The Portland Trail Blazers currently sit a game-and-a-half out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with just over 20 games remaining in the 2016-17 regular season, while simultaneously being only a game-and-a-half out of a tie for 12th place. Regardless of this season’s outcome, Blazer fans are already eager to see what the future holds for what is for the league’s youngest roster that also holds three first round picks in its possession.
On March 2, through a season ticket holder Q&A, I was able to ask Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey about how he intended to improve a roster that was (at the time) 10 games under .500 and into luxury tax territory next season. In his response, he mentioned that there are four ways to improve a team; the draft, free agency, trades, and player development.
Since the first three are relatively unpredictable in outcome, I want to focus on player development. Portland not only lacks a player over the age of 28 on the roster, but has several potential building blocks in varying levels of development at 24 or younger. Let’s look at some of Portland’s young players and their level of untapped potential.
To be clear, this doesn’t cover the Pat Connaughton’s and Tim Quarterman’s of the roster; just those who are seeing enough minutes that they’re likely to still develop. (If you want to make a case for anyone not mentioned here, please feel free to do so in the comments).
Noah Vonleh, 21
At 21 years of age, Noah Vonleh is the youngest of the four players mentioned. While Blazer fans have talked about his size, athleticism and potential for an inside/outside game since he arrived in Portland, Vonleh has struggled despite being given ample opportunity relative to his production. According to ESPN, Vonleh rankes 77th out of 93 NBA power forwards in real plus-minus and, despite 76 starts over the last season-and-a-half, has had little impact on the court.
Despite displaying an increased degree of aggression this season, Vonleh still disappears for stretches of time, fails to make a dent in the offense with any consistency by shooting 42 percent from the floor—abysmal for a power forward—and tends to get himself in foul trouble, though he seldom accumulates high foul totals by game’s end, due to limited minutes. Anecdotally, I also can’t recall a player who gets his hands on a rebound but fails to snatch it due to positioning more of often than than Vonleh.
Despite all this, he has all of the physical tools and doesn’t seem to be lost in his own, as some say about Meyers Leonard; instead, Vonleh’s still working on getting the game to slow down for him. Despite his positioning issues, he’s grabbing a higher percentage of boards than last year, and has finally shown some of the shooting touch that Blazer fans were told he possessed, shooting 35 percent from the 3-point line and a fantastic 48 percent on 2-pointers outside of 16 feet.
On Blazer’s Edge Radio last week, Evans Clinchy put it best when he said Noah Vonleh needs to find one thing and do it well, whether that’s defending the four, hitting the midrange jumper off of the pick-and-pop, or being an energetic rebounder. For now, Vonleh isn’t doing any of these with any consistency. He has the physical tools, but he’s just old enough to legally buy a beer; here’s hoping he can put one or two of these skills together in Portland.
Moe Harkless, 23
Moe Harkless has had an interesting season. Probably the most successful of Portland’s three returning restricted-free agents, Harkless is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, assists, and blocks. Harkless is a fantastic supporting player in that he relies on other players making things happen on the court and excels at cutting to the rim and getting out on the break. He’s also improved his 3-point shooting to an acceptable 36 percent.
Harkless is incredibly athletic and has the ability to switch between the three and the four, though he is more effective defensively at small forward. While he is putting up career bests in many areas, he is still inconsistent from game to game, contributing 17 points one night, four the next. While Harkless rebuilt his 3-point shot mechanics to greater success than most Blazer fans could have realistically hoped for, he still only shoots 65 percent from the foul line, making him a potential liability in late-game situations.
Though his ceiling may not be as high as some other players on the list, Harkless has a better chance of reaching his potential through his aggressiveness and his ability to play off his teammates and clean up their mistakes.
Jusuf Nurkić, 22
The third-youngest player on Portland’s roster (behind Vonleh and Quarterman), Nurkić has been a revelation for the Blazers through his first six games, averaging 14.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and four assists per game. Nurkić is a big body who can clog the lane on both sides of the ball, overpowering defending centers while bodying up on big men who try to take the ball inside. While it’s possible his numbers return closer to his career levels, Nurkić has demonstrated a nice level of consistency in his short Blazer tenure. And with Meyers Leonard being the only other active center on the roster, it’s likley the Bosnain Beast will continue to see significant minutes.
Many of the complaints about Nurkić’s game from Denver fans originated from his inconsistency. Nurkić has a history of making a beautiful pass or drop-step, and then taking a wild hook shot or turning the ball over on the next play. His chip-on-his-shoulder attitude lost him as many fans as he made as well, though I personally believe that, on a team full of “nice guys,” his demeanor is something the Blazers sorely lacked.
Nurkić has the ability to play the “old man Sabonis” game. He has an incredibly soft touch around the basket, can find cutters with relative ease, and has a wide enough body to set effective picks and box out opponents on the boards. He needs to play more minutes with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in order to figure out when to step out on the pick-and-roll and when to drop back, but ideally that will come in time.
Nurkić has incredible promise. It’s not his fault he fell behind Nikola Jokic in the rotation in Denver, but he didn’t handle the situation well at all. So far, it looks like the fresh start in Portland has him scratching the surface of his incredible talent.
Allen Crabbe, 24
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Blazer player have such a solid, yet disappointing season as Allen Crabbe. Here you have a guy shooting nearly 44 percent from the 3-point line, a career-high 46 percent from the floor, and getting a career-high 28 minutes a night, yet he’s underwhelmed in nearly every way. Yet, despite these career highs, Crabbe is actually shooting at the second -owest volume per minute in his career, leading to nearly identical numbers to last season: 10.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game.
Crabbe has the touch and length to be a high level 3-and-D wing, but we need to see more threes and more D. There’s nothing wrong with the shots he is taking, but Crabbe needs to be more aggressive in getting his own shot. I would absolutely live with his 3-point percentage falling to around 40 percent if that means he’s getting a few more looks per game. Defensively Crabbe has decent length and footwork but needs to continue learning how to move over screens and pressure as an on-ball defender.
Though I still believe Vonleh has the highest ceiling, at this point I think that he is the least likely to reach his full potential. Based on what he’s done and what he appears to be capable of, I have to give Nurkić the nod as having the second-most untapped potential. Crabbe, despite his disappearance at times, has the capability to be a much bigger scorer than he has shown, though he has already improved in some measurable way in every season that he’s been in the league. I believe Harkless has the lowest ceiling and highest floor, though he still has an opportunity to improve his free throw shooting and consistency and is already a nice supporting piece.
Since the draft, trades, and free-agency are risky business at best, and a crap shoot at worst, the Blazers will be counting on any of the aforementioned players that remain on the roster to continue developing their games if they want to take the next step as a team.