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Neil Olshey Explains Trail Blazers Draft Reasoning

Portland’s picks in Thursday night’s draft elicited mixed responses. The man who made the selections gives his rationale in this complete press conference transcript.

Neil Olshey
Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey sits on the bench before a game.
Getty Pictures

Last night Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey sat down in front of the microphone for a press conference regarding the 2017 NBA Draft, his draft selections, and the state of the team. The conference was simulcast on CSNNW.

Many words are being spent on social media and elsewhere, parsing not only Portland’s draft picks but the words of their lead executive. That you may judge for yourself, we’re going to transcribe the entirety of the presser. Part 1 will run this morning, Part 2 this afternoon.

Zach Collins

CSSNW’s coverage begins with Olshey responding to a prior question from an unnamed media member, likely network correspondent Jason Quick.

The whole package, Jase. We target him really early in the process. I think you had texted me earlier in the day. I couldn’t really talk about it because I wasn’t sure it was realistic. He’s a big-time rim protector. He’s a great one-on-one defender. He’s a big-time post defender. Many of you guys that were at the Gonzaga-Portland game I’m sure saw that. I mean he put on a clinic. He can stretch the floor; he’s got range. He can score over both shoulders. He’s everything you want to look for in a big man in our league today because he can play inside and out, he can defend the rim, he can defend one-on-one, he can defend pick and roll. We think he can play behind Nurk and we think he can play with him too against some bigger lineups. So it was a great opportunity to move up and get the kind of a guy you can’t get in the middle of a draft.

Before with Dame and CJ you said there have been moments that resonated with you when you said, “That’s my guy.” Did you have that moment with Zach?

I did. I was laughing...Bill Branch and I went to the game with the University of Portland and he trailed a break, banged down a three, and then he caught the ball on the left block, got double-teamed, threw a behind-the-back, no-look pass to Tillie, and I said to Bill, “OK, Bill, we can go home, we’re done. He’s a top-ten pick.” And we knew right then. You just realize he’s a tough competitor. And one of the things I’m really happy with is we got two of the toughest guys in this draft. They’re going to bring a lot of grit, a lot of toughness—they both have a competitive fire—to the team. And I think when you’re a young guy joining a team as deep as ours, you’re gonna need that.

You obviously saw something early in the scouting process. Had you just seen enough that you didn’t need to bring him in?

We couldn’t get him in. No, we had no shot of getting him in. There was no way he was going to be there at 15 and I think we got lucky that he was there at 10. You know quite honestly I think some transactions that happened tonight changed the upper part of the...the middle part of the lottery. Sacramento had expectations and what they wanted to accomplish in the draft and it met up with ours. We were lucky to move up and get him.

I do think it’s funny, you know [indistinct name] is not here. They’re back watching the draft but we sat...we went Mountain West, Pac-12, WCC to go scout...and it wasn’t just for the sunshine. But he just kept getting better and better and we kept getting more and more frustrated knowing the more minutes he got, the more the rest of the country was going to catch up. I was talking to his agent about it tonight. He said, “You guys were on this in January. Unfortunately he went on a run in March that got everybody else up to speed on it.

So like I said, we’re lucky we had the assets. We have an aggressive owner...really supportive, really believed in what we were trying to do. He gave us the go-ahead to move up.

Moving Up in the Draft

[Indistinguishable question]

I’ll tell you, this was a tough one because we knew we’d been talking to Sacramento and a lot was going to have to happen in terms of what they got at 5 for them to be amenable to trading 10. So what was exciting was, they knew right away at 5 that they were open to trading 10, Our problem was, we still had to get through some players. We couldn’t do 10 on the come, which is why when you asked me, Jase, I couldn’t answer because he was the only guy we were going to move both picks to go get. So it was a little bit agonizing waiting around for those four draft picks making sure that he was still going to be on the board.

On Caleb Swanigan

With Caleb, his body has transformed so much. Did that make it hard to evaluate him?

No. For someone who’s barely fitting into his suit right now it was pretty inspiring, actually. He’s an incredible kid. You guys got to interview him when he was here. What he’s overcome—off the court, on the court—the dedication and passion he has to be the kind of person he is right now is pretty incredible. It’s a great story. But he’s bought into it now. It wasn’t a means to an end, like, he’s turned his life around and—you know, what we really evaluated more than anything with him is, he’s just a big time basketball player. I mean, you’re talking about a guy who shot 45 percent from three, he was number two in the nation in defensive rebounding, he can bang, he’s tough, he scores around the block. He’s just one of those guys we all keep talking about we get into these non-position basketball anymore that you just put him on the court and let him play.

Contributing Immediately?

Collins said that he thinks he can be Rookie of the Year. He wouldn’t put a limit on himself. Clearly you value him, going to get him. What do you see—short-term—expectations for his role, and how quickly do you think he can get up to be a high-minute guy—a starter type of guy?

Well, you can track Terry (Stotts) down at Summer League, so he’ll answer that one for you. You know, what I can tell you is, it’s not about Summer League, it’s not about Rookie of the Year—this is about the next 12 to 15 years. He’s a franchise-level building block to join guys that we already have on this roster. He fits their career arc, he does some things that we really need, but, more than anything—I mean, look, we’re trying to build the roster the right way. If we can accelerate this, we would accelerate it, but if we’re not going to accelerate it, we need to make the best and the most of the model that we’re under right now, which is, we’ve talked about it consistently, you know, guys on Damian’s career arc, but that can grow with the organization, grow with the team, and he fits both because I think he can help right away. We’ve got a lot of depth, it’s going to be a tough rotation to crack, but we’re in this for the long haul with him, and that’s what the draft is for. The draft isn’t for quick fixes and positional need. The draft is for the long term.

Swanigan’s Story

The backstory and what people are going to hear about much does that play into the decision to draft him, over and above his talent?

Looking at a transformation like that, it tells a lot about someone’s character. I think some of you guys were here back when he played in the Hoops Summit, right before he committed to Purdue, and he’s even come a long way from then. It’s not just his body; I think people get hyper-focused on that but it’s also his game. Look at what he’s done with his shooting. That’s hours in the gym. His skill level has become so much more advanced. Playing in the Big 10 at that level and competing, to do what he did on the glass and expand his’s really inspiring. People put too much emphasis on upside being directly correlated strictly to athleticism. There’s upside too in terms of skill level and being able to play the game of basketball. And I think he has a really high ceiling when it comes to that because what we were most impressed with when we brought him in was his ability to become a really good team defender and the fact that he can pass the ball. We all saw that the last four teams that were left standing this year were all elite passing teams. So anybody that can defend on one side of the ball, rebound, and is also an elite passer and can make shots is someone we’re going to maximize.

Needing to Improve

You said the draft isn’t for quick fixes but two of your players, Dame and CJ, at least on social media have been pretty vocal about wanting to upgrade the talent. Have they had that conversation with you and what has that looked like?

(laughing) Anyone that knows them, knows they’ve had that conversation with me. Everybody knows with me that I like to talk with players about players. They know the league they way we do, and who can fit. We’ve had some deals we’ve passed on because our guys knew what it would be like in the locker room. I do rely on those guys because they’re the future of the franchise and their opinion matters to us. But there’s realities about what you can and can’t do at times. There’s also times that you have to take a longer view. It’s my job to take more of a macro view of the organization because we’ve proven time and again... You know we sat in this room not long ago when we were worried about making a trade at the trade deadline. I was an unpopular guy out on Court One over there telling the guys about the move we made and it resulted—along with us peaking at the right time and making the playoffs, which was everybody’s goal—and absent injury I think you would have seen a much more competitive series. I’ve got to take what they’re thinking into consideration. I value it immensely and I’ve got to try and execute it. But at the end of the day we’ve got to do what’s right, not just short-term but long-term as well. What you don’t want to do, Jason, is appease people in the immediate future and then take two steps backwards. And that’s what we’ve got to constantly evaluate.

We invite you to comment on Olshey’s assessment so far. Do you think his descriptions of Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan are on target or a little bit shiny? What parts of his explanations struck you as germane or frivolous? Have at it and be sure to tune in for Part 2 later today!