With the team turning the page from the LaMarcus Aldridge era to Lillard Time, the new-look Portland Trail Blazers will have a brand new rotation next year. Familiar faces such as CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard are likely to finally get a chance to show what they can do in meaningful minutes. New acquisitions Ed Davis, Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, and Al-Farouq Aminu are all players on the upswing with varying levels of promise.
The rebuild is in full effect, and while the prospects of piling up losses can be discouraging, this is actually an exciting time to be a fan. Even when a team is winning games, fans often lament that one potential breakout player or another is not seeing any court time. With so many minutes up for grabs, all of Portland's young talent is likely to play. The question is, which young Blazer is going to have a breakout year?
For the sake of discussion, we can use a loose definition of "breakout". We don't need to see All-Star performance, or a 20 point per game average, etc. Let's look at the players most likely to make half the fan base say "I never knew he was capable of that" while the other half goes "I told you, he just needed time on the court!"
The smart money has to be on CJ McCollum. He showed consistent improvement over the season, and stretches of brilliance on the big stage of the NBA playoffs. Equally important, as the roster currently sits, he is going to get a ton of minutes. The Blazers have Damian Lillard, Gerald Henderson, and not a lot else in the back court. Whether McCollum starts or plays the 6th man role, look for him to not only get big time minutes at shooting guard, but to back up Lillard at the point for extended stretches.
While he needs to work on his distributing and ball handling abilities, McCollum is primed to put up big numbers through sheer opportunity, if nothing else. While he may see more pressure on the perimeter, due to the Blazers no longer having a post player that commands a double team the way that Aldridge did, McCollum has an uncanny ability to break down his man and get to the rim. With a new team and likely new offensive system, the team may struggle to get shots with Lillard on the bench. If the Blazers are unable to get good shots for stretches, McCollum is going to be forced to create offense late in the shot clock. Possibly a lot.
Speaking of players who should see more pressure on the perimeter, Meyers Leonard is the other returning Blazer who may breakout this season. Leonard isn't the near lock that McCollum is at this point due to the glut of big men on the team. As a 4/5, Meyers shares positions with Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, Chris Kaman, and Mason Plumlee. Al-Farouq Aminu may see time at the stretch 4 as well. Suffice it to say that the Blazers are locked in with young players in the post.
Meyers still arguably has the most upside of anyone in that group and is (shockingly) the most tenured member of this Blazer team, along with Damian Lillard. I expect Leonard to experience further growing pains this year as he tries to develop his game inside the 3 point arc. The big difference? He now has the confidence to weather the challenge. Look for an improvement trajectory similar to last season's; just a notch higher.
If Leonard doesn't have the most upside out of all of Portland's big men, Noah Vonleh does. A sweet shooting PF who comps well with....our outgoing sweet shooting PF, Vonleh is still a raw, 19 year old project. Teen players with his upside don't come around often, so the Blazers will need to be careful with his development. Project big men take longer, and are more easily caught up in bad habits. But should a minutes freeing consolidation trade occur and Vonleh take the next step in his development, which at this point is simply playing consistently and within himself, he may shock some fans with his skill.
At 26, Ed Davis isn't likely to drastically improve his game on the offensive end. Davis is a high energy rebounder and shot blocker who often looked like the best player on the Lakers roster last year (though that isn't saying much). He has a reputation as having an inconsistent motor, though his stats indicate otherwise. On his 4th team in 6 years, Davis may simply need the right opportunity to fully shine.
The Al-Farouq Aminu signing didn't generate as much buzz as I expected it to. Statistically, Aminu has had a pedestrian career thus far, but a 23 years old, he is already a high level defender and elite rebounder from the small forward position. He excels at taking the ball to the rim but has struggled from 18 feet out to the 3 point line. Should Aminu develop just a decent jump shot, he's my "I told you so" pick for the Blazers this year. I predict fans are going to fall in love with Aminu; he does all the little things that you look for from a glue guy.
We haven't even touched on young C Mason Plumlee, athletic rookie Pat Connaughton, or brand new addition Moe Harkless. Which Blazer do you think will breakout this season?