Having been through the draft, the Olympics, Summer League, endless talk about the newcomers, and having chatted about most every other player on the roster it's time to revisit one of the semi-forgotten guys in the mix: Sergio Rodriguez.
I'm going to be as candid here as I've been on the podcast and radio when this has come up. It doesn't feel like the winds are blowing in a great direction for Sergio right now. Last season was obviously shaky for him. His confidence may or may not have taken a hit. The weaknesses in his game may or may not have been exposed. It's hard to say exactly what went on there, or if it was a combination of things. We just know it didn't work. He wasn't selected for Spain's Olympic team this summer. He didn't participate in Summer League. With Jerryd Bayless bringing a Jack-like scoring game without as many of Jarrett's weaknesses, Sergio could get stuck in the role of third point guard again. That isn't exactly a blueprint for a fast-ascending career.
On the other hand none of the above data is anywhere near conclusive. It looks shaky for him, but circumstantially so. Players are entitled to have a rough sophomore season. That has happened to plenty of guys and some have rebounded to have nice careers. If you step back and analyze the Sergio-meter so far (at least according to the fans) you'd say he had minimal expectations coming into the league and exceeded them with his flashes of brilliance. This led to much higher expectations for his second year which he didn't meet. When the meter oscillates that violently it usually means the truth is somewhere in the middle. Plus even though Bayless poses a real threat to Sergio's potential minutes they're not at all the same kind of guard. In fact they're dead opposite in many ways. It's not like Nate is going to see Jerryd as an acceptable substitute if he needs a Sergio. The door is open still.
What will Sergio need to do to kick the door fully open and walk through it and into the rotation? Here's the list:
1. He needs to come into training camp in incredible shape and ready to go. It's not so much that this is a weakness for him, but the "new leaf" psychology is operative here and this is a prime symbol of it. This is how you show the coaches on Day One that you're serious.
2. He needs to demonstrate that he has honed both his skills and his mental approach. Remember last year when Mike Barrett and Jason Quick started writing very early on about Joel Przybilla and how we were going to notice a marked difference in his free throw shooting? We need to hear whispers that Sergio is going to surprise us this year. We need to hear how much better his shot looks. We need to hear how he's focused on the coaches like a laser and he seems to be able to anticipate what they want to see out of him and the offense instead of just responding to it. We need to hear about his all-out, two-way hustle.
3. He needs to make friends with Greg Oden. You have noticed that Greg Oden can dunk, right? You may have also noticed that any alley-oop south of the utter top of the backboard he's going to catch and throw down. Who's the most likely candidate on the team to be throwing those alley-oops? Greg Oden is a possible lifeline for Sergio. Besides the dunks, Sergio also needs to make darn sure he can throw an excellent, basic pass into the post. He needs to know what to do after he's made that pass as well, including (as we mentioned above) being a threat to hit the shot if it's passed back.
4. He needs to play with his usual abandon on the break. Everybody with eyes is betting this team will start to run more in the near future. We may not be at full throttle this season but we should be in first gear at least and shifting towards second. Lamarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez, Oden, Bayless...these guys can charge. The Blazers have nobody better than Sergio to lead in a running offense. There's not even a close second.
5. He needs to be prepared to produce big in small minutes. Barring injury he's not going to pull 20 mpg without proving himself first. He doesn't have the luxury of ramping up slowly when he gets inserted. This is not to say he has to spaz out or break the offense when he comes in. That'll just get him benched again. But if he has an open shot he has to take it and hit it. If he has a lane he must drive it. If he has the ball he has to push it up now, not three plays from now. This is the reality of life off the bench in the NBA. The league is full of guys who could probably put up respectable numbers if they were just granted 25 minutes to do it, but we never see them because they can't give that same production in practice and for 5 minutes in a game.
6. Speaking of practice...every one of those is like his NBA Finals. I don't know how he's used to practicing or what his habits are, but they need to be exemplary all year long. He has got to find every edge he can to win that time. You know Bayless isn't going to back down from a challenge. You know Blake is reliable whether he practices well or not. That means Sergio needs to be a star during rehearsal to gain ground. Nate has remarked about a couple relatively obscure players in the past pretty much forcing him to play them by the way they worked out. That needs to be Sergio this year.
Note that none of these half-dozen items involves Sergio being somebody he's not. We didn't try to turn him into a lock-down defender. We didn't say a peep about the turnovers. I believe Sergio can play his game and make it in the NBA without having his flaws submarine him. But because his game is not complete--or at least not complete yet--he's going to have to do these other things well.
Were I to summarize Sergio's potential future with the Blazers right now I'd say not to bet on him, but don't sleep on him either. We ought to get signs fairly early on which way things are going to go. Hearing positive things about him would be a big plus, showing not only an improved game but an advantageous attitude as well. Not hearing about him at all would probably be a discouraging sign considering that he needs to shine in order to advance.