One of the few expectations this Portland Trail Blazers front office has surpassed is finding rotation players in the second round. Not all teams have had as high a strike rate selecting players deep in the draft with some second rounders never even making it onto an NBA court.
Will Barton, Pat Connaughton, and Gary Trent Jr. all exceeded the reputations associated with their draft pick after starting their careers in the Pacific Northwest. All three are now plying their trades with other franchises.
The trio share eerily similar stories: selected within the 37-to-41 range, all spent three seasons in Portland, and none played together — with one player leaving a few weeks/months before the next was drafted.
Let’s take a deeper look at each and ask a hypothetical: if the Blazers could bring back one to help this current incarnation of the team, who would it be?
The University of Memphis product was taken with the 40th pick in the famed 2012 draft, which also included Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard. In Portland, the scrawny wing developed a cult following with the help of his nickname “Will The Thrill,” averaging 3.8 points on a paltry 19 percent three-point shooting as well as 1.8 rebounds and .8 assists in 144 games (five starts). His energetic and manic play was helpful for the then-emerging Blazers but unfortunately inconsistency and unforced errors sometimes dampened his impact.
After three years as a rotation wing, averaging roughly 11 minutes a game he was infamously traded along with Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver, and a lottery-protected 2016 first round pick to the Denver Nuggets for Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee at the 2015 trade deadline.
Barton clearly ended up being the most valuable piece in the trade, made by a Blazers team seeming destined for playoff success — that is, until Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles in March 2015.
Afflalo was also injured during that playoff run, opening the door for a young CJ McCollum to stake his claim in the rotation. The traded draft pick turned into Malik Beasley, Claver is back in Spain, Robinson is in Puerto Rico, and Gee is retired.
Barton has thrived as a Nugget, maturing alongside teammates Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray. He managed to massage out those erratic kinks and improved his outside stroke, boasting a 36 percent three-point shooting mark, along with 13.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists while starting more than half of his 408 games.
He’s become reliable on both sides of the ball and the no-brainer starting shooting guard when Gary Harris was shipped to Orlando in the Aaron Gordon trade. Barton missed the Nuggets first-round win against the Blazers due to injury; however a number of pundits claimed the Blazers lost to a Denver team missing two of its best players — Murray and Barton.
The 30-year-old last week declined his $14.7 player option for next season; however it seems likely that he returns to Denver on a new deal.
Connaughton heard his named called at 41 in 2015, traded from the Brooklyn Nets, along with Mason Plumlee, to the Blazers for the rights to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Steve Blake. A University of Notre Dame athletic star, Connaughton was also taken by the Baltimore Orioles as pitcher with the 121st pick in the 2014 MLB draft but opted to return to college to play basketball.
Connaughton played sparingly in Terry Stotts’ rotation, which is perhaps why the Blazers chose not to bring him back at the end of his rookie contract. During his three-year stretch in Oregon, Connaughton started six of 155 games, averaging 3.7 points on 36 percent three-point shooting as well as 1.6 rebounds and .8 assists in 12.6 minutes. The shooting guard was reliable for a few points here and there, an athletic dunk, and decent-enough defense. He was perfectly fine but nothing more.
Come 2018 free agency, the Milwaukee Bucks took a flyer on Connaughton in a bid to add more shooting around Giannis Antetokounmpo. Over the next three seasons, Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer trusted the bouncy shooter in catch and shoot scenarios, averaging 6.3 points on 34 percent three point shooting, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 22.8 minutes.
The 28-year-old’s contribution culminated in this month’s NBA Finals. With Milwaukee’s starting shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo out injured, Connaughton stepped up hitting 15 three pointers in six games, just behind Khris Middleton and Jae Crowder with 16.
Earning just over $5 million over the next two seasons, Connaughton looks set to be a crucial piece in the Bucks’ title defense.
Gary Trent Jr.
Trent Jr. was selected 37th out of Duke in 2018, initially taken by the Sacramento Kings before being moved to the Blazers. Along with fellow 19-year-old Anfernee Simons, Trent Jr. saw very little playing time that first season. Sorry — I should say for 81 games of that 2018-19 season.
Game 82, coincidentally against the Kings, resulted in Trent Jr., Simons, and Jake Layman playing all 48 minutes in a game fans assumed the Blazers didn’t mind losing. Hilariously and counter-intuitive to the perceived game plan, the young Blazers won thanks to 37 from Simons and 19 each from Trent Jr. and Layman.
The start of the 2019-20 season started similarly to the first for Trent Jr. but as injuries began to take their toll, Stotts had no choice but to insert the sweet-shooting wing. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Trent Jr. became one of the rare high points for the Blazers, almost a lock to deliver tenacious defense and long-range shooting off the bench. On January 19, 2020, Trent Jr. scored 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
He carried that form into the Orlando Bubble, attracting the attention of the NBA world outside of Portland. Unfortunately, the Blazers faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs and consequently Trent Jr. — Portland’s only decent and available wing defender — was tasked with guarding LeBron James. He performed admirably.
Despite an early benching against the Houston Rockets, Trent Jr.’s 2020-21 season saw his star rise further, particularly after being inserted into the starting unit following a two-month McCollum injury. Before being traded at the deadline, Trent Jr. was averaging 15 points on almost 40 percent three points shooting, 2.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and .9 steals. Unfortunately, the Blazers knew Trent Jr. would be returned to the bench given his inability to play at small forward. And thus, Norman Powell found himself in Portland while Trent Jr. continued his stellar play with the Toronto Raptors posting similar numbers.
The odds would suggest the restricted free agent returns to Canada next season and likely starts alongside Fred VanVleet with Kyle Lowry potentially finding a new home.
Unfortunately for Blazers fans aching to see Trent Jr. stay with the team, there were a couple of road blocks to him staying. The first being CJ McCollum. As discussed, Trent Jr. is even less capable than Powell to start at small forward so the only way he was getting real minutes was at the two. The second was his decision to employ Klutch Sports as his representation. Trent Jr. was going to get paid and with Portland’s current bloated payroll, the Blazers would have struggled to fit him in.
And the winner is: Will Barton.
Recency bias might tilt the argument in Trent Jr.’s favor. Fans were genuinely sad to see the third-year guard shipped away, despite the fact they were arguably getting a better player back in Powell. If we’re asking who the Blazers bring back for the longterm, Trent Jr. is the likely option. He’s 22 with years of improvement left.
Connaughton now has a championship next to his name, a strong Finals performance, and a good situation.
But I’m taking Barton. When fit, his experience, defense and ability to play at small forward ticks all boxes. He’d instantly raise the bar for this Blazer team, possibly reducing the need to bring Powell back. Barton also has a documented strong relationship with Lillard so we know there’d be no initial chemistry issues.
Hypothetical questions are fun because fans can use any argument to stake a claim for their preferred player. For me, it’s “The Thrill”. Who is it for you? Let us know in the comments.