During the piece of art that was the 2nd half against Chicago tonight, I had a thought. It was one that has been coming full circle & developing for awhile now. We have the championship team in 77, good memories with Drexler, Pippen, Sabonis & Roy. However I want to talk about a few of the current players who have really stood out for the sole reason that they are exceeding beyond expectations that just about anyone had for them at certain points in their career. What I'm calling True TrailBlazers. You know the first two guys:
LaMarcus Aldridge - It all started with him. Left with the ashes of the Roy/Oden heartbreak, the "third tier" of the pillars of the franchise was the one left standing. He turned himself into one of the NBA's best power forwards despite a team crumbling around him. I don't think anyone saw Aldridge coming out of this as positive as he did & I think many doubted his ability to reach the level he is at now.
Nicolas Batum - We drafted him as D & 3 guy for the previously mentioned sad era. Through adversity comes opportunity & Nic seized it as Aldridge before him. Nicolas now is able to pass beautifully, decently driblle, run a pick n' roll, post up smaller guards, push tempo, amazing rebounder for his position. People around here would have called you crazy a few years ago if you would have said that about Nic. As we all know now, he can do everything. Tremendous strides, out of nowhere or so it seems...
Lets move on to the man of the hour.
We$ "Ballot" Matthew$ - Undrafted out of Marquette, signed with Jazz, Jerry Sloan liked him, solid season etc. Signed with the Blazers to be a D & 3 guy, backup 2 to B-Roy. Oh how well this one has turned out my friends! He is everything we wanted & more. Last year I was content with Wesley as a backup 2, figured that would be his role on a real contender. Enter 2013. I know its a short season, but what I'm seeing is We$ fixed a major flaw in his game. Finishing at the basket. To describe my "eye test" in the past he'd try to dunk over people resulting in an offensive charge, turnover or ugly flaming bag pass(now he only attempts them on lobs or easy buckets). His layups were at times down right ugly & at best were simple finishes leaving it outstretched for post defenders to easily swat it. This year he is protecting the ball much better, occasionally cradling it while hanging when necessary & using the rim to prevent defenders from being able to block his shot. He has clearly worked on it & the stats show it.
Taking a look here at Wes's 2pt FG%, this years 57.4% is nearly a full 10% better than last year. Easily the best of his career so far last time he reached above 50 was with the Jazz his rookie year: his last time on a really good team?
But here is the thing, it isn't only his finishing that his improved. His dribbling is under control for the first time in his career, he knows his limits & it is a beautiful thing. Dribbling under control can probably contribute to the sudden improvement of his mid range jumper. Last year it was out of control fade away's. Now he is calm, cool & collected. Has turned into a buttery stroke like his 3pt shot. All of this improvement & he still continues to play lights out defense. Wesley, Portland loves you. Excited for the Golden State matchup VS Klay Thompson or Iggy.
The newest of the pack -
Joel "The British Bulldog" Freeland - He deserves to be mentioned. Technically one of the longest tenured Blazer on the roster in terms of being with the organization. Had some big games in the Olympics for Great Brittain. Highly touted in the Euroleague. The reason he deserves mention is last year almost everyone including me thought he was going to be out of the NBA ASAP. Soft & destined to return to Europe. A hard summer of training paid off, as did the Blazers fabled draft class of 06' one last time. He transformed himself into as quality post defender & rebounder. Which after having nothing to show, is an enormous improvement. Perfect backup 4, he hustles, unselfish & does the dirty work. If he can learn to finish & hit open jump shots? He could take away Thomas Robinson's & Meyers Leonard's minutes entirely.
I've really enjoyed this team make strides since being embarrassed out of the gates. Stotts & LaMarcus rally'd the troops. Great leadership, great team, great coaching. The team could have easily stumbled in that scenario. Looking forward to more true Trail Blazers to come to the forefront. I'd expect Dame in time to make the leap with his decision making ability. That will be the key to improvements in his shooting percentage & turnovers.
Who on the team do you think could make the leap next? The promising athleticism of TRob or Leonard can be coached up alongside a winning squad? Perhaps Dorrell Wright down the stretch could be used in a bigger role once the starters aren't wanting to go full 40mpg, he was capable in Golden State a few years back. Let me know what you think in the comments!