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The Jerryd Bayless Gamble

Coming off of Summer League the hottest non-trade, non-free-agent, non-Roy-contract Blazer issue is the progress (or lack thereof) of second-year point guard Jerryd Bayless.  In other words, if you're going to talk about the on-court performance of someone who's actually a Blazer right now, J-Bay is your guy.  

How much is he your guy?  I guess that depends on what you're looking for.

We surely saw a different Jerryd Bayless in this year's Summer League than last.  He appeared to have a better sense of who he was and what his job was.  For the most part, turnovers and occasional spazzing aside, he played with control and awareness.  We got a little less of the one-track freight train this year.  That was bad for his scoring (as that train wasn't going to be stopped) but good for his point guard development.  "Decision making" by definition involves more than one option.  Whether he executed perfectly or not, Bayless recognized more possibilities on the floor last week than he showed last year.

Those wishing for more would do well to look at the calendar, which reads about two months since the Blazers' 2008-09 campaign ended.  There's a temptation to draw a clear dividing line between seasons, expecting Bayless to play like a second-year guy now.  In reality I don't expect eight weeks to make a huge difference, especially when the skills being developed are point guard-oriented.  It's hard to practice those outside of the team structure.  I'd expect Jerryd to develop more during the regular season than the break, at least in that vein.  The jump shot's a summer project.  Becoming a floor general, not so much.

That said, it was still jarring to see how far Bayless has yet to go, especially considering right now he's penciled in as the top reserve at his position.  (I expect that to change before the season starts.)  Whatever you think of his potential, I think it's fair to say at this point that point guard is not Jerryd's natural position, or at least that it's far more natural by height than inclination.  With last week's increased recognition came increased processing time.  You could almost see the wheels turning inside his head.  Apparently opponents could read them as well, judging by the forced miscues.  You just can't spin that many turnovers at the Summer League level as a positive, or even barely encouraging.  You want to argue this guy is ready to be an NBA player?  I could see that.  You want to argue this guy is ready to be an NBA point guard?  Yeesh.  It's going to be a painful process.

So how are the Blazers and their fans supposed to regard Bayless?  What are they supposed to do with him?

There are tons of reasons to take a chance on Bayless.  His body is great.  His defense is good.  His rim-scoring ability is awe-inspiring.  He's as athletic as you could wish.  He's a workaholic.  He's aggressive.  When he's at his best, usually with the ball on the way to the hoop, he's downright awe-inspiring.  All of this comes from a kid who really doesn't have a clue what he's doing yet.

There are also reasons to be suspicious of Jerryd.  Right now the Blazers have to use him as a point guard and he's not one.  Point guard is a difficult position to play even when you're born and bred to it.  Successful converted point guards are rare.  While inspiring, Jerryd's offensive game is like a song with two chords...and they're both E-major.  He doesn't have a jump shot.  Opponents are going to play him for the drive until he develops one.  Jerryd's intensity can be a double-edged sword.  He can sometimes be his own worst enemy emotionally.  The step from there to becoming a problem/distraction is short...not intentionally, but simply because your drama and angst are overshadowing everything else.  Bayless isn't going to take a Travis Outlaw-like leisurely career arc with the Blazers.  You won't see seven years pass while he figures things out.  He's either going to blow up huge or flame out.

What does this add up to?  Jerryd is the Blazers' long-shot.  If he is able to man the one position, especially if he can learn to play with Roy, he could become a dominant player.  Roy would slice and dice you while Bayless came down like thunder on your heads.  Add the defense and physicality and you've got yourself a backcourt for the ages.  But the chances of him getting there are slim.

Recall what we said a couple months ago about this year's draft.  I argued if the Blazers were going to use a pick, whether it was in the 20's or something they traded up for, they needed to take a gamble.  This team has enough pretty good guys.  They have enough depth.  They should roll the dice and go for the long-shot superstar, knowing it's not going to cost them if they fail.  The team is good enough now to absorb the risk, to chance a little failure in order to catch lightning in a bottle.  That's exactly what Jerryd is.

At this point Bayless is a low-cost experiment with a high-ceiling potential reward.  The Blazers spent the 13th pick in last year's draft and Jarrett Jack on him.  Neither of those assets was irreplaceable or even crucial.  It's not like he was the #2 pick in the draft, expected to reverse the fate of the franchise.  If Jerryd flunked out entirely Portland would still be in the exact position it's in right now:  really needing another point guard to round things out.  There's no downside to having him on the team.  In fact the Blazers are better off having a couple of their supporting players to carry exactly that kind of promise and risk...the hares-apparent next to the Przybilla-Blake tortoise types.

Consider also that the roster pieces around Jerryd may change over the next couple of years.  Obviously Brandon Roy going anywhere would be a wrecking-ball restructuring of the backcourt.  But if Rudy Fernandez is traded or simply takes his game back to Spain in frustration then minutes open up behind Brandon.  Bayless will never make a starting shooting guard in this league but adding 12 minutes of reserve duty against opposing second units wherein his main job description was to score all of a sudden makes him a near full-time player.

The alternative scenario to that one is Jerryd himself becoming part of a deal.  As long as he's perceived to have potential that's untapped, even if that potential is mostly scoring, he'll have value.  

Either way, Bayless doesn't necessarily have to become the Blazers' starting point guard for the next decade to make him worth the roster spot right now.  He may be a dicey proposition, but the Blazers' current combination of need and risk tolerance make him a chance worth taking.  They'll hold on to him with a loose grip and see what happens.  That's the money move here.

--Dave (