In this edition of recounting each Portland Trail Blazers player’s best game from the shortened 2019-20 season, we’ll look at four younger players who used their limited minutes as time to develop. Those four? Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.
Hezonja dealt with injuries and an undefined role in the offense throughout his first campaign with Portland. Like with Evan Turner the last three years, Terry Stotts didn’t always play Hezonja as a point forward but rather a wing, expecting him to space the floor despite poor outside shooting numbers.
His best game came on March 2 in a 130-107 win against the Orlando Magic, the team that drafted him in 2015. Hezonja tallied 10 points, eight rebounds, four assists, one steal and no turnovers in 28 minutes. With Damian Lillard out and CJ McCollum needing an occasional rest, Hezonja was able to play to his strengths and handle the ball and push the reserve unit in transition.
As an offensive facilitator, he avoided succumbing to tunnel-vision on drives, didn’t shoot too many three-pointers, and actively searched for open teammates. Even when McCollum’s minutes overlapped with his, Hezonja remained the primary ball handler and focused on finding his hot-shooting teammate curling around screens.
The highlight of his performance: apparently receiving two technical fouls – one for stopping the ref from calling a tech on McCollum and the other for a dust-up with Mo Bamba – but continuing to play, nonetheless.
In recent history, rookies on the Trail Blazers don’t see a lot of minutes. But due to unfortunate circumstances, namely Zach Collins’ injury in the season’s third game, Little received a chance to gain some extra experience and expedite his development.
As part of a four-game stretch of playing more than 20 minutes per night, Little recorded 12 points, 11 rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block against the New Orleans Pelicans on January 19. It was Carmelo Anthony’s first game for Portland, and Little came off the bench to collect career-highs in points and rebounds in 23 minutes.
Three of the rookie’s five makes (on just six attempts) came from dunks: one in transition and two off put backs. He demonstrated his vertical athleticism on rebounds as well, out-jumping even Hassan Whiteside on the defensive glass to secure New Orleans misses.
On the other end, Little had a big block on Brandon Ingram at the rim during the second quarter as the Blazers tried to close the lead. Ultimately, Portland lost 115-104. Little finished a team-high plus-nine.
Swanigan’s best performance in a limited 20 games with Portland also came against the Orlando Magic on March 2. In 15 minutes, he collected four points, five rebounds, four assists and one block on 2/2 shooting from the field.
The reserve big man didn’t see the court until midway through the third quarter. When he first subbed in, he quickly turned the ball over and picked up a foul, leading to a quick trip back to the bench. However, he made up for the rough start with a strong finish.
Swanigan re-entered the game with 7:19 left in the fourth and the Blazers ahead by just nine points – they ended up winning by 23. As Orlando attempted its first comeback, Swanigan chased down Evan Fournier in transition and blocked his layup off the backboard to maintain the 10-point lead. Against Orlando’s half court sets, he stayed with Nikola Vucevic on pick and pops, something Whiteside struggled to do through the first three quarters.
Offensively, Swanigan set numerous screens that freed a teammate to score. He helped a red-hot McCollum and Gary Trent Jr. knock down several jumpers by handing the ball off and blocking the chasing defender from contesting the pull up.
As part of the trade that landed Trevor Ariza on the Blazers, Gabriel has a limited sample of games in the red and black to choose from; he’s played just 149 minutes in 17 contests for the team. Most of those minutes come in end-of-game situations when the outcome has already been decided, too.
Nonetheless, in a painful loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on February 11, Gabriel recorded 12 points and two rebounds in 14 minutes. He shot 5/7 from the field and hit one of two three-point attempts. It marked his first, and only, game scoring in double-digits for Portland.
He scored at all three levels: a catch-and-shoot three in the corner off a pass from Anfernee Simons, a fancy spin move and lay-in off the dribble, and a Melo-esque jab step and midrange jumper from the baseline.
Defensively, Gabriel only picked up two fouls – this is noteworthy because he averages 6.8 fouls per 36 minutes since joining the Blazers. He was tasked with staying in front of Zion Williamson for the first half of his fourth quarter minutes, a task no one can successfully do. Still, his length prevented some of Williamson’s drives and contested shots at the rim without fouling.