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Developing Young Blazers a Priority if Lillard Sits

If Portland is truly looking to next season, what will Portland hope to see from the young guys?

Miami Heat v. Portland TrailBlazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

It appears the Portland Trail Blazers are seriously considering sitting their franchise star Damian Lillard until he properly heals his troublesome abdomen.

Thank goodness. The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And this team has been doing the same thing over and over again for at least four years.

So if Interim General Manager Joe Cronin, Coach Chauncey Billups, and Lillard himself finally agree its time to rest, be prepared to say goodbye to the likes of Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic, maybe even CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. It’s time to look forward to 2022-23.

I wrote about the benefits of shutting down Lillard last month, detailing the interesting possibilities it opens up for this roster down the line. But the benefits won’t be automatic, the team will lose this season and Cronin will have to make tough decisions before the February trade deadline and this coming summer, provided he stays in the General Manger’s role.

Obviously, the Blazers will seek capable players in return for outgoing assets. But with Lillard out, it won’t necessarily be wins Portland will be focused on, it’ll be development.

I want to focus on four particular players who’ll benefit from extra playing time if this scenario eventuates.

Anfernee Simons

The 22-year-old approaches restricted free agency with expectations looming large. We’ve already seen the benefit extra playing time can have for the former 24th pick.

This season the combo guard is averaging 25.1 minutes, 13.3 points on 39.6 three point shooting to go along with 2.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists. But over the past three games he’s exploded, putting up 28.3 points on 47 percent three point shooting, 2.3 rebounds and 7 assists in 37 minutes.

If CJ McCollum is traded and Lillard is out, Simons will be handed the team’s starting point guard role full time as well as 30-plus minutes a night. And while no one can expect the former IMG Academy product to consistently deliver 43 points like he did against the Atlanta Hawks, his average numbers are likely to move much closer to that recent jolt in production.

Simons has the ability to put a team on his shoulders, becoming the primary offensive outlet, creating his own shot and opportunities for others. He’s already a superior defender to Lillard and McCollum, capable of staying in front of opposing guards. Simons also fits well alongside Norman Powell with the pair a clear defensive upgrade on the incumbents.

The problem for the Blazers is that Simons will get paid this summer, so while more minutes directly equate to more production, improved play will almost certainly spike his value. With Lillard, McCollum and Powell collectively slated to earn more than $90 million next season, do you want another guard pulling in big money? Something has to give. One, or possibly two, of McCollum, Powell and Simons will be traded over the next six months. Good luck to the Portland front office.

What Simons can be if given the right opportunity: Somewhere between Jordan Clarkson and Ja Morant.

Nassir Little

This season has been Little’s best opportunity for playing time and he’s grabbed it with both hands. He’s been the engine room of this team, delivering hustle plays, scoring and game-changing second-chance scoring opportunities.

The 21-year-old does need to work on his free throw and three point shooting, not to mention ball control, but in order to do this he needs time on the court.

When Little’s shot is hitting, he’s been a headache for opponents, many of whom are incapable of dealing with the 6'6 wing's athleticism. This season he’s played 24.4 minutes, yielding 8.9 points on 30 percent three point shooting, 5.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.9 blocks.

With Simons and Powell in the makeshift backcourt, Little slots in nicely at starting small forward, capable of playing close to, if not more than, 30 minutes a night. This should allow him to push his points average above 10, three point average closer to 40 percent and rebounds closer to 8. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Little take on more point-of-attack defensive assignments — cast your mind to his final quarter efforts against Demar DeRozan earlier this season.

Like Simons, Little’s increased production may also rouse interest from other teams. If the Blazers decide to move into full win-now mode next season, Little could be a piece in a deal that yields a difference-maker.

What Little can be if given the right opportunity: Gerald Wallace with a better shot.

Greg Brown III

Brown’s ability and athleticism are tantalizing, but don’t expect the former Texas Longhorn to see as much court time as Simons or Little. He’s far and away the rawest member of this roster. That’s what’s keeping him on the pine behind the likes of Trendon Watford. But with winning less of a priority, Brown should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them during real NBA minutes.

Brown has played in 14 games this season, averaging 5.1 minutes delivering 1.7 points — usually including a spectacular dunk or two — 1.4 board and 0.3 blocks. Give the young man 10 minutes a game when the results matter less and see what he can do.

Brown wasn’t drafted 43rd this year to make a difference now. He needs time to find his feet, he needs the same amount of grace afforded to Simons and Little if only to confirm what he might actually be in this league.

What Brown can be if given the right opportunity: A longer and more impactful Derrick Jones Jr?

Trendon Watford

Portland’s prominent two-way contract player has shown NBA ability, regularly getting minutes ahead of second-round pick Brown, as mentioned above.

The 21-year-old has averaged 2 points and 1.2 rebounds in 5.6 minutes this season. However, over the past week he’s been able to lift that to 3.3 points, 2.3 boards in 10.6 minutes.

While his 4 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists against the Cleveland Cavaliers last night don’t appear to be too consequential, the Louisiana State non-draftee looked composed. He made the right decisions, holding his own on the defensive side of the ball against bigs Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Kevin Love and Lauri Markkanen.

For someone standing 6’8, carrying 237 pounds, Watford is incredibly agile, he just needs time on the court. Enter the “tanking” Blazers with minutes and opportunity to burn, obviously once Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington are moved on. Watford may have an opportunity, possibly in the 10-to-15-minute range, to gain experience acclimating to the speed and strength associated with NBA basketball.

And even if he’s brought onto the regular roster next season, he’s the type of third-string big you value, in case of emergency.

What Watford can be if given the right opportunity: A more athletic, shorter, Dwight Powell, maybe.

Conclusion

Damian Lillard should either have surgery or take the time needed to properly repair the abdominal issue that is so clearly giving him grief.

Yes, it does mean the team loses, a lot, this season. But this is probably something that should have happened two or three years ago.

Now’s the time for the likes of Simons and Little to solidify their status as rotation NBA players or better while Brown and Watford stamp their respective claims for more minutes, who knows, maybe even showing up on the occasional opposition scouting report.