Three Blazers Put Their Hats In The Ring For Starting Center Position

Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Three members of the Portland Trail Blazers -- J.J. Hickson, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard -- all say they will compete to be the team's starting center.

The biggest starting line-up question for the Portland Trail Blazers involves the biggest bodies, of course. With point guard (Damian Lillard), off guard (Wesley Matthews), small forward (Nicolas Batum) and power forward (All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge) all sewn up, only the center position remains in question for the team's Halloween opener against the Los Angeles Lakers and beyond.

As Dave wrote on Wednesday, this will almost certainly wind up being a by-committee approach in the middle for the Blazers this season. That sounds just fine to the three Blazers in contention for the job -- J.J. Hickson, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard -- as all three told Blazersedge at Media Day on Monday that they would like a crack at starting this season.

Mutliple reports in September (here and here) indicated that first-year coach Terry Stotts had anointed Hickson as his pre-camp starter. Then, in a bit of a surprise, Stotts backed off that idea at Media Day, claiming that "the starting center position has not been named."

Later, the coach was direct when asked by Blazersedge for his message to the starting center candidates.

"The message is that I don't know who is going to start at center on October 31," he said. "That's why you have training camp, that's why you compete for minutes, that's why you compete for a starting position."

Candidate One: J.J. Hickson

Hickson, 24, would seem to have the inside track. He's the only one of the three candidates with NBA experience and he's the only returning member of the Blazers, even if his Portland tenure goes just 19 games deep. Hickson was impressive offensively during those garbage games down the stretch, averaging 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds for Portland after being claimed off of waivers after the Sacramento Kings released him. The questions, clearly, are with his defense and consistency.

The fifth-year pro told Blazersedge that the starting decision was "all up to coach" and that he isn't necessarily ready to deem himself the early favorite. (Minutes later, forward Luke Babbitt told Blazersedge that he assumed Hickson has the starting job wrapped up.)

"I don't look at things like that," Hickson said. "I have more years in the league than [Leonard]. I believe in earning your minutes. Like I said, if it takes me to go into training camp and to compete for that starting position, that's what it is. I'm confident in myself. I know what I can do. Coach knows what I can do. All my teammates know what I'm capable of doing. Let the games begin. It's not going to be a competition between me and [Leonard]. We're still teammates. At the end of the day it's not who starts the game but who finishes the game."

"I think it's unique," Blazers GM Neil Olshey said of the possibility of using Hickson, more of a four than a five, at the center position alongside Aldridge. "He's not really a true five man but as a dive guy to LaMarcus' pop guy, I think we can get away with it at that position. He's tough, he has a great center of gravity, he can bang."

"I don't want to dismiss what J.J. did for the team last year when he came in," Stotts said. "He had an impact on the game. He complemented LaMarcus, that was important. I don't want to dismiss that but at the same time there's a competition and October 31, we're going to start whoever makes the most sense for the team."

Candidate Two: Meyers Leonard

Stotts flatly denied that he was instructed by management or ownership to re-open the starting center competition for Leonard, the team's No. 11 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and the presumed center of the future.

Leonard, 20, is young. He enters the NBA from a small town background and after spending just two seasons at the University of Illinois, only playing big minutes as a sophomore. His "Welcome to the NBA" moment came early on at Media Day, when he noticed his own jersey for sale at the team's FanShop and seemed momentarily awestruck. "They have my jersey over there, I like that," he exclaimed. Some idiot Blazersedge writer responded by suggesting he could go buy it if he wanted. Minutes later, Leonard was taking the jersey off the wall and heading for the register, where he wound up purchasing it.

Again, to repeat: Leonard is young. He's also thoughtful and an eager talker, though, and he sounded reflective when asked how he fit into the starting center conversation.

"I wouldn't jump the gun and say that [I'm going to start immediately]," Leonard told Blazersedge. "Like I always say to this question and questions of similar content, it's all about who wants to come in and work the hardest, learn and shows they care the most. If the opportunity presents itself, I'm a competitor, I'm going to go out there and give it my all. Am I ready? Am I not ready? I don't know that answer. The coaches don't know that answer yet. Nobody knows that answer yet. It's kind of up in the air but I'm most certainly going to come in every single day and work as hard as possible and try to prove myself."

But has the coaching staff indicated that the opportunity is there for him? Is the starting job being used as a carrot during his NBA transition?

"There's been glimpses of the fact that I have the chance to start, whether it's early, middle of the season, towards the end of the season, no one knows," Leonard told Blazersedge. "It's definitely attainable for this year, I feel like. I'm going to have to continue doing what I've always done."

"Meyers is going to be a contributor no question," Stotts said. "He's played very well, his offense is better than I expected. Just like any young player, he's going to have to learn the nuances of the NBA game. There's no question that he's a contributor."

"Finding a 7-footer who runs the floor like that," Olshey said, "who can make free throws, who can make jumpers, who has good hands, who can finish. Meyers is a 20-year-old kid who really didn't play much as a freshman. It's going to take him a little bit of time but I think every day we are in the gym he proves to Terry and the staff that they can trust him on the court and that they are going to need him out there."

Leonard will surely struggle with foul trouble and holding his position defensively as a rookie. But teammates have praised his agility, athleticism, passing skills and face-up shooting.

"I've really been working on my back-to-the-basket, in the post, face-up game a lot," he said Monday. "It's improved pretty good. Not only that but [my shooting] from about the 13-16 foot range."

Candidate Three: Joel Freeland

The Blazers' third candidate is Freeland, a British forward/center who arrives in Portland after being the go-to player for Unicaja Malaga in Spain's ACB league for the last few seasons. Freeland, 25, plays with high energy and he's skilled offensively. He had trouble defending against length during the Olympics, though, and he will be adjusting to a longer NBA schedule and a higher level of competition this season.

"I don't know how long it will take Joel Freeland to adapt to the NBA style game," Olshey admitted, before adding that the Brit is "an interesting piece who can swing both ways at the four and the five."

Stotts, too, said he was just getting familiar with Freeland's game, having seen him play in person for the first time during September voluntary workouts. Teammates and team insiders have said that Freeland has been one of the standouts during those workouts, citing his work ethic and polish with the ball.

Freeland openly acknowledges the transitions and challenges that face him. But he also told Blazersedge that he wants to be in the starting discussion too.

"I feel like I could be," he said. "I'm going to do what I can to solidify that. It's up in the air. All I can do is play the way I play, play the way I know, learn from everybody around me. I can't do anything more than that."

Perhaps most impressive about Freeland at Media Day was his attitude and approach. He's not only ready for anything but he's clearly prepared himself for the NBA in a manner not always seen from European imports.

"I love being chucked into the deep end and see what happens," he told Blazersedge. "I love that kind of pressure. I think as soon as I get put on the court, I'm just going to compete and run and work hard and do what I can do. Whatever happens, happens. That's how I've played all my life. There's not much more I can do that as long as I'm putting 150 percent on the court."

Jumping into the deep end meant readying himself for the adjustment to a new role and to a new grind.

"Obviously I was the main player on the team," he said of his time in Spain. "I was getting all the touches, all the plays were pretty much run through me. It's completely different. I understand that. I'm coming to a new team, I've got to earn my position on the team, my role. I'm willing to do that, willing to put in the hard work to do that."

The hard work began right after the 2012 London Olympics ended. Freeland went straight from carrying Great Britain, along with Luol Deng, into a personalized training program that emphasized, in part, injury prevention.

"I did a lot of injury prevention work," he said. I was doing that for a month or a month and a half, working with a few guys where I was staying. Working on injury prevention, muscles, joints, things like that. Stopping aches and pains. I've been preparing but how well can you really prepare for 82 games in a season? I think the most games I've ever played in a season was 54 and that was playing in two leagues at the same time. It's going to be completely different for me and it's going to be an adjustment.

"But I think here you have the facilities and the people who are ready and willing to work with you to make sure you're in the best shape you can be in at all times. If you don't take advantage of that, you're a fool. You've got everything there to be successful so you should really invest in your body and invest in yourself and take full advantage of that."

Prediction

Opening the season with Hickson as the starter with Leonard and Freeland as regular rotation players remains the most likely scenario. Depending on how the season plays out, moving Leonard into the starter's role for the second half of the season makes a certain amount of sense from a long-term planning standpoint. With both of those things said, underestimate Freeland -- who took pride in calling himself a "fairly feisty player" -- at your own risk.

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