As we march on in our exploration of expectations for this year's roster entering the season we take a look at two of the better Blazer stories from last year: Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph. Each was able to make somewhat-surprising contributions in their rookie season, the surprise stemming from both being second round picks more likely to be cut than play significant minutes. But that's the kind of year the Blazers had. Injuries cut so deeply into the lineup that Cunningham and Pendergraph got a chance to strut their stuff and, at certain moments, impress.
I'm going to be up front in saying I like both players. I hope every Blazer does well, of course, but as second-round draftees and effort guys these two have a special place in my Portland-esque heart. It's easy to exceed expectations and ingratiate yourself when you started with none, which is exactly what these players did. That said, this is a different season. Both are sophomores. That sense of anything positive being good enough that they enjoyed their freshman seasons is going to give way to expectations of focused, consistent contribution. This is also a different roster. It's not necessarily deeper in terms of sheer numbers but it's far more top-heavy than it was last season. Last year we saw a bunch of guys with the potential to play 20-30 minutes per game all competing. Injuries and some of them falling short left cracks that Pendergraph and Cunningham slipped through. This year Portland is stocked with players expected to play 40 minutes per game. They're backed up by a couple young guys who can't be ignored and a couple veterans with double-digit experience in the league. The cracks aren't there anymore. Looking at the big-man rotation of Aldridge, Camby, Oden, and Przybilla doesn't leave a lot of hope for Coach's finger getting crooked towards either of these two players outside of garbage time.
Then again, the whole point about can-do energy guys is that they don't let little things like getting buried in the rotation bother them. Cunningham showed a rocky-mountain-oysters-to-the-wall style last year that would make any coach happy to put him on the floor. He's not the most technical defender but he's intimidating because he never quits. He hearkens a little to Ruben Patterson, hopefully minus the baggage. He doesn't have Patterson's awesome post game but he does have a short, mid-range repertoire that makes him safe to leave on the floor. Pendergraph doesn't have much of any offensive game and his defensive game needs work as well. He's a willing rebounder, though, and unlike many of his cohorts he's unafraid to throw his body around. In the normal course of things you'd say he was too foul-prone to make an impact but this otherwise polite, skill-laden group might benefit from a little bump and grind down low.
Both Pendergraph and Cunningham suffer from a lack of clear position. Cunningham is more of a three by size and a four in his game. Pendergraph has a center mentality and a power forward build. They will have to refine their skills and expand their game if they hope to see consistent court time. Either that or they'll have to hope the team is cursed but good by the injury bug.
My expectations of Cunningham and Pendergraph are similar: play your hearts out in whatever minutes you get. Otherwise beat the heck out of whoever comes against you in practice so they get real-game experience in their own gym. Beyond that, second-year players or no, I'm going to continue to be happy with whatever I get from either player. Ideally the Blazers won't need them but, especially in Cunningham's case, one can imagine a five-minute stretch somewhere in the season that makes all the difference in the world. Let's hope these guys are ready if and when that moment comes.
If you have any expectations of either player, please share below.