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Could The Blazers' Young Core Be Among The NBA's Best?

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The Trail Blazers have put together an impressive stockpile of young talent this summer. How does their collection stack up against the rest of the league?

Two of the best youngsters in the game go head to head.
Two of the best youngsters in the game go head to head.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Considering how quickly Neil Olshey was asked to redesign the Trail Blazers' roster on the fly, dealing with an unprecedented mass exodus and replacing a half-dozen of his most important players all at once, it's pretty impressive that the Portland GM was able to put together the collection of talent that he did. In the last month alone, Olshey has added seven legitimate NBA rotation players to the roster, plus another three draft picks who might turn into legit guys sooner rather than later. It's quite the overhaul.

Incidentally, it's notable that every single member of the Blazers' incoming class is still in his twenties. Actually, scratch that - Noah Vonleh is still a few weeks away from even entering his twenties. With the exception of Chris Kaman, who's likely to be in the backup center role when the 2015-16 season opens this fall, the Blazers' roster is incredibly young. Barring any late developments, Gerald Henderson will be the oldest guy in the locker room after Kaman, and he's 27.

This can have its drawbacks and its benefits. Obviously, no one wins championships in the NBA with a ragtag group of kids in their early twenties. It just doesn't happen - ever. Even the relatively young stars that break through and win rings (such as your Stephen Currys and Kawhi Leonards) are flanked by their veteran leaders (such as your Andre Iguodalas and Tim Duncans). No one gets anywhere without wisdom and experience. It's the way the league works.

On the other hand? Young teams often have a whole lot of future potential. That most definitely includes the Blazers.

How much potential, you ask? Well, according to ESPN, they're right up there with the cream of the NBA's crop. Bradford Doolittle, hoop stats guru over at the Worldwide Leader, ran the numbers on the expected productivity of each team's "young core" over the next three years, and he concluded that the Blazers have the league's sixth-best crop of under-26 talent. The Milwaukee Bucks, who just added a near-All-Star in Greg Monroe to a group that already included Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Michael Carter-Williams, were a solid No. 1, with New Orleans and Utah not far behind. Then Portland's right in the mix:

Team Key Young Player Projected 3-Year WARP
Milwaukee Bucks Greg Monroe 92.5
New Orleans Pelicans Anthony Davis 90.6
Utah Jazz Rudy Gobert 90.0
Boston Celtics Marcus Smart 82.7
Philadelphia 76ers Jahlil Okafor 73.6
Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard 73.2
Charlotte Hornets Kemba Walker 73.2
Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas 71.2
Orlando Magic Nicola Vucevic 70.1
Detroit Pistons Andre Drummond 58.7

("Projected 3-Year WARP" refers to the total Wins Above Replacement Player projected for all of the team's current under-26 players over the next three seasons.)

Doolittle identified Damian Lillard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard, Vonleh, Moe Harkless and C.J. McCollum as the Blazers' key young players to watch in the coming years. Here's what he's got to say:

The Blazers did a pretty nifty job of redirecting their priorities in the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge's departure, not to mention the exits of Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez. Lillard gives Portland a young star to lead a rapid rebuild, and the offseason acquisitions of Aminu, Vonleh and Harkless have helped bolster the young depth. Vonleh could turn out to be better than Aldridge someday, while McCollum, Leonard and Allen Crabbe should all benefit from expanded responsibilities.

All of the above is interesting. It's all valid to some extent - Lillard does indeed look like a centerpiece guy for the Blazers' future, and all of the supporting guys have shown potential to be important building blocks. But, as is always the case when you talk about youngsters like this, there are a million little question marks lingering.

How many wins is Noah Vonleh worth over the next three years? It's like asking how many pebbles are on Mars. We don't have anywhere near the knowledge we need to make even an educated guess. The other guys all have at least two or three seasons under their belts (five in Aminu's case, actually), but they still haven't maximized their potential, nor have their coaches given them enough opportunities to do so. It's impossible to soothsay with these young players. They're a collection of unfinished projects who may look entirely different once Terry Stotts gets them in the lab and begins to experiment.

The way I see it, we can't really predict much about the Blazers' future before we find answers to these seven questions:

1. Is Lillard committed to being a two-way player?


There's no doubt that Dame has established himself as a legitimate star in the NBA. After back-to-back seasons scoring 20-plus and locking down an All-Star spot in the West, he's left little doubt. But can he be the best player on a title-contending team? Not a "1 and 1A" situation like with Aldridge and Lillard last year, but the undisputed leader?

Generally, the guys who attain that status - Duncan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, what have you - get there by establishing themselves in every facet of the game. They don't just score. They defend, they rebound, they make plays for teammates, the whole deal. While Lillard has been a high-volume scorer and a human SportsCenter highlight the last three years, he hasn't necessarily shown the complete game needed to be the face of a rebuild. A lot of guys have dropped 20-plus every night while wasting away on losing teams. Just ask Rudy Gay, Carmelo Anthony and pre-LeBron Kyrie Irving.

Can Lillard be more than that? Sure. He's still only 25 years old (as of last week - happy birthday, Dame) and still has time to develop. It's easy to lose sight of that when we've already spent three years piling such high expectations on him. Lillard will need to keep improving over the next couple of years - and if he can't, there will be a definite ceiling to how much the Blazers can achieve.

2. Can Aminu learn to shoot - and if not, is that a problem?


31.5, 27.7, 21.1, 27.1, 27.4.

Those are Aminu's 3-point field goal percentages in each of his first five NBA seasons. So, if you're keeping score at home, that means he's been quite bad. Even worse, it's not like he's holding back from taking the 3, either - last year in Dallas, he put up 124 attempts, which is more than Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, DeMar DeRozan or a couple guys you may have heard of named LaMarcus Aldridge and Meyers Leonard. Long story short, Aminu is chucking, and the results are not good.

This will be year No. 6 (and team No. 4) for the wingman, who turns 25 this summer. He's bounced around from coach to coach, and no one has yet found a way to maximize his talents. Aminu is a great athlete - blessed with the size, strength and speed to guard multiple positions and rebound quite well. But being a small forward with such an awful jump shot is a glaring issue. How do you build an effective offense with that guy in your rotation? No one, not even offensive mastermind Rick Carlisle, has found a way to make it work. Someone needs to either (a) help Aminu find his stroke, or (b) devise an offense that can use him primarily as a screener and/or decoy.

Will Stotts be the guy who figures it out? He's got to try something. He definitely doesn't want to sit through another year of Aminu tossing up 124 shots from deep and missing 90 of them.

3. Can Leonard sustain his excellence, given more minutes?


It's often been said that when developing young big men, you can mold them into either floor-spacing shooters or rim protectors - it's extremely rare to find a guy who can demonstrate both of those skills at once, so you've just got to pick one. Then again, look at Meyers Leonard's numbers last season and holy crap, he did both things really well.

Offensively, Leonard's efficiency was amazing. He shot 51.0 percent from the field, 42.0 percent from 3 and 93.8 percent from the free throw line. The "50-40-90 club" is elite territory, open only to all-time greats like Durant, Nowitzki, Nash and Bird. The 51-42-93 club? That one's limited to no one ever. Meyers founded it last year, and he was only 23.

Defensively, Leonard took big steps forward as a rim-protecting center. According to SportVU data made publicly available by the NBA last year, he held opponents within 5 feet of the rim to 42.3 percent shooting, making him one of the best paint defenders in the league. That percentage was lower than the rates allowed by Roy Hibbert (42.6 percent), Dwight Howard (45.7), Andre Drummond (48.0) or DeAndre Jordan (48.5). No, I am not kidding.

Leonard's productivity last year was incredible, on both ends of the floor. Of course, it also came in a mere 15.4 minutes per game, a number that's bound to shoot up next season in the absence of both Aldridge and Robin Lopez. It'll be interesting to see whether Leonard continues to shine with a bigger workload. Does he continue to shoot the lights out and lock down the paint, or does the burden of playing 30 to 35 minutes a night begin to drag him down? We'll find out.

4. Will Vonleh figure it out as he matures?


No need to hammer on this nail too hard - I already devoted 2,000-plus words to it a week ago. Long story short, Vonleh brings a unique package of size and athleticism to Portland, and he could turn into one of the best low-post scorers in the league someday. But he needs to develop his offensive instincts at the pro level - he can't expect to attack the basket every single possession against adept NBA rim-defenders. He needs to develop a more sophisticated post game, trust his jump shot and become a better playmaker for his teammates as well. It's asking a lot, but then again, he's 19 and has played a mere 259 minutes of professional basketball. Let's wait before passing judgment.

5. Does Harkless have a role in Portland?


I'm not sure what to think about Moe Harkless. On one hand, there are definitely things to like. Harkless is a good athlete. He's a decent defender and sometimes a decent shooter, too (38.3 percent from deep in 2013-14). He has potential.

He was also just let go by the Magic - a team that should be in the exact same boat as the Blazers, collecting every piece of young talent they can get - for basically zilch.

The Blazers got Harkless and his $2.9 million cap figure by giving up nothing more than a heavily protected second-round draft pick. That's right - the Blazers weren't content with just getting Harkless for the 35th or 40th pick. They had to make sure they shipped out a selection no better than No. 56. Trade value doesn't get much lower than that.

It makes you wonder what reasons the Magic had for dumping him. He obviously wasn't flourishing in Orlando - he played in only 45 games last year despite being mostly injury-free. He'd go weeks as a healthy scratch. Now he's being snatched up at a clearance sale price.

Is this a "one man's trash, another man's treasure" situation (obligatory shout out to J.R. Smith)? Or is Harkless on the verge of falling out of the league altogether?

6. Can McCollum get more efficient offensively?


C.J. McCollum is weird. You watch him, and you instantly love him. There's a certain fluidity to his game that's aesthetically great - he moves well, he's got a pretty shooting stroke, he puts points on the board in bunches. Then you look at the numbers, and well, he leaves a bit to be desired.

The Blazers were a significantly worse team offensively with C.J. on the floor last year. They scored 105.3 points per 100 possessions with him in and 109.1 with him out. There was no one glaring factor that caused this - it was a combination of a bunch of little things. His offensive rebounding wasn't great. His shot chart was a bit of a mess - decent from 3 and just outside the paint, not so good from around the rim or on long-range 2s. He didn't get to the free throw line (or make his shots when he did). His turnovers (1.8 per 36 minutes, for a guy who didn't even handle the ball much) were a bit high. There was no one huge problem, but a lot of small imperfections.

In short, the problem is efficiency. McCollum's game is pretty, and it can impress you at times, but he's not yet making the most of every possession, every shot, every playmaking opportunity. He's just got to tighten some things up. Maybe, once thrust into a more prominent role next season, he'll start to do so.

7. Can the (relatively) old guys also contribute long-term?


The ESPN study above only included players who will finish next season still under age 26. That means it didn't include Ed Davis (turned 26 in June), Mason Plumlee (will be 26 next March) or Gerald Henderson (already 27 - start looking for nursing homes!).

Those guys don't quite fit under the threshold, but they're all still young enough to contribute for the next few years. To an extent, I'm a fan of all three.

Davis is incredibly efficient. Last season, among guys with 500 points or more, he was sixth in the NBA in field goal percentage at 60.1; Dwight Howard was seventh at 59.3. Among guys with 500 rebounds, he was 12th in the league in rebound rate, getting 18.0 percent of all available boards; Tim Duncan was 13th at 17.9. In other words, Davis has shown the potential to be just as good as the best big men in the game - he just needs more of an opportunity to prove it.

Plumlee has been in the league two years and is already a double-double waiting to happen. Unfortunately, he's been buried on the Nets' depth chart behind Brook Lopez. That will change now. Henderson may be the elder statesman of the group, but he's a reliable 3-and-D wing player, and what team doesn't appreciate having one of those?

Everyone on the Blazers' roster has real potential. But there's a big difference between potential and bona fide achievement in the NBA, and we're still a long way from seeing any real results from Neil Olshey's rebuilding experiment.

Do the Blazers really have one of the best young cores in the NBA? Maybe they do - the numbers say so. But then again, what do the numbers know? In July, they present more questions than answers. Stay tuned.