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Trail Blazers 2021-22 Season Preview: Larry Nance, Jr.

Portland’s new summer addition is lithe and sparkly, but will it be enough?

Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The countdown is on to the start of the 2021-22 NBA regular season for the Portland Trail Blazers. Blazer’s Edge will be running our season preview from now until the Blazers tip off the year against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night. Today we talk about Portland’s new, shiny off-season acquisition: Larry Nance, Jr.

Larry Nance, Jr. 2020-21 Stats

AGE: 28 EXPERIENCE: 6 Seasons

CONTRACT: $10.7 million in 2021-22, $9.7 million in 2022-23

2020-21 STATS

9.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.7 steals in 31.2 minutes per game over 35 appearances

47.1% field goal percentage, 36.0% three-point percentage, 61.2% free throw percentage with 1.4 foul shots per game

The Role

You’d never call a Sixth Man the franchise savior, particularly not on a franchise led by All-Everything point guard Damian Lillard. But if you’re talking defense? Yeah. Larry Nance, Jr. is carrying plenty of freight for the Blazers.

Portland’s 2020-21 season ended with exactly one frontcourt player exhibiting effective point-of-attack defense. That was Jusuf Nurkic. When Nurkic got torched by Nikola Jokic in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, Portland was finished. They didn’t have anyone else capable of turning the game on that end of the floor.

After firing offensive guru Terry Stotts last June, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey vowed that the Blazers would improve on defense in the season to come. Hiring rookie coach Chauncey Billups was his masterstroke on the sidelines. Nance, Jr. was his big play on the floor.

The import from Cleveland can defend. Fans will notice that his athleticism is an order above the rest of the regular roster. He moves effortlessly in any direction. His quick leaping ability and reflexes make him seem closer to 6’10 than his listed height of 6’7. His hands are eternally busy, whether hounding dribblers or obstructing passing lanes. He never seems to be out of a play, no matter where he is on the floor.

Nance, Jr. will experience a shakedown period with his new teammates, who are themselves adjusting to an updated defensive system. He’ll create problems for opponents that the team will not be able to capitalize on at first. But if he and Nurkic learn to feed off of each other—or he and Robert Covington, depending on what position Nance plays—the Blazers will profit immensely. Nance, Jr. should become a turnover-forcing factory if fellow defenders can cover for him on rotations.

Carrying the whole weight of Portland’s defense may be too much to ask of the seventh-year big, though. Though he’s a terror off the ball, his straight-up defense isn’t pristine. He suffers at center. He’s similar to Covington: best when helping, less sure when defending in isolation. If Nurkic doesn’t develop more defensive consistency, the Blazers still don’t have the solid backstop around which Covington and Nance, Jr. can rotate. He’d be brilliant as a defensive addition. He may not be able to blossom fully as the defensive addition.

Fortunately, Nance, Jr. also brings offensive chops to the floor. His 36% success rate from distance isn’t anything to write home about, but forwards have come into Portland with lower marks and still succeeded. Playing next to Lillard and CJ McCollum will do that for you. In addition to the long ball, Nance, Jr. has good moves towards the basket and a decent touch inside. His athleticism will show on the break if the Blazers ever manage to get out of second gear.

After all is said and done, though, Portland fans will be most impressed with Nance’s ability to make plays. He knows when and how to cut. He can pass too. His court vision is marvelous for a big. Watch for this to become a secret sauce in Portland’s attack burger. Let’s hope it isn’t spoiled by playing with the second unit.

In short, other than potentially missing kick-out threes, Nance, Jr. shouldn’t do anything to hurt Portland’s offense, only help.

Areas for Improvement

A history of injury haunts Nance’s footsteps. He, Nurkic, and Cody Zeller now encompass three-fourths of Portland’s big-man rotation. Combined they played just 55.6% of the season last year, with most of those appearances coming from Zeller. Nance, Jr. has never played 70 games in a single season. He played in 91 out of a possible 154 over the last two. This is, hands down, the biggest concern about him this season.

Hitting wide-open three pointers and strengthening his defense in the vicinity of the rim (if pressed into duty at center) are the next two items on the improvement list.

Other than that, Nance, Jr. is as athletic and complete of a player as you could wish for. He doesn’t have to improve much...just stay on the court and find ways to contribute.

Final Thoughts

The Blazers got their wish this summer: strengthening their defensive potential at a low salary cost, trading away a player they weren’t using much anyway in Derrick Jones, Jr. (Plus a first-round draft pick, but we’ll let that part go for now.) If anybody can help at that price point, Nance, Jr. should.

“If anybody can help...” is an open question, though. Portland’s defense looked atrocious in preseason. If they give Nance, Jr. a fair chance—and if he stays healthy—he should reward them deeply. If they aren’t going to bother on that end, or just don’t have enough defenders in the backcourt to make a difference, Nance, Jr. will end up becoming a flashier version of Covington: always nice to have on the team, not enough to make a difference.

Check out our Season Preview so far:

Damian Lillard

CJ McCollum

Jusuf Nurkic

Robert Covington