A week ago today, the Portland Trail Blazers made a risky move. At the NBA trade deadline, they shipped off Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Norman Powell. The trade itself received mixed grades, but the take that seemed to be the consensus was as follows: the Blazers got better this year with Powell now on the team.
Hood looked like a shell of himself in Portland, so the real direct comparison is Powell to Trent, and Powell measures out better there, as well. A better all-around scorer and an at least league average defender makes Powell ideal over Trent. But as with any trade, it’s not just about the player being replaced who’s no longer on the team; it’s about who’s the odd man out already on the team.
Enter Derrick Jones Jr. Before Powell’s arrival, Jones started every game he played except one against the Knicks back on Feb. 6. Now he’s become the aforementioned odd man out. What does Powell’s arrival mean for Jones?
Let’s start with a direct comparison offensively, even though it’s not even a competition. Powell outpaces Jones in points per game, field goal percentage, three point percentage, true shooting percentage, and assists. Jones is a fun dunker who finishes well inside. Powell is a complete scorer and who can do just about everything offensively, and the one thing he can’t do as well (passing) isn’t a necessity for him.
The overall advantage Powell has over Jones offensively puts DJJ in a tough spot. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an argument for Jones over Powell. The argument hinges on a couple things, including the length and size Jones brings over Powell and the supposedly better defense. But are those two things enough?
Well, Jones Jr. certainly has a height advantage, but Powell’s 6’11” wingspan makes it easier to overlook the height difference as a serious problem. That length along with Powell’s sturdy frame make it so that he can take on guys who are a little bigger. Size is not an issue for Powell.
Plus, you can argue that DJJ is a more natural fit at the three, but that doesn’t change the fact that Powell not only played that position often in Toronto but played it well. Powell played the three for the Raptors alongside Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet 52% of the time per Cleaning the Glass. During his minutes there, he had an efficiency differential of +3.5, which puts him in the 67th percentile. That’s just slightly higher than the number Jones Jr. posted at +2.1.
Jones Jr.’s numbers are technically better than Powell on the offensive end in Cleaning the Glass, but that can be explained by usage rate and shot selection. Jones’s usage rate of 11.3% ranks in the 11th percentile among wings this year. Powell’s usage rate of 21.9% puts him in the 82nd percentile. A team is better when Jones doesn’t do too much with the ball; the opposite is true of Powell.
So Powell is better than Jones Jr. He’s a better offensive player and is more than capable of holding his own defensively. More importantly for Portland, Powell is clearly better as a starter than a bench player (ask Raptors Twitter about “Starter Norm” vs. “Bench Norm”), so that’s where he best helps the Blazers. That brings us back to our original question; where does that leave Derrick Jones Jr.?
The idealized version of Jones Jr. is probably a role player coming off the bench. That’s what I envisioned at the beginning of the year in hopes that Rodney Hood would return to being about 90% of the player he once was. Now that Powell is here, Jones can play a role that is theoretically more suited for him.
One of the advantages of Jones Jr. is that he’s not a high usage player. I know I used that as a knock a little earlier, but it actually is something that helps a team flow. Jones doesn’t require the ball in order to do what he does best offensively, which is rise up in the paint and finish over opponents with reckless abandon.
Here’s a great example of him doing just that. Jones Jr. doesn’t have to do anything except hide in the corner this entire possession. All the action is happening away from his corner almost the entire time. But he reappears at the exact right moment and uses his incredible athleticism to pull off a very tough layup over a very good defender in Chris Boucher.
Here’s Jones Jr. again, just waiting patiently in the corner to get his shot off. His three point shooting has improved significantly since joining Portland. His 33% hit rate is certainly not great; it’s not even league average. But it’s also just good enough when he’s open enough on plays like this, you’re not cringing as he let’s go of the ball. The more of those corner threes he can hit, the more often he can do plays like the layup above.
It’s also important that he can do these little spot plays because the bench unit doesn’t need more people trying to create shots. Sure, more shot creators are always helpful, but it can also just lead to a stunted offensive flow (i.e. Carmelo Anthony when he’s not hitting half of his threes).
With one of Lillard or McCollum always on the court and Melo also still the sixth man, Jones Jr. will never have to worry about blossoming into a self-creator. He will almost always be playing alongside someone who is at least competent enough at doing so. He’s still no offensive juggernaut. It may hurt Portland in the playoffs — it’s one of the reasons Jones Jr. was essentially axed from the playoff rotation in Miami.
Jones Jr. adds a dimension to the bench unit that is sorely lacking: defense. No, Jones Jr. is not some incredible lockdown defender who completely transforms a defense, but he’s an excellent team defender who is capable of at least slowing down a team’s best player. That ability alone puts him well above most other Blazers.
This is just a quick compilation of Jones Jr. defending mostly Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, quite easily the two best players on the Pelicans. Jones Jr. just uses his incredible length and speed to disrupt everything. He puts his hands in passing lanes, rises until he’s literally on top of people to block shots, and recovers with incredible speed in help situations.
The best sequence in the above highlight clip starts at about 0:42. Ingram is flying down the court and gets by Robert Covington after RoCo goes for the steal. Jones Jr. takes one long step in from the free throw line and gets UP to block Ingram. But the scariest part is Zion gets the offensive rebound. Williamson is a human snow plow. If they had given him a basketball, they could’ve used him to unblock the ship in the Suez Canal instantly. But what should be an easy bucket for Williamson turns into another block for Jones Jr., and the lanky forward saves Portland two points.
When Jones Jr. is doing things like that, it’s a special thing. And those special plays won’t disappear because Powell is taking Jones Jr.’s starting spot. DJJ can still rise up for spectacular layups, hit the occasional three when no one is paying attention, and continue playing stellar defense throughout. In reality, Jones Jr. is just ending up where he was always meant to be.