  Because he's trying to make the right play it's not always about him. That's a little uncomfortable for him but for me I think he's really tried to play the right way and play winning basketball. He's driving in there, he's maybe taking some shots now, he's making some nice passes.

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

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