The Trail Blazers kicked off their Las Vegas Summer League schedule on Saturday with a 72-63 victory over the Jazz. 2017 NBA first-round picks Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan made their Portland debut in Game 1. Taking in all the action from UNLV’s facilities were sportswriter Steve Dewald and former professional player Brian Freeman. Here are the five things that stood out to them about the team’s first game in Las Vegas.
1) Caleb Swanigan is a Beast
Brian: I am about 6’9” 240 lbs and watching Swanigan warm up had me tweeting about how massive he was. Not in height, but sheer mass. He was the biggest and strongest person on the court and it wasn’t close. But his beastliness came not just in stature, but through his play. He spent the whole game battling for position, diving in, crashing boards. No one else was near his energy level. That wild aggression led to four loose ball fouls, battling for position while the ball was in the air. That type of foul occurs maybe one time per game normally. He received 4 fouls trying to make those plays. It was incredible. He never stopped battling, working, or directing traffic on defense. Opposing big men are not going to look forward to the day when they have to play against Portland and a front line that includes Swanigan and Nurkic.
Steve: Swanigan didn’t appear massive just because he was in a lineup next to the more slender Collins, he actually has the frame of a player who is ready to compete against the most physically imposing big men in the NBA. He was a bit of a bull in a china shop at times, but he definitely wore down Utah’s defenders as the game went on. He gets ahead of himself in the open court, which led to a few wasted possessions on offense. Along with some expected turnovers from the rookie, he committed some poorly timed fouls.
On the bright side, Swanigan has all the makings of a high-energy reserve big man. His rebounding and defensive positioning could lead to some immediate playing time if he turns in a few more performances like the one we saw today.
2) Zach Collins Needs Seasoning
Brian: Overall, this was a rough outing for Collins. The golden rule for young big men is never to bring the ball low in traffic because little guys will be able to get their hands on it. Collins picked up a few turnovers learning that lesson. He also traveled trying to put the ball on the floor and really struggled with physicality when trying anything on the block.
One of the things I loved about Collins from his lone year at Gonzaga was his edge. His game reads a little cocky and he plays, for lack of a better word, like a bit of a jerk. Watching him today, he had some of that ‘jerk’ in him between plays, getting into it with multiple opponents, but his actual performance was a little softer that I had envisioned. His confidence broke early in the game and it was all over his face. Everyone could see it. He is very talented and will be a good player in the league, but he will need to find a bit of that arrogance and mental toughness before he can be counted on to play a meaningful role on this team
Steve: Patience is key with big men, but Collins’ performance today wasn’t encouraging for a debut. The Jazz’s Tony Bradley was able to routinely push Portland’s rookie around in the paint, and it took its toll as the game progressed. This eventually led to Collins avoiding contact when possible, which resulted in further struggles on both ends of the court. Quickness and length weren’t an issue, but it appears that Collins is going to have to add a significant amount of muscle in order for him to able to smoothly transition to the next level.
It was Collins’ first game in a Blazers jersey, so it is far too early to start panicking.
3) Connaughton needs to bring it
Brian: If we are saying Collins had a bad day and he still ended up with 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks, what is there to say about Pat Connaughton? He came into the game as a seasoned NBA reserve in comparison to the competition and was poised to be one of the best players in the summer league. An 0-5 from the field result could be trouble. His contract is not guaranteed for next season and if he can't make himself a relevant part of an NBA summer league game, the Blazers have no reason to bring him back. Maybe his decision to play either basketball or baseball won't be as difficult as he presumed it would. Perhaps his performance will make the decision for him.
Steve: Given Connaughton’s experience level with Summer League competition, it was truly shocking to see a zero next to his name in the box score. Utah’s defense was stifling at times on the perimeter, thanks to the stellar play of Donovan Mitchell, causing the two-year veteran to miss all three of his 3-point attempts. The worst of those three misses was a wide open shot from the corner, a shot he must make consistently if he hopes to continue his stint in Portland.
4) This Blazers team has some fun players on it
Brian: While only a few of the players on this summer league roster will ever get to see meaningful minutes in the regular season, the roster itself is entertaining to watch. NBA sophomore Jake Layman did not see the court a whole lot as a rookie, but his unique skill set was on full display. He is a legit 6’9” but he ran the fast break and brought the ball up the floor like a point guard. He attempted six 3-pointers, hitting two, and threw down a highlight reel baseline dunk. Results may be up in the air yet, but he’s an entertaining player.
Steve: To be clear, I don’t think Portland’s Summer League squad is going to start a roster spot controversy. That doesn't mean that the Blazers’ roster is bereft of talented players. Jorge Gutierrez is a long-shot to make the main team, but that didn’t prevent him from steadying the Blazers’ play on both ends of the court today. With Connaughton struggling, Gutierrez provided Portland with veteran poise when the Jazz started to mount their comeback.
5) Summer League is exciting in person
Brian: It all started with a mad dash when the door opened and thousands of excited fans raced toward the doors to claim the best seats that they could find. After some great hustle and shaking off a few elbows from greedy fans, we picked our post where we got to sit and hangout and watch eight hours of high level basketball. Our front-row view was constantly obstructed by NBA players, coaches, and front office members as they walked by, cheering and evaluating players hoping for an NBA roster spot. The tickets were sold out for the day, the place was packed, and everyone was having a great time. It truly was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had has a basketball fan. And that is not even the best part. Somehow I have been blessed with the opportunity to get to do it tomorrow.
Steve: Unless you are fortunate enough to have court side seats for the Blazers, you’ve probably never been this close to the action. Yes it is Summer League, but it is a delight to intimately watch Portland’s future players compete. I was only a few feet away from Allen Crabbe, exchanged pleasantries with President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, and I could clearly hear the Blazers communicate with each other on defense. It is hard to believe that all happened in just one day.
Come back following each Trail Blazers Summer League game to hear Brian and Steve expand upon the action, the tournament, and Portland’s prospects.