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Help From the Bench?

Dear Dave,

You've talked plenty about the starting lineup. What are the chances of a breakout year or career from players deep on the Blazer bench or currently overseas?

Portland's low-level players fall into two broad categories: those we've seen play in the NBA and those we haven't.

The two big guys we've seen in uniform are Earl Barron and Chris Johnson. Barron isn't going to make a rotation anywhere in the league. Johnson provides a slightly better hope because of his agility and jumping ability. We haven't seen enough from him to convince me to get excited though. The Blazers have made a small investment in him with a multi-year deal. It's kind of like playing high-jackpot nickel slots in Vegas. If you happen to hit big your dreams come true. If not you haven't lost more than a buck. It was the right signing but that doesn't mean he's the right player or even a viable one. Plenty of other teams have prospects just as good.

The smaller players we've seen on the court are Patty Mills, Armon Johnson, and Luke Babbitt.

Mills has been the most consistent contributor. He's already making a difference in the rotation, albeit as the bubble player. There's no reason to think he'd nosedive. He might even improve. His defense isn't great and his offense is self-indulgent for a point guard. He may make a nice deep shooting release valve if some of the other Blazers learn to handle the ball better. Even in his best-case scenario it's unlikely he'll climb higher on the depth chart though.

Johnson has problems with handles and uses even more possessions than Mills when he's running the point. He does have defensive potential and his athleticism is good. We were talking the other day about "it" factor and Johnson has more of that than any other player we've mentioned. If there's going to be a break-out star in this bunch it's him. But that's still a major longshot.

Whatever is the opposite of "it factor", that's what Luke Babbitt has. He looks awkward on the floor, out of synch with the game, and shaky on his shot. He's not yet learned how to play at this level. He looks more concerned about not getting embarrassed at this level. It's a long way from that to contributing player, let alone star. Babbitt will have to show us something radically different before he even belongs in this conversation.

That leaves players we haven't seen play. For simplicity's sake lets consider those Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams, Victor Claver, and Joel Freeland.

Williams remains tantalizing, probably the most potentially explosive of the bunch. Smith is reportedly a safe bet but his talent level and final position remain up in the air. Some folks are excited about Freeland but I wasn't in love with him years ago when he showed up at summer league and I've become less so since it's taken him so long to bake overseas. Obviously some of that is contract but a European big man has to be pretty darn good to make it here. I'm not sure he is If the Blazers get anything out of Freeland it will be a bonus. Claver makes the more interesting case as he can defend and can shoot a little. Unless he can learn to score with more consistency he'll not be a strong candidate for a starting position but he could come over and fill bench minutes at some point.

Nevertheless, banking on players (or even talking them up) when they haven't played a single game in the league is a fool's errand...the province of teams with nothing else to hope for. Hopefully the Blazers and their fans aren't that desperate yet.

The short answer to the question is that Portland is banking on its top eight players to come through big time. (The number eight assumes reasonable enough health for Oden and Roy to play a little.) Anything coming off the deep bench would be unexpected, though welcome. This is no longer the team of 2006 where surprises supposedly abounded. What you see is what you get with the 2011-12 Blazers.

--Dave (