Banging the drum for a deep reserve to get more playing time is one of sports fans’ favorite hobbies. “If only he got more minutes.” “His per-36 production is off the charts.” “He’s gonna be a baller someday, but he needs floor time to develop.” Portland Trail Blazers fans are just as guilty of it as anyone. Of course, having seen low-minute guys like Will Barton, Patty Mills, and Jermaine O’Neal go off to be difference-makers in other uniforms tends to make you nervous about wasting another talented youngster on the bench.
Most of the time it’s nothing. After his initial breakout week, Jake Layman has struggled mightily with his shot. Thomas Robinson couldn’t hack it in the NBA. Every year, there are one or two of these guys on the roster. But the Blazers have something in Wade Baldwin IV, and he’s putting himself in prime position to be the Blazers back up point guard next season.
Baldwin, drafted 17th overall out of Vanderbilt by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2016 draft, was inexplicably waived by the Grizzlies after his rookie season. With salary concerns nearly ubiquitous in the NBA, the opportunity to control a player on their rookie scale for four years is enticing. It’s very rare for a team to give up on a first round pick after one season (though Blazer center Georgios Papagiannis is another example). Though there were rumors of attitude issues, nothing concrete has ever been solidly reported.
Memphis’ loss is Portland’s gain, however. After signing a two-way contract with the Blazers, he has been something of a revelation in the last 10 days. Aside from two garbage time games in which he played fewer than five total minutes, Baldwin has been a difference-maker on the court. In games where he’s played more than three minutes, he’s averaging 11 points per game on 80 percent shooting from the three-point line.
Then there’s that defense. Despite a trio of losses, Baldwin has played stellar defense against the likes of James Harden, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker; getting in their jerseys from 60 feet out and using hist elite 6’10” reach to disrupt opponent dribbles. On a team that features Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, playing time is going to be sparse unless he earns it. Defense is one way to do it. In a recent interview with NBC SPorts NW’s Jason Quick, Baldwin told Quick “Defense is my ticket. Every time I go down the court, that’s my calling card. I’m just going to go hard with that.”
In the playoffs, rotations usually shrink, not grow. It’s possible that two more stellar games could force Terry Stotts to find a way to get Baldwin time, but it’s not likely. Either way, Baldwin has positioned himself to be the Blazers back up point guard starting next season.
While the Blazers ducked the luxury tax when they traded Noah Vonleh for
a bag of chips Milovan Raković, they’re still over the cap. This means two things. First, it’s going to be tough to bring in a quality point guard in a trade or free agency. Second, with Shabazz Napier playing so well, the Blazers likely won’t be able to afford to keep him. Shabazz has had a career year, shown that he can play serious minutes as a reserve and a spot starter, and is likely going to command more than the Blazers can shell out. That’s probably why Baldwin was signed in the first place; a gamble to replace a potentially departing piece. At least so far, it’s appeared to have paid off.
Baldwin isn’t going to continue to shoot 80 percent from the 3-point line, but he was a good spot up shooter from distance in college. There’s no reason to think that he won’t continue to be adequate. He still needs to improve his ball-handling and facilitation, but the idea of his defense sliding into a second unit that could feature Ed Davis, Zach Collins, and Evan Turner is tantalizing.
Baldwin needs to show it for more than three games, Baldwin has the physical tools, the target, and is putting in the effort. The Blazers saw enough in him that they signed him through next season. With Napier unfortunately unlikely able to receive a contract to his liking, Wade Baldwin has a future in Portland, and it starts very soon.