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The Leaping Enigma

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One of the major question marks entering the season is the role of Travis Outlaw.  I wanted to do a summary on him similar to the one I did on Jarrett Jack the other day, but as I started to put the pieces together it occurred to me that the most interesting thing about him may be how little we're actually sure of.  After three years with the team he's nearly as mysterious as he was during his first training camp.  Does anybody really have a clue what this guy is capable of?  

Let's piece together what we do know:

--He came into the league in 2003 straight out of high school...as raw as sushi and as country as a hash brown breakfast.  The only guarantee came from his father, a veteran of police work, who said his son would not fall prey to the questionable decisions exhibited by other Blazer players at the time.  It is a promise that, at least as far as we know, has held true to this day.

--Like every other Blazer rookie since the days of Cliff Robinson, Outlaw spent his first year buried on the bench.  He played in only eight games and his main claim to fame was being the passive butt of everybody's jokes in practice...a habit which eventually lost him some respect among his veteran teammates.

--Outlaw's second year was a breakout season of sorts.  He saw action in 59 games, averaged 14 minutes, and shot 50% from the floor.  He saw considerable playing time in the last third of the season following the release of Coach Cheeks.  His lack of comprehension of schemes on both ends of the court hampered his effectiveness, but when left to his own devices he showed himself capable of scoring in double digits.  The defining moment of his season was a thunderous one-handed dunk on Yao Ming in Houston which made national highlight reels.  It was every hope we've ever had for him wrapped up, autographed, and jammed down their throats.  Unfortunately it was never repeated.  His lack of consistency was to be expected, since this was in essence his rookie season, but he positioned himself as one of the potential upward-trending contributors for 2005-2006.  Rumors of trade offers began surfacing during the summer.  If true, they were refused.

--Outlaw's third season started on a sour note.  Notoriously demanding coach Nate McMillan was not impressed by his tardiness in picking up the new system.  Already facing a numbers game with veterans Darius Miles and Ruben Patterson and newcomers Sergei Monia and Viktor Khryapa all battling for time at his position, Outlaw quickly sank to the end of the bench, which is where he started the season.  He saw a brief glimpse of playing time late in the first month during McMillan's "spaghetti on wall" phase, but his erratic offensive production, his inability to fill other stat lines, and his frequent confusion on the court snuffed out his run after a couple of weeks.  He got another call in late December, again shined briefly, but again faded.  Midseason trades of Patterson and Monia coupled with Darius Miles' injuries and insurrections opened the door for more minutes after the turn of the year.  Again inconsistency was the only constant.  In a stretch of five games in February and March when Outlaw averaged roughly the same 15 minutes per game, his scoring totals were 2, 19, 6, 2, and 3.  His per game rebounding numbers for the season ranged from a couple nines and a ten to a host of zeroes and ones.  With more playing time he did assimilate better into the structured game.  There were still gaffes, but they weren't as glaring.  Nevertheless he ended the season with as many question marks as he had at the beginning.  Except now his popular stock was falling instead of rising.

--Outlaw's strength is his athleticism, particularly his ability to leap.  He can create separation for a jump shot or turn-around on anyone, anytime.  He will finish an open dunk as well as anyone in the league.  His weakness remains his lack of fundamentals, both individually and in the team context.  Also, although he finishes wide-open plays with pretty dunks, they're only worth the same two points that anyone would have gotten with an ugly dunk or layup in that position. Seldom does he get to the rim and finish in any way that distinguishes him.  While his shooting percentage is adequate for a forward and he has developed a semi-confident jumper, he hasn't yet learned when to take it or not.  More often than not he'll get in a zone where he's going to shoot no matter what, making it easy for opponents to key on him and breaking down the offense.  Too often if he isn't shooting it, he'll disappear.  Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, for a player that relies on athleticism he doesn't intimidate anybody.  When you think of the great offensive athletes like Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter, they put the fear of God into everybody the moment they step on the court because of what they might do.  People clear out of Vince's way just to avoid getting caught in the poster frame.  Outlaw sometimes shows similar gifts, but he resembles an Easter Peep next to their raging tigers.  

--It's emblematic of the uncertainty that surrounds Travis that we don't even know where he'll be in the depth chart this year.  He'll certainly start the season behind Darius, and perhaps behind Martell if the latter plays small forward.  He could easily be the second guy though.  And if Darius implodes or is traded Travis may find himself the starter.  (On the other hand he could already be trade bait himself.)  I'm not sure even the Blazers know which one of those eventualities would prove best.

It's almost guaranteed that the Blazers envisioned Outlaw being farther ahead than this by the end of his third year.  Still, he is only 21 and sometimes he has nights that make you wonder how unlimited his true potential could be.  You obviously can't give up on him yet.  

In the end the only real surety is that this is a pivotal year for T.O.  There's no doubt he'll once again get substantial opportunity to prove himself. He has to be ready. He also needs to play in a way that will impress his coaches as well as the fans and the cameras. Otherwise he's going to find out that there's a world of difference between being very talented at your craft and being a professional.

What's your take on Travis, who he is, and what's in store for him?  What does he need to show this year?  What kind of game should he be playing out there anyway? Comments and e-mails always accepted.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)