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How The Trail Blazers’ Bench Can Earn Meaningful Roles

Internal development can be tricky, but Portland has a few players that could earn surprisingly significant roles.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers will field an experienced starting five for the 2018-19 regular season. Outside of that starting group, Portland will be dependent on a thin crop of players to fill important roles. For the Blazers to advance past their status as fringe Western Conference competitors, they will need a handful of their unheralded players to quickly learn on the fly.

Blazer’s Edge contributor Ryne Buchanan suggested the Portland treat next year as a development year with his post yesterday. Today, I propose what needs to happen for the Blazers to enjoy the best of both worlds: development that leads to immediate contributions to a winning team.

This discussion will focus on the players who appear to be on the outside looking in at concrete minutes in coach Terry Stotts’ rotations. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jusuf Nurkic will begin the year as starters (barring something unforeseen). Off the bench; Seth Curry, Evan Turner, and Zach Collins are slated to play meaningful minutes.

Let’s now look at what the players that weren’t mentioned above would have to do to capture minutes.

The Rookies

Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. both showed promising signs in Las Vegas earlier this summer, but neither one is guaranteed minutes when the regular season begins. For Simons, learning Stotts’ guard-driven offense will be top priority. The talented 19-year-old guard must prove he can create opportunities for others by keeping the ball moving on offense. If he can do that, his own scoring acumen will make him a perfect compliment to whoever he is partnered with in the backcourt.

Trent’s path to minutes will be tied to his versatility. If the former Duke standout can hold his own against Portland’s small forwards in training camp, he could make himself an attractive perimeter option off the bench. His lack of height is slightly concerning, but the Blazers did find success with three-guard lineups last year. Trent will capture minutes if he his defensive versatility can get on equal footing with his outside shooting.

Returning Cast Members

Jake Layman shot 57.1 percent from the field while scoring 13.4 points per game in his third stint in summer league. If the former Terrapin remains assertive and effective on offense through the preseason, it will be tough for the Blazers to keep him off the floor when the games begin to count. Layman can further bolster his case for a role by proving he can play minutes as a “stretch four” (a topic I highlighted earlier this summer).

Like Layman, Wade Baldwin IV is also coming off an impressive summer league campaign. The former first-round pick is on a guaranteed contract, but will still need to show growth before earning a re-occurring role off the bench. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have played a ton of minutes over the past three seasons (six seasons for Lillard). If Portland is looking to ease the regular season burden placed on the starting guard tandem, Baldwin should be first in line for a bump. Baldwin could make himself indispensable by consistently locking down his opponent on the defense end, and avoiding errors on offense.

Due to the Ed-Davis-sized hole in the post, Caleb Swanigan will have plenty of opportunities in the coming weeks to earn a role. Swanigan’s lateral quickness and lack of height can be mitigated by positioning. If he can stay in the right place, his rebounding instincts should help replace a portion Davis’ 7.4 rebounds per game.

There is nothing I can say about Meyers Leonard that hasn’t already been said. The big fella has all the tools to be an effective big man, but he has to put it all together when it counts. With Davis in Brooklyn, Leonard’s path to playing time does appear to be a bit clearer.

Newcomers & Long Shots

Nik Stauskas will be looking to end one of the longest individual playoff droughts in the NBA as a member of the Blazers. Hopefully for Portland, Stauskas will be a contributing participant in the pursuit of ending that streak. The former lottery pick’s to-do list reads much like Layman’s: provide consistent outside shooting. Stauskas has an above-average chance to beat out his fellow teammates if the plan is to surround a Turner-led second unit with complementary pieces

Gary Payton II, Cameron Oliver, and Chinanu Onuaku must prove they are worthy of two-way contract before a path to minutes can be forecasted. Of that trio, Onuaku is the most interesting option. If the former second-round pick can establish himself in the paint, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him push Portland’s current crop of frontcourt reserves.

—Steve / @SteveDHoops /