The NBA’s return to action will grant the Trail Blazers a chance to re-write the ending to a dismal 2019-20 season. The optimism surrounding Portland’s chances inside a re-tooled 22-team format is buoyed by the return of two key frontcourt players. Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are the darlings of the pre-bubble discussions, but they aren’t the only Blazers players positioned to benefit from the Orlando restart.
Here is a look at four players that could find themselves moving up the depth chart if things break right during the NBA’s restart.
The Blazers have seen glimpses of Little’s next-level athleticism, but the North Carolina rookie has only flirted with regular minutes through 48 appearances. Firmly behind Trevor Ariza on the depth chart, Little’s extra time in the film room and with the playbook could plant the seeds for increased minutes in a reserve role when play resumes.
Like Maurice Harkless before him, Little is positioned to take advantage of Nurkic’s passing out of the high post. The 20-year-old forward has shown that he can get downhill in a hurry, which should make him a threat along the baseline when opponents collapse around Lillard-Nurkic sets. Defensively, Collins and Little have the potential to form a versatile forward tandem that proved successful for coach Terry Stotts in previous seasons.
Even if the return to action does not result in meaningful minutes for Little, the youngster should be on the receiving end of more attention during Portland’s abbreviated training camp. With a salary crunch looming, Little’s rise in the rotation is likely to be fast tracked. If the cap shrinks in the coming years, an outcome that appears likely, Ariza’s 2020-21 salary could fall on the chopping block. Ariza is set to earn $12.8 million next season, but only $1.8 million is guaranteed.
Moses Brown & Jaylen Hoard
All signs point to roster expansion prior to the Orlando restart, meaning that the Blazers are likely to bring a pair of two-way contract players with them to the bubble. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Moses Brown and Jaylen Hoard are not likely to undertake roles on the court during the competition ahead. That said, the experience that the two rookies are poised to gain by participating in the Blazers stretch run could hold long-term benefits.
Brown, a 7-foot-2 center that averaged 14.4 points per game in the G League this year, could receive the biggest boost of any youngster on roster. Once contact practices resume, Brown will find himself across from Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside. That setup should present valuable lessons on both ends of the court for the 20-year-old big fella.
After a promising start to the 2019-20 season, Simons’ numbers quickly cooled. Plagued by foul trouble and a rapidly-declining field goal percentage, Simons eventually took a backseat to Gary Trent Jr’s rise up the rotation. For anyone who has watched Simons, one thing is clear: he has all the tools to create his own shot. That type of athleticism doesn’t just disappear for 21 year olds. From the outside looking in, it appeared that Simons needed a pause to reset and regain his confidence prior to the NBA’s hiatus.
Perhaps this break, and a return to his home town, will provide the foundation for Simons to return to his early-November numbers. In seven games to start November, the former IMG Academy star produced double-digit scoring totals in six outings. If Portland qualifies for the NBA’s re-tooled postseason format, a grueling schedule of games await. Lillard and the Blazers would be in a much better position if Simons is up to the task of filling in for a few minutes each night.