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Who Will Be the Blazers’ Most Improved Player This Season?

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The Portland Trail Blazers have a handful of players brought back from last year’s roster ready to make a leap on one or both ends of the floor over the course of the 2016-17 season.

Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

With the Blazers officially kicking off training camp, the time to predict, pontificate, and prognosticate is upon us. Of course, at Blazer’s Edge we all do this year-round, but now that the roster is essentially set and the Vegas odds are in, the time for season predictions is now.

We’ve discussed at length several of the question marks regarding minutes, positions, and rotations during the offseason; in fact Evans Clinchy wrote a great piece Friday about the seven major questions facing the team as training camp opens up. So I want to ask a different question: who will be the Blazers’ Most Improved Player?

We can define this pretty loosely. Oftentimes a player who’s always had some skill breaks out due to finally getting some minutes. CJ McCollum was a pretty good example last year, though he did show significant improvement in his ball handling and initiation of the offense. Other times, a player adds a missing piece to his repertoire. Finally, sometimes the player is doing all of the same things that he always has, but provides that undefinable spark that elevates his play to the next level.

For the sake of discussion, we’ll use any combination of the above criteria.

Maurice Harkless

Harkless had a great run at the end of the season. If it’s truly false that Evan Turner was promised a spot in the starting lineup, it’s logical to expect Harkless to get a fair shot to replicate his role during Portland’s season ending hot streak. Harkless has always relied on his athleticism and ability to slash to the hoop. After shooting 39 percent from the 3-point line in his second season in Orlando, Moe showed significant regression, hitting from a less than 28 percent clip each of the last two seasons. With his ability to effectively defend positions 1-4, depending on the match-up, getting that long distance shooting up to just 33 or 34 percent would do wonders for his game and his ability to earn even more minutes.

It’s not unreasonable to expect further growth from Harkless. At 23, he is still several years away from his prime producing years. However, he has shown to be one of those players who needs consistent minutes or even a starting role in order to be effective. Not everyone is cut out to be able to enter a game ice cold and have a positive impact, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Harkless’ chances of being the Blazers’ most improved player likely depend on him continuing his starting role next season.

Allen Crabbe

With Al-Farouq Aminu apparently set to start at the power forward spot, Allen Crabbe is another player in contention to start at small forward. Somewhat diametrically opposed to Harkless, Crabbe is a highly efficient outside shooter who rarely creates his own shot or even handles the ball beyond a few dribbles.

If not for McCollum having a breakout season, Crabbe very well could have been the Blazers’ MIP last year. He increased his minutes per game from 13.4 to 26, his 3-point percentage from 35 to 39 percent, and his Effective Field Goal percentage from .51 to .541. If Crabbe is able to add any sort of dribble drive to his game, a la Wesley Matthews (who I swear couldn’t even make a layup in his first 18 months with the team) after his second season in Portland, Crabbe has an opportunity to separate himself as the clear third scorer in the Blazers’ pecking order.

Meyers Leonard

I have a feeling that something in the vein of this article has been written on Blazer’s Edge about Leonard after each offseason since he’s been in the league. Meyers has shown more each season, with the breakout 3-point shooting two years ago, and more-effective-than-ever post defense last season. This year, however, he will be fighting for minutes with Mason Plumlee and Festus Ezeli – and that’s only at the center position. If coach Terry Stotts decides to give Leonard another crack at playing power forward, he will be up against Aminu and Ed Davis, not to mention Harkless or even Noah Vonleh for spot minutes.

I still believe that GM Neil Olshey and Stotts see Leonard as the team’s center of the future and plan for him to step in when Ezeli leaves, whether due to injury or due to outperforming his contract, but for next season at least, Meyers is going to have to earn his minutes. But here’s the thing: it’s clear to anyone watching that he has the physical tools to be a productive player. It’s just whether the game slows down enough for him to take the next step.

For Leonard’s sake, hopefully corrective surgery has made his shoulder issues a thing of the past. All Leonard needs to make the next leap is minutes and reps (only at the center position, in my opinion). It’s not clear that these will be available to him unless a trade or injury to one of the team’s fairly productive big men occurs.

Mason Plumlee

We saw the best and worst of Plumlee in last year’s playoffs. In Portland’s first-round victory against the Clippers, Plumlee was arguably the MVP, acting as a third playmaker out of the high post while putting up huge rebounding numbers against DeAndre Jordan. Against Golden State however, Plumlee was exposed as a limited scoring option once his passing lanes were cut off by the Warriors, having his shot blocked 13 times in the series, to go along with 15 turnovers.

Plumlee really lacks any sort of “go-to” move. If he could just develop an effective and repeatable post move, or a little 12-15 foot push shot a la Robin Lopez, Plumlee’s effectiveness would jump significantly. He dramatically improved his free throw shooting from the beginning of the season to the end, so it’s not out of the question, and with Leonard and Ezeli both rehabbing from injuries, it’s likely that Plumlee at least begins the season as the team’s starter.

Of course it’s a contract year and he’s up for a pretty decent sized extension (4 years/$64 million has been floated as a theoretical reasonable amount), so there’s a chance that he won’t finish the year with the capped out Blazers.

CJ McCollum

Why not? CJ exploded on the scene last season, scoring 37 points in Portland’s opening night win over the New Orleans Pelicans and never letting up on his way to 20.8 points and 4.3 assists per game. Deadly from the midrange out, McCollum has an opportunity to improve his scoring around the rim and his ability to get to the line. And here’s the thing — with his handles and smooth body control when getting by defenders, I don’t think this is wishful thinking.

McCollum’s greatest case for most improved, however, would come on the defensive end. When paired with Lillard, McCollum is often tasked with guarding bigger, stronger shooting guards. CJ has long arms and plays pesky one-on-one defense, but gets hung up on pick-and-rolls, often unable to find his way through the seam or sometimes appearing to give up entirely. If McCollum were able to more effectively hang with his man through or around the screen, it would be massive for Portland’s defense, allowing Plumlee, Ezeli, Leonard, and Davis to hang back and not get caught up on the perimeter.

If forced to choose one player from the list to be the team MIP, I’m going with Allen Crabbe, with a hat tip to Moe Harkless. It’s not necessarily an indicator of potential, because I think Harkless has the tools to be a Swiss Army knife of pure energy, but I think that Crabbe is more likely to show continued significant improvement. There are fewer variables involved in his development. If he continues to improve defensively, develop a dribble-drive or improve his step-back of the bounce, everything else is there. But I’d love to see a few other players on the list prove me wrong.

As we do every Tuesday at noon, Evans Clinchy and I will be hosting Blazer’s Edge Radio on 107.1 XRAY.FM tomorrow. We will be spending the full hour previewing the Blazers roster after having previewed the other 29 teams for the last six weeks. Tune in to hear our predictions for W-L record, rotations, team MVP, MIP, and more. If you aren’t in the Portland area or can’t be near a radio, the show can be streamed live or checked out later at www.xray.fm