Analysis of the Portland Trail Blazers 2012 NBA Draft

Being taller than the Commish is a good start for any point guard. And notice the color of that hankie in the pocket! (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Check out the transcripts of the post-selection Draft night interviews from Prudential Center in Newark from new Portland Trail Blazers PG Damian Lillard (6th pick) and C Meyers Leonard (11th pick)!

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The feeding frenzy that was the 2012 NBA Draft is now over and all but the most gluttonous of draft hogs should be sated. Unless you're living under a rock (or just woke up) you'll know that the Trail Blazers selected three players: Damian Lillard of Weber State, Meyers Leonard of Illinois, and Will Barton from Memphis...a point guard, center, and shooting guard respectively.

In our pre-draft analysis we said that the Blazers would be judged primarily by how much talent they accumulated, with "talent" being defined as "upside". Higher risk and reward were better than safe bets with small payoffs. Did they meet that standard? Yes...maybe. You have to add an asterisk.

The Blazers used the #6 and #11 picks on the highest risk-reward players available at the positions they selected with each respective pick. Damian Lillard was the best potential payoff at point guard at #6. Meyers Leonard was the best potential payoff remaining at center in the 11th spot. Whether they were the best risk-reward options overall is more debatable.

Three names may come back to haunt the Blazers in the future. Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond were both available with the 6th pick. Barnes is a multi-faceted small forward with a great body and good mid-range scoring ability. He would have played behind Nicolas Batum initially but he ultimately might have made Batum expendable. Drummond was the tantalizing athletic deity at center with questions about his head and offensive development. His body, lateral quickness, and defense would have made Blazer fans drool. Portland also passed on Jeremy Lamb at #11. He carries a freakish wingspan--making him an instant threat for steals--and a beautiful shooting touch. He would have been to Wesley Matthews what Barnes would have been to Batum. One could argue that all three of these players have a better combination of upside and likelihood of reaching it than do Lillard and Leonard.

On the other hand the Blazers did take their swing with both players. If they are rewarded, it will be handsomely.

Detractors have been grumbling about the Lillard pick, comparing him to Portland guard selections of recent vintage like Jarrett Jack and Jerryd Bayless. As anyone who read my analysis of the Nolan Smith pick last year (or who saw the Point Guards Anonymous skit in one of our recent VideoCasts) will know, I am one of the last people to recommend a point guard draft pick without merit. The Lillard pick is more intriguiging and exciting, however. Comparisons to Bayless, Jack, Smith, and the like are misplaced. As pointed out in our pre-draft review of Lillard, this guy is a scorer, a shooter with range, can dribble either direction, can score off the catch and shoot, can use screens, and can get in the lane. He's also efficient on offense. No recent Portland point guard--starter or reserve, trade acquisition, free agent, or draft pick--can claim that offensive combination. That's not saying Lillard is better than any other guard the Blazers have had recently, but if he fulfills his promise he will solve more problems than any of them did. As pointed out in our pre-draft VideoCast his weaknesses--being score-heavy, an unproven passer, weak defensively--can all be compensated for. His combination of talent, skill, and position fit this roster and he has plenty of potential. If you don't believe Drummond will become a star center this guy was the right pick.

Leonard is more of an interesting case. He's a legit 7-footer with quickness. He's not the fleet beast that Drummond is but he can move side to side, hedge and recover. His offense is adequate. He needs to put on a little more muscle, get stronger, develop more toughness to his game. His athleticism provides the upside that the other serious consideration at center, Tyler Zeller, simply doesn't have. The Blazers might have been able to wring more overall value out of a wing or power forward with this pick, but they wanted a center and went for it. Player versus player they could end up behind. If the dice fall right, they'll end up ahead having that center.

The DraftExpress rundown of Will Barton has him as a skinny (6'6", 174 lb) Sophomore swingman. Neither strong nor big, his best scoring options come in transition. He drives, draws fouls, rebounds, even passes a little. He's also quick laterally, meaning defense could be a plus. He relies too much on his jumper and it isn't stellar. One wonders if facing athletic wings at the next level will drive him further outside on offense and paralyze him defensively, nullifying some of the best aspects of his game. But he's one of those guys who had potential first-round talent selected mid-second round, so you regard him as a good value and hope he makes the team.

There's no sure peg on which to hang your hat here, but there's not too much to complain about either. The Blazers drafted as expected. Solid rationale backed those expectations. It was a good evening and a good step forward.

Here are some of the questions that will linger in Portland after this evening:

  • How will Lillard adjust to the NBA? This is the most important question of all. If he makes good on even 3/4 of his promise, the Blazers got what they needed.
  • Could the Blazers have wiggled into either a third pick mid-round or promoted their 11th pick high enough to get a better gamble than Leonard? Barnes, Drummond, and Terrence Ross all look nice for different reasons.
  • How agonizing would the decision have been had the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets won the post-season coin toss with the Sacramento Kings, leaving the Blazers in the 5th spot and forced to choose between Kansas forward Thomas Robinson and Lillard?
  • Are more trades on the horizon, perhaps involving some of those mid-round picks the Blazers couldn't reach tonight?
  • If Meyers Leonard ends up not panning out, how much will the Blazers rue passing on Lamb or some of the forwards selected afterwards?

And here are some of the assertions already being thrown out that don't hold much water:

  • The Blazers have seen Lillard-types before. They haven't. He'll play differently and fit differently than past guards. That doesn't mean he'll be successful, but this is not a redo.
  • Other teams that selected mid-round out-drafted the Blazers. They didn't. Some nice players went in the middle of the round but those selections wouldn't have looked so nice had the picks been higher. Also the Blazers have different needs and are in a different position than those other teams.
  • The Blazers didn't select the best players available. While this was true in the most abstract sense they did get players with good risk-reward ratios. The difference between Lillard/Leonard and some of those later picks isn't that great in those terms. The Blazers will figure that even if other players had a slightly higher ceiling in the abstract, the utility of Lillard and Leonard (as point guard and center) will make their de facto ceiling higher for Portland. The Blazers did not play it safe here, else they would have traded down for Zeller and Kendall Marshall or simply gone for a point guard and center in free agency and drafted more middle-position players. The Blazers are out on a limb some but also have hope of good return.
  • The Blazers weren't aggressive in making moves. We saw surprisingly few trades in this draft, period. One would assume that the deeper pool of talent either kept people satisfied with their picks or afraid of missing out on the bonanza. Apparently the Blazers didn't have to make a move to get the player that they wanted most...the first criterion in evaluating any draft. After that it takes two to tango and apparently few people got on the dance floor. Also keep in mind that trades will be easier for Portland after the calendar turns in July and cap room becomes available.
  • The Blazers should be ashamed of this draft or ecstatic about it. Neither is true. They did well, now they have to hope things go well for them. Either way, this is just the first step. They need a home run out of Lillard at least. Then they need to make some shrewd moves with their upcoming cap space. They'll probably rely on at least one more draft as well before they'll start making clear forward progress. For at least the next year it's wait and see. But at least the new blood will make the waiting and seeing more exciting than it was with, say, Raymond Felton and Joel Przybilla.

What questions, comments, concerns, and/or praises do you have? Weigh in below as you will.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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