The Trail Blazers face what could be their final roster decision of the summer when Pat Connaughton's contract becomes fully guaranteed on July 25. With 14 players already signed heading into the season, Connaughton's deal is the only one Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey could easily erase.
The two-year veteran is the frontrunner for Portland’s last roster spot, but his lead may have diminished after Jarnell Stokes produced seven impressive Summer League performances for the Blazers.
The upcoming deadline to cut Connaughton without financial penalty raises the question of whether or not Olshey should consider making room for Stokes on the regular season roster, so we have to ask: which player should the Blazers keep?
After arriving in Portland with Mason Plumlee via trade two summers ago, Connaughton has yet to make a significant impact on the court for the Blazers. Over the span of two seasons, the 24-year-old wing has appeared in 73 regular season games and played just 459 minutes.
Connaughton is coming off a disastrous, injury-shortened Summer League stint. Before he exited the lineup during Portland's third game in Las Vegas, he was shooting a paltry 36.4 percent from the field and averaging a dismal six points per game. Summer League games should be taken with a grain of salt, but a poor performance from a two-year veteran like Connaughton warrants concern.
Along with his less-than-stellar trip to Las Vegas, the fit with Portland's roster isn't exactly clear. Connaughton’s natural position is shooting guard—where he’s battling three of Portland's highest-paid players for minutes. Beyond that, he’ll also be competing with Shabazz Napier for spot minutes during the season.
Things don't get any easier for Connaughton if he slides over to small forward, where Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Turner all will garner rotation minutes; Jake Layman blocks a clear path for mop-up duty time.
In his defense, Connaughton’s biggest asset is outside shooting, which fits a need for the Blazers. In his limited action last season, he connected on 51.5 percent of his 3-point attempts, putting his percentage well above Portland's other role players.
Perhaps his biggest strength, though, is his relationship with the team. Connaughton has familiarity with his teammates and is one of the most active supporters from Portland's bench. It’s hard to quantify these traits, but they shouldn't be discounted.
A second-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Stokes has bounced between the NBA and D-League for the majority of his career. His longest stint in the NBA came in Memphis, where he was buried on the depth chart behind the veteran frontcourt of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
After finding relative success in the minors, Stokes recently reappeared on the NBA radar with a string of impressive performances in Summer League. Due to Zach Collins' injury in Las Vegas, the 23-year-old power forward was given an opportunity to shine in a frontcourt pairing with Caleb Swanigan. Stokes took advantage, averaging 13 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 67.2 percent from the field.
Stokes' deficiencies are obvious, as our own Dave Deckard pointed out Friday:
He’s a specimen at 6’7” and 250 lbs, but plenty of NBA teams field guys that bulky. He won’t be able to push around opposing bigs at the next level. That’ll make him look less special.
Nowadays 250 lb NBA power forwards come 6’10”, quick, and equipped with a bankable face-up shot. The slower, shorter Stokes would be asked to guard those guys not just inside, but on the perimeter. Even in Summer League, his lateral rotations came late...the kiss of death for any defense. The problem would only get worse at the next level.
Stokes' lack of size is a clear problem, however, other frontcourt players have managed to overcome the same obstacles. Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes each carved out long careers in the last decade as post players 6’9” or shorter. Both were above-average rebounders with limited offensive games—characteristics that also describe Stokes' play in Las Vegas.
A path to meaningful playing time for Stokes is equally as muddled as Connaughton's, with a number of unproven players in Portland's big man rotation. Jusuf Nurkic has to show he can stay healthy, Noah Vonleh has yet to put together a complete season, Collins and Swanigan are rookies, and Meyers Leonard is more of an enigma than a role player. Ed Davis, in the final year of a modest contract, is one of the few attractive trade assets in the Blazers' possession. Outside of those traditional bigs, Aminu and Harkless will also play some power forward.
It would be an absolute worst-case scenario for all the aforementioned players to have subpar years, but Stokes would provide Portland with extra depth at a position containing more than a few question marks.
The Blazers’ final roster decision will likely come down to what the organization expects from players at the end of the bench. Connaughton offers continuity, while Stokes provides Portland with another big body.
Practice performance will also play a considerable factor. Stokes would force his fellow rookies to sharpen their rebounding chops, but Connaughton's familiarity with coach Terry Stotts' system will allow him to execute plays efficiently from day one.
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