The Trail Blazers’ training camp is in full swing, and the 2018-19 NBA regular season will arrive in just a matter of weeks. Before the action gets underway, Portland will be tasked with molding its current crop of perimeter players into a unit that will compliment Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Today’s preview will focus on the players that will operate on the perimeter next to the Blazers’ talented backcourt.
This group includes a pair of familiar faces in Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, and Jake Layman. Nik Stauskas and rookie Gary Trent Jr. will join that trio of returning players in our analysis.
Our previews this year will feature input from Blazer’s Edge contributors Brian Freeman and Steve Dewald.
Let’s get to the discussion.
One of the main storylines from the Blazers this summer has been the desire to improve perimeter shooting. Selecting from the players in this group, who do you feel is in the best position to help Portland space the floor?
Steve: I have witnessed Neil Olshey pull a rabbit out of a hat before when it comes to finding useful bench players in unlikely places. If Nik Stauskas blossoms into a legitimate contributor, it might be Olshey’s greatest trick yet.
Stauskas shot 40.4 percent from beyond the arc in his 35-game stint with the Nets last season. Granted, he was not a high-volume three-point shooter in Brooklyn (2.8 attempts per game). This is the most talented squad Stauskas has ever been a part of, so I expect the former lottery pick to capitalize on better looks this season.
Brian: I would say the player to be in the best position to help the Blazers space the floor this year would be Maurice Harkless mostly because he will get the most minutes of the group (assuming good health). Harkless plays off the ball well and is the best rebounder and most versatile defender of the group. But let’s not sleep on his accuracy from deep. Over the last two years, Harkless is 117-312 (37.5%) from beyond the arc. Ignoring everything from difficulty to volume, that percentage is better than Lillard’s over the same time span. I would bet Stauskas and Trent Jr. may finish the season with better percentages, but no jumper in this group matters more than the ones off the hand of Maurice Harkless.
In recent years Portland has had success with their former second-round picks finding success after being groomed under Terry Stotts’ coaching staff. Is Jake Layman primed for a similar leap in his third year?
Brian: Only two players on this roster are natural small forwards-- Harkless and Layman. Portland will go to three guard lineups and use Turner at the three, but Layman is going to get an opportunity based just on lack of depth alone. That, combined with great showings in back-to-back summer leagues, gives lots to reasons to assume that jump is happening. I still hold back my optimism due to the complete void of accomplishments on his resume thus far. Not a good sign for a third year player.
Steve: I have a feeling Brian might have said the same thing about Pat Connaughton’s NBA resume at this point last season. This might sound crazy, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Layman make a few starts with Harkless rehabbing an injury. If Portland’s objective is to tailor the second unit to fit Turner’s strengths, Layman would be in line for spot duty with the starters.
On paper, Layman has the physical tools necessary to switch on to post players. His defensive flexibility will be in demand if the Blazers tweak their scheme to include more switching.
I’m cautiously optimistic, but I expect Layman to have a decent year.
Turner’s assist numbers have steadily declined since his first season with the Celtics. Will the Blazers’ re-tooled reserve unit put the 29-year-old veteran in a position to reverse this trend in 2018-19?
Steve: Turner averaged 5.5 assists per game in his first year in Boston. I don’t expect him to return to that level of production. That being said, Portland attempted to surround him with complementary pieces over the summer. The most intriguing option might be second-year big man Zach Collins. The 20 year old has a clear path to minutes, and Turner has had success with floor-spacing big men from Gonzaga in the past. Kelly Olynyk recorded a three-point percentage of 40.5 in his second season next to Turner.
Brian: I am very excited about Turner’s potential as a distributer with the second unit. With the additions of Curry, and Stauskas, Trent, and Anfernee Simons, plus the continued progression of Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard and Wade Baldwin, Turner could head a second unit surrounded with shooters. This is something he has not had at his disposal since his arrival in Portland and could bring out the type of play maker that the Blazer front office envisioned when he arrived two seasons ago. He is finally in a situation that could play to his strengths and I see the upcoming season as his best in a Blazer uniform yet.
What are you expecting from Portland’s wings this season? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.