Talking Prospects With Joe Cronin

Joe Cronin (far left) -- former intern and now a key piece of the Blazers brain trust -- takes in Summer League action with Brad Weinrich, Nate McMillan, Gary Payton and Mike Born.

[This is the final piece of a three part series of interviews and player evaluations with Portland's head scouts during this year's Las Vegas Summer League. In case you missed parts one and two, here are links to Mike Born's post and Chad Buchanan's post.]

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Between the time that Kevin Pritchard departed in June and Rich Cho's arrival earlier this week, the basketball operations spotlight has shined on Portland's two head scouts, Mike Born and Chad Buchanan.  That's been no accident: Born and Buchanan are well-known as Pritchard's close friends and advisors and both stepped up to fill his shoes in a draft night press conference, a rookie introduction press conference and Wednesday morning when the team introduced free agent signee Wesley Matthews

But there's been another key figure hiding in the shadows, lurking in the back of the press conferences and pulling a baseball cap down low on his forehead during Summer League.  That man is Joe Cronin, whose official title "Scout / Basketball Operations Information Manager" is as convoluted as his press presence is invisible.  Tricky title or not, Cronin's responsibilities are kind of a big deal: he's been serving as the third wheel of the basketball operations tricycle ever since Pritchard's abrupt departure.

Cronin's NBA story -- like Cho's incidentally -- began with an internship.  During the 2006-2007 season, he found a job listing in Portland soon after finishing graduate school work at the University of Denver. "I just finished up and told myself, 'I want to get in the NBA, I'm going to do whatever it takes,' Cronin told me in Las Vegas on Sunday.

His career arc started to accelerate when Pritchard was named General Manager and put a new focus on the team's scouting infrastructure. "Kevin Pritchard got hired on as GM and kept me on and it just kind of progressed from there," Cronin said. "They had me scouting right away, I kind of kept working my way up."  

In Las Vegas on Sunday, Buchanan said Cronin's rise within the organization has been a product of his relentless work ethic and attention to detail. "Joe is one of the most humble, hard working people we have on our staff and in our entire organization. He really established himself and proved himself as a guy who was going to do whatever you asked. He was going to go above and beyond, the extra mile on stuff you asked him to do... He's a guy who is always trying to learn, thirsty to learn something new. Thirsty to learn the scouting aspect, thirsty to learn the salary cap aspect. Now he's helping with a lot of decisions for us, talking trades and free agency. He's really developed a niche on our staff and he just continues to get better and better."

Back in Portland this morning, Born agreed. "Joe has been great. He's a terrific worker, he's definitely improved his eye as a scout. I think like anything when you're into it early you're sort of cutting your teeth a little bit but he now has a really, really good eye for talent, looking at college kids, having a good feel for the NBA." 

Buchanan said that Cronin began an apprenticeship of sorts under former Vice President of Basketball Operations Tom Penn, getting up to speed on the intricacies of the salary cap and the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement. "Tom was kind of mentoring Joe throughout the year on the salary cap stuff. And then when Tom was let go Joe kind of took over all of that and has really picked up things really quickly. For Mike and Larry [Miller] and I, he's invaluable to us because he understands some of the intricacies of the CBA that Mike and I aren't as trained on as he has become."

Born said Cronin has become a go-to person when the group meets to go over details like front-loading a contract offer or checking with the league office on this or that finer point.  "His knowledge of the cap has been a tremendous help to both Chad and myself because he knows a lot of that stuff but he if doesn't know it, he will find it out, which makes us feel very comfortable. He's been huge in the last month or so for us."

While interviewing Cronin on Sunday before the Blazers afternoon game our conversation ran over into the game's opening minutes.  As soon as that happened, his eyes couldn't help but drift over to the court.  Listening back to the tape, we both stop talking for almost a minute and you can hear the sneaker squeaks in the background.  A whistle finally blows and I state the obvious, "You must be loving life right now." 

"It's a blast. It's a dream," Cronin replied. "Just watching basketball and sitting in a gym all day. You can't beat it."

From plugging away at spreadsheets in 2007 to helping call shots while chilling with Nate McMillan and Gary Payton in Las Vegas in 2010. That's what's up.

Click through for Cronin's evaluation of each of the five Blazers we've talked about over the last few weeks -- Dante Cunningham, Jeff Pendergraph, Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson and Patty Mills.  

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

Again, the idea with these interviews is very straightforward: a brain dump from one of the men tasked with evaluating and selecting future Trail Blazers.  

I've left the transcript pretty much unedited so you can get a sense for how Cronin talks and responds to questions. My questions are paraphrased and bolded. Joe Cronin's answers are in blockquote.

I always want to talk Dante Cunningham first. What have you seen this week?

I think first of all his leadership stood out the most. From day one he became that veteran for this group. It's funny how you see them transform from being a rookie last year to all of a sudden they're showing the other guys the ropes, like Luke and Armon, and being that leader.

As far as his game, his energy is always going to stand out. His effort. His IQ. But also I think what stood out has been his feet, defensively. Being able to switch out onto those guards because that's something we've really wanted to see from Dante. Being able to guard multiple positions, we're always looking for that. Defensively I thought he's been great.

I'd love to see him be more assertive on the boards. I think he's doing that a little bit, I want to see him keep getting better there. Offensively, he shot the ball OK, I know he can shoot it better and I'm sure he would say the same thing. He's been putting the ball down a little bit, going to the rim harder, showing a little bit more of a burst. All of those things we're thrilled with where he's at. We think he can help us.

You talked about the position thing -- It seems like you guys really like the combo guys but sometimes some fans can't or don't want to wrap their minds around a guy who can play multiple positions but maybe isn't a fit at either position. With Dante, is he a 4?

He's more 4 than 3 for me. Definitely. I think you get into definitions and how guys get typcasted into certain positions according to his size or skillset or whatever. For Dante he's more 4 because he's good at that mismatch 4 because he can out-quick some guys, strong enough to where he can hold his own in tight if it's a bigger or stronger guy. He's more 4 because that's his skillset more so than 3 wise as far as whether he's able to shoot the ball with range, his handle isn't there yet. He can guard some threes but...

Did you see development with his handle?

Yeah. Definitely. If you look back last year he wasn't putting down a bounce to alleviate pressure. Now he's looking to straight line it to the rim. For us that's huge. We want guys attacking and he's showing some of that.

What a value.

For us, and we really value upside and talent and all that, but with that comes rookie contracts. You get into second round contracts which bang for the buck it's amazing. You're allowed to pay your veterans and your core pieces and then still get rotation guys inexpensive by NBA terms. It's huge for us.

I'm not trying to be super negative but I feel like Jeff Pendergraph struggled this week.  He's having trouble shooting over the top of guys, a little robotic on the block, really good effort on the boards but maybe falling short of overall expectations for his development.  Are you feeling the same way?

A little bit.  With Jeff, he knows who he is as a player. He's tried to be a little bit more diverse this week as far as trying to open it up a little offensively, stepping out and shooting it, getting outside of his comfort zone. I think that's good in situations like this because you start working on stuff that you may not do in a real game, stuff that Nate's not going to want him to do. It's good for him to push that limit here.

Jeff is a smart player, he understands what he is. I think he's going to be fine. What he brings to us besides his playing ability, the stuff he does for us in the locker room or in practice, his toughness, that's all something we're constantly trying to improve on. All that's going to be there and Jeff is going to be fine.

Is there a concern that maybe Jeff is a fringe NBA player at some point soon here? Is he a lock to be an NBA guy for a couple of years?

Any time you have a second round guy it gets a little tricky as far as there are a lot of second rounders that don't make it long term. As far as Jeff is concerned, he has as good a chance as anybody to be a 10 year pro. In our league we value bigs, we saw last year how when injuries happen you need everything you can get inside.

I think Jeff is talented, he's athletic, finish around the rim, he'll board it, he's not afraid to hit anybody, those guys have long term value.  I think he's a long term pro no doubt. Plus he's going to work. He's not going to let him go. He's too driven to fail.

With Luke Babbitt, up and down. Shot has been as good as was wanted but when it's gone in it barely touches the net. Everyone has been focused on his adjusting process. How has that played out?

One thing we talk about a lot is never get too high or too low on rookies at this point of the year. It's Summer League... or even up to the All Star break. It's hard ... these kids are coming into a whole new realm. As we all know they're adjusting from being the star. Luke got so many touches and being the integral part of their offense at Nevada, to go from that to a role guy just trying to blend in. With Luke's mentality, where he doesn't want to force the issue, and he wants to be a team guy and he wants to win. All of that we're not putting high expectations on him in terms of "we need you to go get us 20."

I think he's been up and down, but I think all of our rookies have. Armon, I would say the same thing, a lot of these guys. I think he's shown flashes of what we think he can be. It's been a position change for him which I think is important to note. He's played a ton of 4 at Nevada. We want him to play the 3 for us. We think he can play a lot of 4 as well. That spread 4, mismatch 4 type. I think he's fine.

He showed us a lot of toughness playing through this Achilles thing. A lot of competitiveness.   

He gets down on himself though.

Yeah, but we like that. We want guys to get pissed off when they aren't living up to what they should have done.

Is he a perfectionist?

I think so, yeah. He's the type who you say, "Hey, good game, Luke" after he has 20 and 10 and he's going to be like, "I could have done this better. Oh man, I messed up on that one." I think that's good, we want guys that aren't reading the stat line and are realizing what they need to get better at and are constantly working towards that.

One thing I haven't written yet that I need to is that he's doing pretty well compared to the other guys in his draft range right.  It seems like outside of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, the top half of the first round, or even the 10-20 guys, haven't really had a huge breakout star.

We were looking at that. I think you go back to these rookies just getting out of college and getting into this where there are some really good [older] players. Granted there are only five or six NBA guys per team but all of these high-level minor leaguers and all of that, it's an adjustment. You look at all these kids, even if you go all the way down to the top of the draft.  For all of these guys it's a work in progress. We look back at Nicolas Batum here and we always remind ourselves it takes a little time.

We're on the Armon Johnson bandwagon a little bit. We're kind of pumping him as the story of Summer League, he's really showing things that maybe we didn't know about him because he was a bit off the radar. Have we hyped him up too much? Are you guys as thrilled or is it more of a mixed bag still because it's so early?

We like Armon. A lot.

\It hasn't surprised us, I wouldn't say, but I would go back to the fact that it's Summer League and you take it for what it's worth. Whereas some guys do well and you've got to kind of hedge it a little bit and some guys play poorly and you've got to hedge that a little. I don't think we're too high or too low but we're happy with what we've seen. He's what we thought he would be, I think. 

Defensively he's been very good. That's what we thought he would be. At Nevada he carried a lot of the offensive load, he and Luke it was pretty much those two, so he wasn't able to press up 90 feet at all times. Really get up in guys because he had to stay on the floor. But he wants to, no doubt. His defensive effort, grit, his offensive composure, all of that has been a pleasant surprise. Not turning the ball over a whole lot, making pretty good decisions.

He doesn't get stuck very often.

Nope. He's just so good with the ball. We've all been talking -- what he does on the court translates to the NBA. His stuff going to the rim, his size and bulk, all of that we thought we're happy with where he's at. We really like Armon.

Alright, last one. Patty. Is he going to stick or is he the kind of guy that you've got to make a tough decision on him?

I think he's talented. He brings us something we may not have in our other point guards as far as being able to spread the floor, giving us that elite speed up and down, some good playmaking, I think he's definitely got a chance with us. We're going to see, hopefully, this summer plays out well for us as far as getting him contract-wise and all that. We'll see what happens. I think we see him as a part of our future.

Will you evaluate him through the World Championships?

I don't know if anyone from here is going but I'm sure [international scout] Jason Filippi will probably be there. Mike Born is typically one to go to that, maybe Chad Buchanan. We'll see. He's always played well in those things. That always helps his cause. We have faith in Patty. We know who he is as a player. It was hard last year just because he broke his foot right away and never really got a chance. I think it would good for us to be able to evaluate him here and just see who he is.

I thought he's played well. His jumper. His speed. At times he's showed great vision, the ability to find guys, get guys catching and going to the rim, some of those dump offs, getting that deep penetration, picking up our pace, all of that stuff. We need guys that spread the floor, the way Patty can shoot it.

He moves his feet and takes those charges too. I don't know if we saw that before during his brief time in Portland.

We were saying he's the "master flopper" as far as taking that hit and selling it. That's why guys his size have to be that way. They have to be smart and crafty. He has to use his quicks to his advantage and he's been doing that. He has to get better, he has to get better on the ball defensively but he's a pup. All of these guys, it's always a growth curve we've got to wait for.

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

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