Hopes are rising as the 2019-20 NBA regular season approaches for the Portland Trail Blazers. Fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance, armed with new veterans, the Blazers hope to sail smoothly into another deep run. Nothing in the NBA is guaranteed, though, so this week we’re looking at nine questions the Blazers will have to answer if they’re going to be successful in the coming campaign.
Question #5: Can the Blazers’ Youngsters Push Them Over the Top?
Newcomers Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja aren’t the only Blazers players that will undertake a new role in the 2019-20 season. Both Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons are on the cusp of increased minutes as Portland attempts to maintain its place near the top of the Western Conference.
Collins, age 21, will attempt to parlay an offseason of adding bulk into a steady spot in the starting lineup. Along with playing alongside Whiteside in the post, the Blazers will rely on Collins to man the pivot inside the second unit until the roster adjusts upon Jusuf Nurkic’s return. Both of those assignments will require significant improvements from the former Gonzaga standout for the Blazers to compete with the NBA’s elite.
Defensively, it will be Collins’ task to ease the departure of Al-Farouq Aminu. On a night-to-night basis, Aminu was tasked with guarding dynamic frontcourt players. Given the relative lack of size of both Rodney Hood and Kent Bazemore, Collins could easily find himself across from players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James for significant stretches. Despite a lack of statistical production, the 21-year-old big fella has displayed the footwork required to stay in front of perimeter players and provide help at the rim. As mentioned earlier this week, it will be key for Collins to avoid foul trouble in the process.
Collins’ track record on offense doesn’t present the same hopeful outlook. His disastrous shooting percentage as a rookie (39.8%) was slightly mitigated by his sophomore performance (47.3%) to bring his career field goal percentage up to 44.1 percent. In the post, Collins has yet to prove that he can use his size to create favorable opportunities. Next to Whiteside, that won’t be an issue. But Collins must prove he can exploit smaller defenders when playing center. If he fails to do that, opponents can stack lineups with switch-friendly forwards capable of making things difficult for the Blazers’ guards.
For Simons, this season serves as his full-fledged introduction. Armed with the tools to create his own shot at will, the 20-year-old Florida native is poised to fill the void created by Seth Curry’s departure. Simons’ 37-point outburst against the Kings has combined with the organization’s praise over the summer to make him one of the most intriguing players to watch in the upcoming season.
Like most young players undertaking an enhanced role, the hurdles that Simons will face vary in size and frequency. The Blazers mitigated his learning curve by filling the second unit with players that can create for themselves and others, allowing Simons to play to his strengths as he adjusts to increased minutes.
If Simons gets off to a hot start, the second hurdle will arrive much quicker: film collection and opposing scouting reports. Like Jake Layman’s adjustment after the removal of open backdoor cuts, it is crucial that Simons finds a way to remain effective after opponents make a conscious effort to halt his go-to moves.
Outside of Lillard and McCollum, Simons and Collins are two players that can push the Blazers’ ceiling to a new level (Nassir Little could come into play in the near future). Collins carries the biggest burden in the year ahead. A string of strong performances in the first half of the season will prevent the Blazers from having to play catch up down the stretch and it could unlock opportunities at the trade deadline. For Simons, the stakes are noteworthy, but slightly lower. If Terry Stotts hopes to keep his star-studded backcourt fresh for another extended postseason, he will need Simons to adapt quickly.