Supporters of the Portland Trail Blazers will be on pins and needles this fall when the 2021-22 regular season tips off, largely thanks to last spring’s premature playoff exit. But if there’s one season the Blazers can typically count on, even if only partially, it’s been the summer. Call it a backhanded compliment if you wish, but GM Neil Olshey has built a perennial Summer League powerhouse, employing a team with two championship game appearances, one championship, and a league MVP since 2012-13.
Given the lack of translation, that’s a depressing form of success if one’s ever seen it. Though, it does mean that each summer, the Blazers have a player or two worth watching closely. This go-round, 2020 and 2021 second-round picks CJ Elleby and Greg Brown III have coveted most eyes. But one other player who deserves mention is LSU big Trendon Watford. Last week, Watford earned a two-way contract with the Blazers, and has quickly (and quietly) contributed to a pair of victories for the Summer League team. And while his raw numbers certainly aren’t gaudy — seven points, nine rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks in 40 minutes — Watford is putting enough on film to warrant something, somewhere in the long-term.
Prior to the Summer League, versatility served as one of Watford’s calling cards. Per Synergy, he had a percentage of less than 16 in each of his shot categories, which basically means that he never relied solely on one avenue of scoring — think post-ups, cuts, off screens, pick-and-roll, etc — and that’s been on display in small sample size thus far in the Summer League. He’s produced a handful of excellent examples as a self-sufficient scorer.
That’s not something we saw in abundance; Watford doesn’t strike as the type of player to be destroying players with East-to-West, lateral quickness on a possession-by-possession basis. For the most part, the Blazers have either used him as a cutter or flasher to the middle of the floor — particularly in finding gaps in the Hornets’ zone defense — a dribble handoff into a pick-and-roll creator, or in a five-out delay set where he’s helping get guards into actions.
The multifaceted big did get docked in some pre-Draft assessments because of his tendency to do too much as a dribbler, but in the Summer League, he’s been on his best behavior.
For most observers, the most exciting play of Watford’s two-game stint came on a defensive stop when he blocked a shot, took the ball coast-to-coast, and created an advantage out of a 3-on-3 to find Kobi Simmons for a score. It speaks to his feel of the game, knowing Charlotte’s 2-2-1 press had forced Portland to bleed out the clock. He was plenty comfortable beating set defenses with his ability to pass as an LSU Tiger, and it was inspiring to see that translate so seamlessly at the next level.
At 6-foot-9 and sporting a 7-foot-1 wingspan, it makes sense that Olshey would see this as a skill worth coveting and developing. Take note of how he downloads that he has a Blazer to the left, drives right, takes two defenders, and makes the simple read to his trailing teammate in that Clippers clip.
Depending on which possessions you analyzed, you’re either pleased with Watford’s defensive ability or he’s largely a work in progress. His motor and raw athleticism aren’t anything to phone home about. But his body positioning and wingspan allow him to remain in just about any play.
While lacking the intel and knowledge of that of an actual scout, it wasn’t hard to notice Watford correcting his mistakes on a one-possession basis. There was a scenario late in the first quarter in which Watford wasn’t locked in, and got caught both flat-footed and uncommitted on the defensive end, and Hornets forward Vernon Carey Jr. made him pay.
On the very next play, Watford shows remarkable grit and hustle, sacrificing his body to dive out onto the floor to force a turnover. And while that may have been a byproduct of careless ball handling on Carey’s part, there’s nothing negative that comes out of selling out for a loose ball with your head coach in the stands. He’s also been able to get in on a handful of contests.
The amount of contested, turnaround misses he forces players into in the post is noteworthy. The Blazers went with an unusually-experienced group of Summer League talent, but as long as he doesn’t run into LaMarcus Aldridge, that defensive strategy in the post should suffice. There have certainly been those plays where he lacks the focus or positioning to force misses, but he’s also correcting his mistakes, pointing and quarterbacking teammates into spots on both ends. That figures to bode well in the future.
Going into Thursday night’s game against the Pacers, one has to hope that Watford’s minutes continue to increase (they went from 18 against Charlotte to 22 against L.A), and that he’s able to share more time with that Elleby-Brown-Mudiay grouping. Speaking supportively, there’s certainly room to root for Kenneth Faried’s return to the NBA. Odds are he deserves it. But we know who he is. We’ve known since the mid-2010s. We don’t necessarily know what Watford’s ceiling looks like yet.
The Blazers trust in their farm system and ability to develop players enough that they’re essentially the last team to utilize resources with a G-League Team. They’ve missed chances to both put their players in competitive opportunities as well as developing a scorer coaching tree, which further strengthens the need to see it through with these players on two-way contracts. Two games in, Watford hasn’t been spectacular per se, but he’s progressing and putting enough positives on tape to potentially to keep eyes on going into the near future.