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Even though it was upgraded during the Summer of 2013, the Portland Trail Blazers bench was still one of the worst in the league last year (23.6 points per game, last in the NBA). Blazers GM Neil Olshey didn't make any flashy moves this summer in hope that the team's young players will show improvement. On whom does the burden fall hardest? The Blazer's Edge panel discusses which of those young players has the most to prove and why.
Timmay!: Will Barton has the most to prove. Barton isn't a seven-footer who is bound to get multiple chances on height alone. Barton wasn't picked in the Top 10 and was in injury recovery during his rookie season. And most of all, unlike the other young guys, Barton isn't on a rookie contract. He's on the last season of his first contract, and needs to prove he can play real minutes in the NBA, or he's going to be looking for temporary apartments in Europe or China. If the Blazers want to make it to the next level, they absolutely must have a quality, reliable bench. And while GM Neil Olshey will make room for young guys to develop, they also can't use all their roster spots for that purpose.
Will has shown progress, but in the NBA that won't be enough to keep you on a team indefinitely. Meyers Leonard and CJ McCollum will get their chances until at least the end of their rookie contracts (whether in Portland or elsewhere), so while they need to show development, there is still a long-term view. The Blazers are clearly happy with Barton's development up until now, but if his progress stops and he's not able to break into the rotation this season, he may become a very tough free agent decision for Olshey. But before it reaches that point, Barton has one full season to prove himself.
Sam Tongue: Not only are there a number of young players that have a lot to prove, there are a lot of young players that have been and will continue to be rotation players. That being said, I really have my eye on C.J. McCollum this year. Players like Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson have shown where they fit within the Trail Blazers system, and even youngsters like Will Barton are somewhat known commodities. However, after the early-season injury last year, McCollum never truly blossomed into what many people believed he could be. Additionally, once the team lost Mo Williams over the offseason in lieu of Steve Blake, I think a spot opened up for a bench scorer. If McCollum can't do that, there isn't a whole lot else the team will NEED him around for -- Blake's ability as a distributor covers the point guard spot, and we all know C.J. still has some work to do on the defensive end. So, for me, without a ton of opportunity to see exactly what he can do and playing time being squeezed after last season's playoff run, I think McCollum has the most to prove. Otherwise, there may not be space for him in the rotation.
Chris Lucia: I'm guessing the 2015-16 team options for CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson will get picked up by Neil Olshey this fall, so they'll all have at least one more season to prove themselves before the Blazers can let them walk. Will Barton's qualifying offer after this season is for $1.18 million, so I see Olshey extending that next summer, as well. Victor Claver will likely be gone either way, but what about Joel Freeland?
I know Freeland's not a "young guy," per se, but he'll be a third-year, back-up big fighting for minutes behind Chris Kaman and Robinson. If those two play well this season, does Olshey keep Freeland past next year? He'll make $3.1 million this season on an expiring deal, and I'm not sure he'll get brought back at that price if similar production from a fourth or fifth man in the power forward/center rotation can be found elsewhere from a cheaper, younger player next summer.
Ryan A. Chase: I think, without question, the answer is Meyers Leonard. He is a former first-round pick who has not played even close to his potential. This is his third season after being taken with eleventh pick in the 2012 draft, and this season will make or break his Blazers career.
In the 2012-2013 season, he showed flashes of being the player Portland hoped he was when they took him so high. He averaged almost ten points per game over the final twelve games of the season, including a career high 22 points and 10 rebounds against Golden State on March 30, 2013.
Flash forward to last season where he played in 29 fewer games, never scored in double figures, and looked lost on defense when he was on the court. He had 23 games last year where his plus/minus was in negatives, the worst such mark on the team. A compelling case could be made that the team was better off when Leonard did not play at all, a sentiment that coach Terry Stotts seemed to share at points.
Leonard found himself buried on the depth chart behind Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland, and the offseason acquisition of Chris Kaman has only made his position on the team more murky. His summer league performance was limited by a shoulder injury, and he appeared shaky even when he did make it on the court. During a 88-65 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on July 17th, Leonard was two of six shooting, for four points, four rebounds, five fouls, and a turnover. When the Blazers beat the Hawks 91-76 on July 15th, Leonard scored seven points before fouling out, and failed to record a single rebound in 21 minutes.
Leonard is going to improve in a hurry, or he may find himself finding a new home next season, if not sooner. The Blazers depth this season is too important to carry four centers on the roster, and Leonard appears to be the odd man out. Time to see what he can do when his back is against the wall.
Scott Horlbeck: I think it has to be Thomas Robinson. After an underwhelming first season in Portland (4.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 14.15 PER), the 2014-2015 season may be the most important of his young career.
First, Robinson has a team option after this season, meaning, the Blazers can choose whether or not they want to pick up the remaining year of his deal. That can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on how Robinson performs this season.
Next, with the lack of frontcourt depth on this year's team, Robinson will be counted on to play quality minutes off the bench. And while he showed some flashes last season (14-18 vs PHX, 11-9 vs Dallas), overall, Robinson's performance thus far has been sporadic and difficult to count on.
Lucky for him, he's a young player with a great motor and a ton of talent. He just needs to continue to develop confidence in his game and cut down on the no-shows.
William Raedy: Most to prove is a lot like the Most Improved Player award in that the criteria is pretty undefined and it asks you to consider who started, or is starting, from a lower position. With that in mind, I would say Allen Crabbe since he is farthest away from getting minutes.
But that's not a very interesting answer, so I'll take a different angle and consider who's progression, whether they prove themselves or not, will have the greatest impact on the Blazers' future. Here, "most" is defined more in terms of significance than gameplay.
With that question, the deep bench guys, Leonard and Freeland are out since this team seems prepared to move forward without them. T-Rob's minutes and significance will always be limited by Aldridge. That leaves Barton and CJ.
I'm going with CJ given his contract situation. If CJ blossoms in his bench role, or maybe even seems ready for the starting gig, that gives the Blazers three more years of a quality rotation player on their rookie salary. That could be the added flexibility and/or asset the Blazers need to make that Buck Williams type trade or FA acquisition to push them over the top. If Barton really develops, he could attract a flukey high offer sheet and wreck all those team building benefits (see Meeks, $6M+/yr).
Evans Clinchy: You know what's weird? We're only one year away from discussing a potential contract extension for Meyers Leonard. Doesn't that feel weird? I think it's weird.
When the Blazers used the No. 11 overall pick in the draft two summers ago to take Leonard after his sophomore year at Illinois, they probably had designs on making him a starting center at some point. Obviously that hasn't happened, so it's easy to jump to the conclusion that the Leonard experiment has failed. But I wouldn't even give Leonard a failing grade for his performance in Rip City to date - rather, he'd get an I for incomplete. I'm still not sure what he's capable of.
He's only played 1,561 career minutes with the Blazers, lowest of anyone in the top 20 in his draft class not named Royce White, and his playing time isn't likely to increase anytime soon with the arrival of Chris Kaman. With the few minutes he does get, it's imperative that Leonard assert himself more on both ends. He's running out of opportunities to prove he belongs in the NBA past 2015.
I like Leonard a decent amount. There's definitely potential there. But from here, proving it won't be easy.
Sagar Trika: While arguments can be made for each young bench player, this is the season Meyers Leonard has to prove that his future is worth the Blazers' time and money.
His first two seasons in Portland are considered underwhelming by many fans. Touted as an athletic big that could run the floor, Portland took him with the 11th pick of the 2012 NBA Draft. Fans were told Leonard would be a "project," but since the draft two years ago, he hasn't come close to expectations, prompting Olshey to sign veteran big man Chris Kaman.
Leonard is in the final year of his rookie contract. Olshey has the option of extending a qualifying offer to Leonard, and if he doesn't perform at the level the team needs him to be game in and game out, Leonard won't be getting the qualifying offer. This season, he will literally be playing for his paycheck.