Little — not Nassir — should be taken from the NBA preseason. It serves as a tune-up for teams introducing new players, coaches and game plans before the rigours of the 82-game season begin.
But for this year’s chapter of the Portland Trail Blazers, these four exhibition games could be the perfect stage for certain players to stake their NBA claims.
We largely know what to expect from Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Cody Zeller and to a lesser extent Larry Nance Jr., Tony Snell and Ben McLemore.
But the unknown output offered by Jusuf Nurkic, Anfernee Simons, and Nassir Little could swing the fortunes for this Blazers team come April, May, and June.
Interestingly, these three men are not new additions, present on the Blazers roster for at least three years. Nurkic is an eighth-year center entering a contract season while Simons and Little are sub 23-year-olds in the second half of their respective rookie-scale contracts.
Let’s take a closer look at why these typically inconsequential games might reveal more than most for this trio.
The big Bosnian has returned buoyantly, hoping for a bounce-back season. His injury-riddled 2020-21 and polarizing playoff performance against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets prompted a firework-filled playoff exit interview where Nurkic criticized his role and openly expressed unhappiness.
But after reports of a productive offseason and a warm welcome from new coach Chauncey Billups, Nurkic has set his expectations high for this season. Great, but he really needs to deliver if he wants his wish for more of the ball. There’s no doubt Nurkic has the ability to be a premier NBA center, teasing glimpses of a cerebral basketball mind. Unfortunately, injury and lapses in motivation have, to this point, let him down.
During his introductory press conference last week, Nurkic said his role was going to be different under Billups with him “being involved with the ball more on offense and defense”.
In Monday’s first preseason game against the Golden State Warriors, Nurkic was expected to go out and execute on the hype. He looked aggressive with 15 points, hitting two three pointers as well as 10 rebounds and four assists in 23 minutes — the most of all five starters. But carelessness crept in at points with the big man committing five avoidable turnovers.
It is important to emphasize the fact that it was everyone’s first hit-out but from someone who is screaming for higher usage in a new system, he needs to prove he can competently perform at the level and protect the ball.
Billups gave Nurkic more time than most on the floor, perhaps to see how the big man can better integrate into team schemes he will feature largely in. Perhaps that newness was the cause of careless turnovers but that’s why we’re all eager to see him play another three times this week. It’s clear the preseason will be more than just a tune-up for Nurkic, it’s going to be a sneak peak into how Billups wants this Blazers team to look on both sides of the ball.
Simons no longer has the excuse of “he’s still young, a rookie, he’s got time to reach his potential.” It’s time for that potential to be realized, time to put on those big boy pants and become, at minimum, a reliable rotation player. Like Nurkic, Simons is playing for his next contract this season and with the promise shown in the last month of the 2020-21 season, the only way needs to be up.
The lion share of the mistakes need to have already been made. I’m not suggesting it’s the All-Star game or bust but he does need to introduce himself as a pivotal part of this rotation and, if possible put himself in contention for one or both of Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved, two awards he publicly stated he had his eye on during last week’s Jacked Ramsays podcast.
But why should we care about what he looks like in the preseason? This team is without a real point guard outside of Lillard. Say what you will about CJ McCollum, but the shooting guard’s natural instinct is to create for himself. Simons needs to show he can be the facilitator that President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has been talking about since he was drafted three years ago. Combining playmaking and improved defense with the marked rise in his three point shooting from last season, the IMG Academy star could become the perfect complement to Lillard and McCollum. And what better way to integrate that than during games that don’t count?
Surprise, surprise, Simons played 20 minutes on Monday and was a clear standout, recording 10 points on 50 percent shooting from three as well as six assists. But it wasn’t just the boxscore. Simons looked confident handling the ball and running the second unit, making the right passes, which invariably led to scoring opportunities.
Let’s just hope this confidence and level of play continues this week and into the regular season.
Given Olshey and co. made few roster changes this offseason, a lot of the hope for improvement has been laid on young players like Simons and Little.
In fact, you could argue Little has become the Blazers’ next great wing hope by default. Little has all the tools to be an above-average rotation player on this team and when you read the words describing the 21-year-old’s offseason for a Jason Quick article in The Athletic, there’s no surprise some fans might be excited.
Phrases like “he’s made an impression” and “we are intrigued” and “he can contribute in a way that is unique” were used in describing the 6-foot-6 wing, who is entering his third season.
Perhaps — although I sincerely doubt it — it was this column last week proposing a breakout Little season could change the future of this roster.
A near All-Star level Little isn’t as crazy as we once might have thought and opens up opportunities to help address this team’s imperfections.
But Little looks as if he’s also indirectly shoveled some of the pressure on himself by telling fans he’s been working on skills the Blazers have been yearning for from a wing since Nicolas Batum was traded. You know, consistency, ball handling, three-point shooting and passing.
Unfortunately against the Warriors, he looked like a man battling high expectations, trying to do too much. Little was first off the bench playing a team-high 24 minutes, scoring three points on one for nine shots (zero for three from three), eight rebounds and one assist to go with five turnovers.
But why should we care what he does before the season? I guess it’s trying to see some of those skills he and others have raved about, which make us all believe he’s the second coming of Kawhi Leonard. Okay, that might be an exaggeration.
Those watching on Monday would have been disappointed. But there are three more preseason games for the athletic wing to peddle his offseason wares. I’ve got no doubt Coach Billups pulled him aside post-game and told him to calm down. Let’s also not forget that Anfernee Simons didn’t hit his third year stride until a game against the Indiana Pacers on April 27. The season is long and Little has time before we start to worry that he’s not what we had hoped. But we’re also wanting to see it right now — sorry, Nas.
It’s great the basketball is back, even if it doesn’t contribute to the real win-loss record. It’s also interesting to look at how Billups wants this team to play, how he is trying to improve the Blazers’ woeful defense, and what the communications looks like on the court.
For these three guys, the four exhibition games need to be more than just going through the motions, they need to be taking a stand.
We watch with bated breath to see how they look by the time they again meet the Warriors at the Chase Center on October 15, which is the final chance to see what this team can do before the marathon NBA season begins five days later.