Before the NBA: The big fish in a small pond
Joel Freeland was drafted by the Blazers as a late first round pick back in 2006. As an Olympian for Great Britain he was one of their best players, and the best big man that Britain had at the time. He played a conventional center for Britain, using his size to post up other players. While never considered a starter for the NBA, he was thought to be a solid backup big man once he made the trip to the NBA.
Freeland's Rookie year: The defensive scheme that hated him
Last season Freeland finally made the jump to the NBA when his limitations on his rookie salary were lifted. As a result he was paid more than he would have been immediately following the draft. Because of the offers Freeland had from other foreign teams, the Blazers gave him a 3-year deal worth close to 9 million. The Blazers also drafted Meyers Leonard last season with the intent of Leonard entering the season as the backup center and Freeland as the backup power forward.
When the season started the Blazers soon found out that Freeland was better suited as a Center because he had trouble creating any offensive above the low post and he was not quick enough laterally to guard the athletic power forwards in the NBA. The Blazers, knowing full well how bad they were at defense decided to have the big men hedge the opposition's Pick & Rolls and then use their athleticism to recover and roll with the big man to the hoop. While this tactic was something that Hickson and Leonard learned to do (albeit, with a low level of success), Freeland's lack of athleticism prevented him from being able to do this at all. Opposing big men beat him to the hoop seemingly every time when Freeland tried to hedge screens out on the perimeter as Freeland could never recover fast enough to contest any shots in the lane. Freeland's injuries did not seem to help and Leonard became to go-to backup Center for the Blazers.
The Offseason: Becoming Nick Collison?
This offseason while Batum was playing for his French national team, Freeland declined to play for his national team (Britain). Instead Freeland decided he would be better served by working on his game in an individual setting. His goal; to become the next Nick Collision. Freeland knows his game is limited and doesn't have unrealistic expectations for himself. He understood the Blazers biggest need was defense, and after struggling to contain anyone last season he knew the best chance he had of cracking this rotation was to defend the interior.
Training Camp: A New Defensive strategy
The coaching staff, aided by the addition of Robin Lopez changed their defensive scheme. Instead of the big men extending out to the perimeter to hedge the pick & roll, the big men now are staying in the paint and rotating to the weak-side of the basket when someone is driving in. The big men are automatically in a better position to contest shots, but it takes a higher level of basketball IQ to know when to rotate to weak-side and have the other teammates cover the man you just left.
This new defensive scheme changed the way the bigs play defense, and essentially worked in Freeland's favor. Freeland has played basketball at a higher level for much longer time than Leonard and as a result has a better understanding of the game of basketball. While last season the defense by the big men favored their athleticism (the ability to recover), this season favors their basketball IQ (their ability to rotate and play straight up). As a result Freeland was able to turn around his game and essentially become the "MVP" of training camp.
Pre-Season: Freeing Freeland
In the Pre-season there was a noticeable difference in the defensive effectiveness between Leonard and Freeland. Freeland learned to play straight up and hold his ground, Leonard meanwhile reacted to every ball fake as he was trying to block every movement opposing players made (even if it wasn't a shot), consequently Leonard leaves his feet way too often. While people will argue that Leonard has a better offensive game than Freeland, the Blazers don't need offense from the Center position when every other position can produce offensively. As a result Stotts chose defense over offense and went with Freeland.
Something else to consider is that Thomas Robinson isn't very good on defense, therefore it becomes more imperative that the big man playing next to him can cover up any mistakes he has. In a season where the expectations for the Blazers are the playoffs they must limit their mistakes, unfortunately this means the young players won't play as much.
What to look for: Freeland vs Leonard
It is a long season and there is bound to be some injuries. There is little evidence to suggest that Leonard will improve his defense, but as he gets more comfortable with the new defense and gets more experience it is not out of the question. Freeland has more experience and is 26, Leonard is 21 years old and still has a ways to go (but has more potential). It only makes sense that Freeland should be better than Leonard at this point, but it could easily be reversed in a few years from now.