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Trail Blazers Hope to Find Answers in the Frontcourt

The Portland Trail Blazers added Festus Ezeli to an already-solid rotation of big men this summer that featured Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh. What can coach Terry Stotts expect from each of these guys?

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers kick off the regular season on Tuesday and, while the preseason has brought some clarity to concerns regarding the playing rotation, there are still questions surrounding Portland’s frontcourt rotation. With Al-Farouq Aminu sliding into a small-ball power forward role and a multitude of bigs on the roster deserving of minutes, it will be interesting to see how coach Terry Stotts chooses to sort things out up front. Will he play a set platoon, or will he juggle his big men in and out situationally based on matchups?

The only thing we know for sure is that Mason Plumlee has held on to his role at starting center. Here is a question facing each player down low as we kick off the 2016-17 NBA season.

Mason Plumlee

Will he get that elusive triple-double?

Last week, Jason Quick of CSN wrote a piece discussing Plumlee’s goal of having a triple-double this season. While on its face that seems like a preposterous question (Plumlee has notched 10 assists in a game exactly once), I have to believe it’s going to happen at least once this season.

Watching through the preseason, Plumlee has taken on even more of a role as a facilitator in the offense. He handled the ball at the elbow with the same frequency as last season, but now appears more comfortable roving the perimeter after faking the handoff to one of Portland’s guards. With Portland adding a couple of wrinkles to the offense, including more back cuts and baseline action, Plumlee is likely to see his assist numbers increase.

In fact, they’ve already increased in the preseason to over 3.5 assists per game, despite Plumlee being plagued with foul trouble that has limited him to less than 20 minutes of action on a nightly basis. During the regular season, I don’t anticipate Plumlee having nearly the kind of foul problems that limited him during preseason.

The Blazers haven’t had a triple-double since Nicolas Batum recorded one in 2014. Look for Plumlee to break that drought at least once this season. Check out this highlight reel of his passing last season — he sees the floor as well as any big man in the league, and is in prime position to take full advantage of his skillset this season:

Festus Ezeli

When do we get to see him on the court?

Blazer fans can be, understandably, a little antsy when we have an injured center with no real news or updates coming from the team. To be fair, everyone understands that there were concerns about the knee in the offseason, hence Portland being able to sign Ezeli in the first place for a significantly reduced amount, but no one seems to really know what is going on with his progress.

All signs point to a slow and cautious recovery period after Ezeli underwent a procedure on his knee in August. After an initial timetable of six weeks came and went, Portland has changed its approach to “no timeframe for return,” which basically means “when he’s feeling good enough to play.” Ezeli has slowly ramped up his activities to four-on-four practice, but still no word has been given on when he may see the court.

Portland is understandably cautious with Ezeli’s knees; if you are only going to get so many games out of him, it’s better to have his rim protection and pick-and-roll defense heading into the playoffs than in November. The team is monitoring how his knee responds to various activities each day, but it would be nice to have a clear idea of when we can expect Ezeli to make his debut.

Meyers Leonard

Is this what he is?

It’s great to see Meyers Leonard back on the court after he had season-ending shoulder surgery a little over six months ago. Leonard says his mental state is as good as it’s ever been and he’s ready to have a productive season after signing a 4-year, $41-million extension with the team.

This is great to hear, considering there are no doubts about Leonard’s physical attributes. Meyers is at the point in his career development where the game needs to slow down for him so that he can make the right decisions, get in good defensive position, and just play basketball. In his limited preseason action this year, he looked very similar to the player we’ve seen over the last two years.

To be fair, he hadn’t played professional-level basketball in six months and had a minor back issue hampering him, but Meyers didn’t look any closer to being a breakout player than he did at the beginning of last season. He averaged nine points and nearly five rebounds and shot just 30 percent from beyond the 3-point line during the preseason while playing adequate defense at center most of the time, occasionally getting burned with his head turned.

Maybe that’s just who Leonard is at this point, and that’s totally fine. He has a unique skillset and is a valuable part of the Blazers’ big man platoon -- an offensive weapon when Stotts needs to spread the floor. I still believe that Leonard has more to contribute over future years, but for 2016-17, we can probably expect Leonard to perform at levels similar to his last two seasons.

Noah Vonleh

Can he actually crack the rotation?

I’m not sure any Blazer had as good a preseason as Noah Vonleh. Sure, other players registered more minutes, scored more points, etc., but this is a guy who was all but left for dead by analysts this offseason. With the team excelling after he ceded his starting spot (where he was quite unremarkable) to Maurice Harkless, and then adding Festus Ezeli to the mix, it didn’t appear that there were going to be any non-garbage time minutes for Vonleh this year coming into training camp. The minor surgery on his leg this summer to remove a bone fragment was just the cherry on top of what was going to be a difficult season for the third-year power forward.

But something has seemed to switch on for Vonleh this preseason. He has played much more aggressively this year on both ends and the results speak for themselves: In six games, he tallied averages of 7.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game on 63 percent shooting, including a 50 percent mark in a limited number of attempts from the 3-point line. Vonleh hasn’t grown this offseason, to my knowledge, but the way he played in preseason made him look three inches bigger out on the court.

With his short-term future in doubt, this is a make-or-break year for Vonleh, and so far he seems determined to earn playing time, and there’s no doubt Stotts is thrilled to have his hand forced in this way when setting the big man rotation. If Vonleh continues to play with this newfound energy and, dare I say, swagger, There is no doubt that he will carve out a role on the team this season.

Ed Davis

Can he improve from the foul line?

You know what I love about Ed Davis? You know what you’re going to get from him every night. He shoots a high percentage around the rim, does a great job cleaning up the offensive glass, and has decent hands while rolling to the basket. You also know that he’s going to shoot just over 50 percent from the foul line, leaving him vulnerable to intentional fouls after snagging an offensive rebound. After the end of last season, Davis said that he needs to improve his free throw shooting and, small sample size aside, has done so in the preseason – shooting 71 percent from the line (10-14).

With what Davis brings to the table, being able to maintain a free throw percentage anywhere close to this would just be gravy. Even with his struggles from the line, Easy Ed was one of the most productive players on the team last season. Davis is adept at drawing fouls, particularly while finishing with his left hand in traffic. Last year, he drew 96 shooting fouls and 26 and-ones, which is solid for a bench big man. An increase in his free throw percentage would make a significant impact on Davis’ productivity, and would allow Stotts to leave him on the court at the end of close games without worry.