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Analysis: Wade Baldwin’s Potential to Impact the Trail Blazers

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Wade Baldwin IV has Portland worked up into a (relative) frenzy heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. But will he be able to deliver?

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Boston Celtics v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s weird for first round draft picks to get cut in the NBA. REALLY weird for a first rounder to get cut after only one season, like the Grizzlies did to Wade Baldwin IV last October. That level of ignominy is generally reserved for only the most hopeless of hopelessly failed prospects.

Yet Trail Blazers fans are in a near frenzy over Baldwin, who caught on with team at the end of last season and went on to earn All-Summer League second team honors earlier this month. After a second offseason of near inactivity from general manager Neil Olshey, Baldwin’s perceived ability to immediately step into the rotation has bolstered hopes that the Blazers can improve on last season’s 49 wins via internal development.

But is that realistic? Did the Grizzlies really botch Baldwin’s development that badly, or are Blazermaniacs in for a rude awakening?

How Good is Baldwin’s Defense?

Most of the optimism around Baldwin stems from his tenacious defense. After spending nearly the entire 2017-18 season in the D League, Baldwin burst onto the scene with a stalwart effort against his former team at the end of March, followed by unrelenting harassment of NBA MVP James Harden a week later:

Baldwin’s defensive tenacity caught Blazers fans by surprise — especially after watching the last couple years of the CJ McCollum/Damian Lillard/Shabazz Napier backcourt. He was willing to pick players up for a full 94-feet, use physicality to make opponents uncomfortable, and had quick hands to force turnovers.

He also stuck with the defensive gameplan, always finding a man in transition and making the correct rotations in the halfcourt. Watch on this back to back sequence how Baldwin forces Memphis to start their offense at near halfcourt:

And then follows it up by doubling off the hapless “shooter” Kobi Simmons to clog the middle and force a turnover:

Not much analysis is needed here — within the team concept Baldwin can make solid decisions and generally be counted on not to screw-up. We’ve watched Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, and Allen Crabbe fail with basic communication over the last few seasons. Baldwin already seems comfortable within the scheme, which bodes very well.*

Granted, Baldwin’s best defense came against the very bad Grizzlies, and a Rockets team playing in third gear after clinching home court advantage, but it’s comforting to see such solid decisionmaking from a player who previously criticized for his low basketball IQ. And it must be a cool drink of water in the desert for Blazers coach Terry Stotts after relying on Pat Connaughton for 82 games last season.

With that said, it will be important to temper expectations for Baldwin. His tenacity, combined with a willingness to play within the limits of team defense should make him serviceable, but he is not close to being an all-NBA caliber defender yet.

He was outsmarted regularly by Paul and Harden — the Rockets dynamic duo combined for 51 points on 32 shots — despite making them work hard on many plays. He struggled especially with Paul’s improvised use of screens, showing that very advanced offensive players will be able to outsmart him (for now).

Once word got out about Baldwin’s physical style he also began to pick up fouls in bunches, collecting six personals in only 20 combined minutes against the Spurs and Jazz in his last two games of the season. Check out this play against San Antonio:

That’s one reason many players don’t play defense with Baldwin’s level of aggression and physicality for 48 minutes — it’s not sustainable given the NBA’s current rules. Baldwin will need to learn to moderate his tenacity or offensive players will take advantage of the extra contact and he’ll quickly develop a bad reputation with the officials.

Offense

On the surface, Baldwin’s showed offensive promise last season, scoring a combined 29 points on 11-for-16 shooting against the Grizzlies and Rockets.

The majority of those points came on hard drives to the rim where he was able to leverage athleticism and body control, basically turning into a pinball to force the referees into making a call.

The Grizzlies defense was basically letting the Blazers drive at will (McCollum finished with 42 easy points) and Baldwin definitely benefited from that, but he also showed flashes of real potential against good NBA defenders against the Rockets. On this play he maintains his dribble and balance despite Paul “pulling the chair” and manages to finish the play:

It’s hard to write that off as a lucky fluke. Blazermaniacs can be confident that Baldwin will be able to score around the rim once he gets his momentum built up.

Unfortunately, the tape does not suggest he’ll be good for much else offensively. His assist percentage was only 9.8 and when acting as primary distributor he often dribbled at the top of the key watching players cut around him rather than creating any kind of action. Baldwin does sometimes hit players with the right pass in the flow of the offense once another player has initiated the play, but he showed little propensity to act as an actual point guard — a primary reason the Grizzlies released him.

Additionally, Baldwin hit 5-of-6 3-pointers last season but he shot only 23.9 percent from deep in the D League last season, and shot only 13.6 percent on triples for the Grizzlies in 2017. It’s possible that he’ll develop an outside shot, he converted over 40 percent on 3s in college, but he should be labeled “unproven” as a deep threat, at best, as of now.

One worries his one-dimensional abilities will soon become apparent and opposing teams will begin tricking Baldwin into drives and then collapsing in on him to force low percentage shots or bad decisions (hello, Shabazz Napier).

Bottom Line

The Grizzlies cut Baldwin for several reasons. Most notably low basketball IQ, a bad attitude, and inability to play true point guard. The good news is that Baldwin seems to have corrected the first two problems and the third likely won’t matter with several other playmakers on the roster.

But it’s still important to set realistic expectations for Baldwin. He should prioritize harnessing his energy, athleticism, and skill into sustainable NBA defense, while also adding a bankable offensive skill to his repertoire.

In some ways, Pat Connaughton is the best comparison for Baldwin. Pat C. entered last season with one bankable skill — shooting — and supplemented it with solid decision-making, but was doomed when he failed to add anything to his game over the course of the season. If all Baldwin can do is play solid defense and score on an occasional athletic drive, then he’ll struggle to compete for anything more than spot rotation minutes.

For now, much like Connaughton, Baldwin will likely begin as matchup-based player who must show some growth in an underdeveloped part of his game to carve out more consistent rotation minutes in a Blazers backcourt already populated by four proven veterans. If Baldwin can do that it will validate the optimism of Blazers fans while reminding the Grizzlies of the perils of giving up too quickly on first round picks.


*On that point, two examples really stood out: Against the Grizzlies Baldwin picked up the right guy in transition against to prevent a pass for an open 3-pointer and STILL hilariously claimed responsibility when Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier miscommunicated giving up an easy score. At one point against the Rockets Baldwin was clearly directing teammates to cover Gerald Green in transition but he was ignored and Green canned an open triple.

This is a level of attention the Blazers defense struggled with prior to the 2017-18 season. That Baldwin is already putting in this kind of effort, hopefully, suggests his reported attitude problems are a thing of the past.