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Neil Olshey Talks Collins, Swanigan, State of the Team

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Portland’s lead executive revealed his draft philosophy in a post-draft press conference.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional Practice Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Zach Collins of Gonzaga and Caleb Swanigan of Purdue in the 2017 NBA Draft, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey stepped in front of a microphone to face questions from local media. The first half of that press conference can be found here. Here is a transcript of the second half.

Why More Big Men?

Did seeing how the team flourished with Jusuf make you want to add more bigs of that ilk: versatile, passing, can do it all?

No, it’s not that. We’ve had some bigs here who could really pass the ball and play. We’ve been lucky that way. I don’t think it was about that. What Jusuf did was he accelerated this. We are a much more competitive team today than we were back in February and we solidified a position we were a little bit uncertain of. We’ve got Dame, we’ve got CJ, we’ve got depth, and we’ve got good guys.

This is really about going into the draft to get the best player you can possibly get. If a guy gets to you like a Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum get to you at 6 and 10, then that’s the move. If you identify a player like Zach Collins as the best player you can realistically get, you move your chips and you go get him. I think we were prepared for the draft in a way that, had we not been able to do this, then we would have gotten a really good player at 15 and a really good player at 20. It’s just that we felt like Zach’s value exceeded that of those two picks when they were looked at independent of one another.

So it wasn’t really positional, it was really more, we think he was the best player on the board, we moved up to get him, and then we did whatever we could to make sure we got 26 right as well. We were very lucky because Caleb was the last guy standing on the board who was above our candidates at 26.

Draft Philosophy

Was Zach at the top of your list realistically where you guys fit into the draft?

In the realistic category, yeah. I think we all knew there was no way anybody was cracking the Top 6 absent the move of a potential All-Star to get into that group. From March everybody knew who the Top 6 in this draft was going to be. I think we all knew the draft started at 7. He was the guy we were going after that we could reasonably have an expectation with our assets to go get.

How would you rate the way you guys handled the draft tonight.

I don’t rate it. I think Ben Falk—who used to work for us, who’s probably smarter than all of us—talks about it’s a fool’s errand to rate the draft. Tomorrow there will be draft grades and they’re’s entertainment value. But I get upset when... not myself but when a team gets picked on for what they’re doing in the draft because nobody ever knows. You just don’t know who ends up panning out and who doesn’t. Decisions that are questioned today based on projection, isn’t necessarily what ends up happening two to three years down the road on production. I’ve been through drafts where we took guys in the upper part of the lottery and got “A’s” for those guys and guys we took end the second round ended up being better players. So, I think if you really want to do this you have to send the grades out at the end of their rookie scale contracts and give them time. We have some guys who got drafted tonight who are going to take some time to develop. But that’s the job. You take the guys with the upside, you develop them, you maximize their potential and that’s when you have to look at the draft. I think the only thing that’s really fair is if you’ve graded trades for existing players, because now you’ve got a fair sample size.

Neil, what was your approach with guys who were in this draft who had an injury history?

A lot of due diligence. We’ve been very lucky the last 4 years to have Chris Stackpole working with us. His diagnostic skills have been incredible. He’s very aggressive, he’s probably more bullish on the effects of PT over surgery and isn’t as scared away by injury histories as someone would be just basing it on an MRI or an image. But this is an interesting group. I think this group, on the whole, probably across the board, was the highest character group. There were far less questions as a group on issues of character and off-court behavior. But probably more questions about high impact guys and previous injury conditions. So it’s something we did our due diligence on, I can tell you we didn’t leave anybody on the board because of injuries tonight. We took the two best players we could get and that was absent any injury concerns for other players. That didn’t affect us, it didn’t get to that point for us is the best way to say it, I guess.

State of the Roster

Obviously it will depend on what you do with Tim and Pat – you’re one over on the roster.

No, we’re even now.

Oh you’re even? 15?

Yeah. So we came into the night with 13 guaranteed contracts. Sorry, 12 guaranteed contracts, Pat on a non-guaranteed until the end of July, and then two… yeah, exactly, and then we had the 3 picks turned into two. So, as of right now, we’ve got 15 with Pat, we’ve got 16 with Tim.

17-man deal, is that going to go through?

Olshey: Well, no, it’s a two-way contract, which is a little bit different. I could have the cap guy talk to you guys about it on Monday. But, it’s still a 15-man roster. It’s just you can have two players on two-way contracts. A little bit like hockey. Yeah, and then they get paid on a pro-rated basis up to a certain maximum number of games, Dwight, when they’re with the big club. So it’s a little bit of the hockey model.

Talking with the New Guys

When we talked to Zach he said he hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with you. Have you talked to him?

(smiling humorously) No, he talks to you guys first!

I did speak to him. He was excited. He clearly had a lot of media obligations back in New York and got a chance to speak with you guys. Terry and I got a chance to talk with him, to welcome him to the team. Obviously you guys will get to meet him on Monday. Caleb’s voice mail was full. The problem is they look at my number and it looks like it’s another reporter calling. I’m from 503, so... I’ll have to get ahold of Rosie Barnes and make sure we get on the phone whenever I get out of here.

Toughness and Confidence

Caleb and Zach bring toughness. Do you think that’s something that is missing from the team or is needed?

I don’t know that it was missing. I just know that it’s a great value-add. Just getting guys that... sometimes you get caught up in something specific, “Well we need a defender so we just get a defender,” and we overlook other things. Or, “We need to get tougher,” or, “We need to get more athletic.” So in this case I think the toughness is just more from a mindset. I’m not talking about hockey thugs, I’m talking about guys that are mentally tough. When you look at a guy like Caleb, what he’s been through, how he’s transformed himself physically, mentally, what he’s done with his game, what he’s been through as a person...that kind of toughness. A guy like Zach Collins who we know is a chippy player, doesn’t back down. You guys who have covered the WCC because of UofP saw that. The fact that he had to come off the bench, it shows a lot about the kid that this is a guy who for the first half of the season was basically playing backup, limited minutes, right? And then when push came to shove and it was time to play with the big boys in the NCAA Tournament, you look at his minutes increasing and his impact on the floor increasing... tells me a lot about that kind of kid and that kind of player that he stayed ready, accepted his role but was ready to step into a larger role on the biggest stage.

Did that make you at all uncomfortable knowing that he was a 6th Man, a bench guy coming off the bench, or when you saw him play that was enough?

It was enough. That was more than enough.

Seems like he’s a pretty confident kid too, just from talking to him.

He is. I think too, a kid that played at Bishop Gorman in Vegas, he’s not a kid who was at a small school and he was the man, then went to Gonzaga... this is a guy who was a big-time high school player—played on one of the best high school teams in the country with other NBA players and prospects, that have a pipeline of players going to the NBA—that had to compete for everything he got. So I value that.


Moderator: Any more questions for Neil? Anything else?

[No questions forthcoming]

So hopefully we’ll see you guys on Monday. Thanks for hanging around. And by the way, I know I don’t take care of you guys all the time but Collin wanted to make you wait until the 60th pick was done and I said, “No, I’m going in there. They all need to go home. They don’t need to hang here any longer. We’re good!”

So you didn’t buy a second-round pick?

We did not. We don’t have any money left. Actually the money went in the Nurkic trade to Denver, if you guys remember. So believe me, it’s the only reason Paul’s on an airplane right now because if we had money to spend, it’d be burning a hole in his pocket. We played a little defense back in February to make sure we only took two guys.

When are you bringing Zach and Caleb in?

I’m sure Collin will announce it, but the goal is to have a press conference on Monday, introduce them to you guys, and then we have a gap to get them home for a little bit before coming back for Summer League practice.