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Trail Blazers Thrive on ‘Reclamation Projects’

A look back at Portland’s attempts to find value in unsuspecting places under President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has cultivated a reputation of being a master at reclaiming and refurbishing NBA players. Since coming to Portland in 2012, Olshey has attempted to unlock hidden talent in unsuspecting places. Aided by the culture and expertise provided by coach Terry Stotts’ staff, the Olshey-Stotts tandem transformed Maurice Harkless, Shabazz Napier, and Jusuf Nurkic into NBA contributors.

There are two sides to this spectrum, though. For every player Portland has hit on, they also have a miss on the other side of the ledger. Granted, misses are expected when gambling on “buy-low” prospects, but completely passing over the misses would also be a disservice to the evaluation of those additions.

Before the focus shifts to how Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas can surpass their contract value, let’s take a look back at some of Portland’s low-risk investments from Olshey’s tenure.

The Hits

Maurice Harkless

After three hot-and-cold seasons in Orlando, Harkless made his way to Portland in the summer of 2015. For the low cost of a highly-protected second round pick, the Blazers banked on unlocking the upside of a player still in his early twenties.

After being lightly used in the first half of the 2015-16 season, Harkless helped ignite the fire that guided the Blazers to a surprise postseason berth. Portland subsequently dished out a lucrative four-year deal to the New York native for his contributions.

There have been notable roadblocks, but Harkless has blossomed into a respectable two-way player since joining the Blazers. Harkless has started in 119 regular season games in three years in Portland.

Shabazz Napier

Much like Harkless, Napier was acquired from the Magic for next to nothing (cash considerations). Napier’s contributions were largely behind the scenes in his first year, but he managed to carve out a niche in Stotts’ rotation last season. Despite playin in an extremely small lineup, Napier found success playing alongside both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Napier transitioned from an afterthought to a highly effective reserve guard. The former UCONN standout will be suiting up for the Nets in the 2018-19 season.

Jusuf Nurkic

Often injured, or upset with his role, Nurkic found himself jettisoned from Denver before the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline. Nurkic’s 19 regular season starts that year sent Portland’s fans into a frenzy. The Bosnian Beast provided the Blazers with an anchor on defense, and a low-post threat on offense.

Nurkic’s second year in Portland wasn’t nearly as impressive as his debut, but he still started 79 games for a 49-33 team in the Western Conference. The Blazers agreed to a four-year contract extension with the 23-year-old big fella earlier this summer.

Placing Nurkic on this portion of the list did involve some debate. It is up to you to decide whether Nurkic was really the most coveted asset in the trade with the Nuggets.

The Misses

Noah Vonleh

Along with veteran wing Gerald Henderson, Vonleh arrived in Portland in package from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Nicolas Batum. The former first-round pick struggled to carve out a meaningful role during his tenure with the Blazers. Vonleh showed flashes of his potential with his athleticism, but he was never able to put all the pieces together.

Vonleh started in 109 regular season games for the Blazers before being traded to the Bulls. The former Indiana standout signed with the Knicks earlier this summer.

Thomas Robinson

Robinson was off to a rocky start to his NBA career when he arrived in Portland prior to the 2013-14 season. The Blazers shipped two second round picks, plus the rights to Kostas Papanikolau and Marko Todorovic, to the Houston Rockets in exchange for the former No. 5 pick. Robinson provided high-energy off the bench, but topped out at just 12.5 minutes per game.

The former Kansas star couldn’t adapt to the changing landscape for NBA big men, and was shipped to the Denver Nuggets in a multi-player deal for Aaron Afflalo after 102 regular season games in Portland. Robinson last played in the NBA as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2016-17 season.

Too Soon To Tell

Wade Baldwin IV

Despite being the No. 17 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Baldwin was cut by the Memphis Grizzlies after just one year. The former Vanderbilt guard agreed to a two-way contract with Portland for the 2017-18 season, and is now on a guaranteed deal. Baldwin had a strong showing at the Las Vegas Summer League in July, and he should be in contention for meaningful minutes in the Blazers’ guard rotation.

Honorable Mentions

JJ Hickson, Robin Lopez, and Mason Plumlee were excluded due to their experience prior to joining the Blazers. Eric Maynor didn’t make the list due to his injury history and his limited run with Portland. Former Penn State guard Tim Frazier has enjoyed a nice career after spending time in the D-League, but his biggest contributions have come after his time with the Blazers.

—Steve / @SteveDHoops /