The Portland Trail Blazers have cycled a number of green players through the deep bench in recent seasons; each eventually achieving their own level of utility, here or elsewhere, in time. A few were traded on their way to more accommodating destinations (Will Barton and Thomas Robinson), while others ultimately found homes in EuroLeague (Victor Claver and Joel Freeland), and others still grew into valued contributors here in Portland (Allen Crabbe). Life as man 11-15 requires patience and the ability to bend without breaking under the pressure of an uncertain future. A lucky few will thrive.
The same can be said for the Blazers’ current crew of purported afterthoughts. Making the leap from garbage time to crunch time takes all sorts of time in between, as well as the right combination of skill and preparation. Some of our favorite faces will stick around long enough to become what the Blazers need them to be, others will eventually go the way of Tim Frazier—with an emotional farewell and a wish for the best of luck—but that is a future we cannot yet know.
We can, however, examine what we have witnessed from the deep bench brigade this season, taking the limited dosage with a grain of salt. Perhaps we can see through the sample size and spot potential where it lives. We’ll begin with power forward Noah Vonleh.
Vonleh is a sort of ‘tweener’ that does not quite belong in the deep bench category, but was not used more than sparingly either. He came off the bench behind Meyers Leonard to start the season, until Leonard dislocated his shoulder and left a void in the starting lineup. Vonleh filled that void and turned it into his primary spot even after Leonard regained health. He would go on to start a total of 56 games in limited minutes before Moe Harkless proved too talented to disregard as a more viable option.
Starting Vonleh made a lot of sense for the majority of the year. He lacked the scoring punch that Leonard could offer the second unit, and his skills on the offensive glass actively created more opportunities for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who he coexisted with well because he did not require the ball to be effective. His large body and physical play were even helpful on defense, though the occasional bad foul betrayed his true inexperience.
Entering the season, Vonleh threatened to be a versatile scorer, but as the months passed it became clear that he is not there yet. The highly touted 3-point capability was seemingly absent, as was any sort of efficiency close to the hoop. He shot an abysmal 27.3 percent from 3-10 feet, and although his footwork was often impressive, he lacked the touch to capitalize on otherwise dynamic play. That being said, he generally knew where to be and made a good target for lobs, which is not to be undervalued.
In order for Vonleh to meet his potential, he needs to get used to finishing against NBA bigs that contest at the rim—perhaps another reason he got as much run as he did in the starting lineup. Too often he put the moves on his mark, only to look up for a shot that was still far from clear. Consequently, some of his would-be bread and butter attempts met back iron, front rim, or nothing at all. This is something that will come in time. At 20 years old, he can’t legally take shots at the bar—we can cut him a modicum of slack on making them on the court. He does other things well. Right now, his job is to crash the boards, and that has not been a problem.
Roberts arrived in Portland at the February trade deadline, shortly after the aforementioned dismissal of Frazier. He never cracked 20 minutes on the court, rarely cracked 10, and only sometimes cracked five. He basically served as a ventilator at times when Lillard needed to catch his breath. As far as stand-ins go, the Blazers could have done a lot worse.
Roberts was typically productive in his short bursts, shooting 46 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep. Despite low volume, this is actually quite a feat for a player who so seldom got to establish rhythm. Burying shots cold is a useful talent for a bench player, and why you see gunners often praised in a sixth man role. Roberts kept the offense moving little by little, fulfilling the part he was intended to play. The 30-year-old former starter was probably overqualified for such a minor relief role, but that is a pleasant problem to have from a team perspective.
Connaughton had a rough rookie campaign, but that is like saying you had a rough commute on your first day of work; maybe the traffic was bad, but if you only measure one trip you won’t know if there was an accident clogging things up or if you can expect bumper-to-bumper to be par for the course. Connaughton played 143 total minutes—about as long as one might sit in a traffic jam, actually—so it’s difficult to be too hard on him. For the sake of fairness, we’ll try anyway.
Connaughton shot 26.5 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from deep. Understanding that there is more to basketball than making shots, there is not much more to garbage time, which is when he was supposed to make them. His pacing was fairly erratic but only semi-detrimental. He was still able to make plays if not shot attempts. You hear rookies talk about the game slowing down for them; in order for Connaughton to take the next step, he may need to relax and slow down for the game.
Ahh, yes. Montero. The reason Westchester Community College now appears in NBA databases. The enigmatic Dominican was picked up for Summer League and signed seemingly out of nowhere before his exhibition debut with the team in Las Vegas. What the Blazers see in him is not entirely for us to know, as his regular season total of 42 minutes was less than half what he played in the Vegas tournament. On the surface, he appears to be here because he has some raw talent that is highly moldable behind the scenes. How much learning and growing he does in practice will determine if he gets a chance to back up the trash talk he is most commonly known for. His review is more of a preview, still with more questions than answers.
Alexander got a bit of a raw deal, but he was unlikely to crack rotation anyway. Undrafted in 2015 after missing the NCAA tournament due to eligibility issues, he proved to be a strong rebounder and decent shot blocker in Summer League. He was, however, sidelined with a bone bruise in training camp that turned out to involve some torn cartilage in his left knee. He missed the start of the regular season and was the de facto victim of Portland’s frontcourt log jam.
Yet he did get a minute or two here and there, playing 17 in his NBA debut against the Charlotte Hornets. He tallied four points, four rebounds, and a block in the outing, showing that he was capable of doing what he does best when given the opportunity. Like Vonleh, he is just 20 years old and may still have a future ahead of him, though he will assuredly have to fight harder for it.
All of these players have work to do before they are ready to be staples of an NBA lineup. That is to be expected. They need look no further than Crabbe to motivate their patience in the meantime. The former second-round pick played in just 15 games his rookie year (100 minutes), 51 games the next (683 minutes), and all but one in 2015-16 (2,105 minutes). Rosters evolve, injuries occur, players improve—being prepared is a major part of being successful. Based on performances this season, a few players at the end of the bench may be able to move up with the right opportunity.