By the time the NBA offseason had ended, there was one team that several people picked as a clear winner: The Portland Trail Blazers. And that was for good reason. They made an effort to shore up the all-important wing spot by adding players like Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. and then bolstered their frontcourt by bringing back Enes Kanter and adding Harry Giles. Even with a disappointing opening night loss to a solid Utah Jazz squad, there are still plenty of interesting players worth monitoring on the Blazers.
One of the most intriguing players is not one of the new wings. Instead, it’s Gary Trent Jr., the breakout star of the bubble for Portland who’s poised right now to earn himself a nice new contract if all goes well. The 21 year old out of Duke has shown a propensity for knocking threes down at a high rate and being a bulldog on defense. He’s shown enough to have some picking him as a breakout candidate for this season.
Trent’s bubble performance was great, but now there’s a glut of wings that Trent has to fight for minutes. What can the third-year player do to help him stand out? Let’s dive into it.
There are two things that Gary Trent Jr. does well, and they are two things that are becoming increasingly more and more important in this league: Shooting and defense. Let’s start with defense, because that’ll be the quickest thing to discuss. Trent has worked his butt off to get much better on that end, and he was quite easily Portland’s best wing defender in the bubble. He often took on the toughest assignments and was able to use his length to defend both guards and wings. Most importantly, he was successful at doing both.
Watching the highlights above, it becomes clear that Trent is great as a disruptor. Whether it’s putting his hands in passing lanes or using his long arms to block shots on smaller players, Trent is awesome at taking guys head on or helping off the ball.
But even as great as he is, he’ll always be limited slightly by being only 6’5”. What makes Covington and Jones so valuable is that they’re big, long wings who are also great team defenders. Trent will never match their size, so defensively there’s not much he can do to separate himself from that pack.
Where Trent can really make himself a known quantity is with his offense. Trent made 41.8% of his threes last season on decent volume, shooting 4.4 threes a game and making 1.8 of them. Most of his shots came from outside. He attempted 268 shots outside the arc as opposed to 173 inside the arc.
When he got into the bubble, he was a flamethrower, averaging 16.7 points per contest and reigning in threes like there was no tomorrow. In those regular season bubble games, Trent made 50.7% of his threes, which was the highest mark of anyone on the team.
This highlight reel shows how valuable it is for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to just have guys who can consistently relocate and knock down shots. Lillard draws two defenders to him the moment he crosses halfcourt usually and McCollum is skilled enough to get a shot off on just about anyone, so you have to put help defenders on him too. Finding Trent for those easy buckets will be vital to the success of the offense.
Offensively, there are a couple ways Trent could up his value to the team even more. One of the best things he could do is start creating his own shots. It’s not something he’s actually a stranger to. If you watch his Summer League highlights you’ll see Trent attempting a vast array of pull up jumpers, post ups, and drives to the hoop.
The pull up jumper isn’t a foreign shot for Trent. Almost 40% of his shots were registered as pull ups in the 2019-20 season. He made about 40.4% of those shots in total, but more importantly, he made 39% of his pull up threes, a shot he took about 1.4 times a game. If Trent became a consistent shot creator, that would be huge for Portland.
Right now, the only player the Blazers can really trust to get his own shot off the bench is Carmelo Anthony, and we saw the worst version of that against the Jazz — contested mid-range jumpers, black hole behavior, and zero threes attempted. Trent tried to look for his own shot often, taking about 12 shots himself, but most of those seemed to be difficult mid-range shots as opposed to the open catch-and-shoot threes he had before.
The mid-range pull up isn’t en vogue right now in the NBA, mostly because statistically speaking it is a shot that few make at a high clip. I personally don’t hate it, but if you’re Trent here, you have to be quicker moving to the spot and getting that shot off. The window is there, but the slow movement isn’t going to cut it, even with Joe Ingles defending it.
On this shot, Trent does a better job of quickly getting to his spot and has a faster release, making it harder for Ingles to block that shot. It’s not a perfect shot, but it is one that he should look to exploit when defended by slower players. But even then, the pull up shot that I really want to see start falling is the one below.
This was one of Trent’s rare misses from three (he was 3 for 5 on Wednesday). If you can pardon the wonky camera angle and Ken Mauer obstructing the view, you’ll see Trent handling the ball with the screen from Kanter. He takes a strong dribble to his left (a necessary component to any shooter’s game) and launches it. This one doesn’t go in, but it’s still something I’d rather see him taking then the mid-range shots that usually come from pull-ups.
But that shot seems like something that’ll need a little more fine-tuning. Trent was 0 for 5 on pull up jumpers on Wednesday, and that’s not great even with a stifling Utah defense getting in the way. He still is most valuable to this squad as a catch-and-shoot guy, and that’s fine. He’s extremely good at that and the gravity of Lillard and McCollum will always open up shots for him. Adding a consistent pull up jumper would just be a cherry on top.
All of this is assuming that Lillard and McCollum are on the floor, but what if one of those two players aren’t available? And what if Anfernee Simons isn’t available like last night? In a season like this where COVID will surely affect the number of players available each night, having backups at each position is highly valuable.
That’s why I’m wondering how comfortable Trent would be as a creator for other players when he’s on the floor. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and it’s not impossible to imagine him as an emergency backup point guard. He’s shown flashes of at the very least being able to facilitate the offense.
This an awesome wrap-around pass from Trent. It’s more of a reactionary read off the dribble handoff, but it was a good enough pass that it got me thinking about whether this combined with his pull up potential could allow him to be a lead guard if called upon. McCollum usually handles backup point guard duties even when Simons is on the floor, but there could come a day where two of the three main options at that position are unavailable. That is where Trent could be needed.
For now, we’ll just have to see how he fits in with this new roster. Trent projects right now to be a really good rotation player for 10+ years in the NBA. He has all the tools necessary to continue thriving even with a lot more wings on this roster. In a contract year, players always want to show they’re worth big money. There’s no reason it’ll be any different for Trent.