Entering the 2022-23 season, the Portland Trail Blazers were reckoned to have one of the thinnest center rotations in the NBA.
Jusuf Nurkic has been a mainstay in the modus operandi of the Blazers despite his substandard defensive abilities, but Drew Eubanks was an afterthought by many. Without another player on the roster at 6-10 or above, quantity and quality was shaping up to be an Achilles heel on a Portland team with play-in aspirations.
It is safe to say Eubanks has proven everyone wrong.
His numbers won’t jump out to you on the stat sheet, but his impact within his role has been tremendous, and it has not gone unnoticed.
From the eye test – perhaps the most important analytic in all of basketball – Eubanks has stood out with his activity on the defensive end. When watching games, head coach Chauncey Billups seems to revert to his zone a little bit more when subbing Eubanks into the game. He is extremely agile, moves his feet well, and looks much more imposing than his frame suggests.
Moreover, Eubanks has solid rim-protecting abilities. Thus, the trust that Billups has in the five-year veteran has been warranted, merited off of his play. Billups must have also seen that in practice, leading up to and during the season, which is why his intensity has reflected that of his coach, and has translated to his in-game play.
Though, Eubanks’ motor does not stop on the defensive side of the ball. The Oregon State product has shown a striking ability to hit the hook shot inside of 10 feet. He does exactly what Shaquille O’Neal preaches on “Inside the NBA.” He establishes positioning down low, and makes quick decisions with the ball. He limits his dribbles, and takes opportune shots, despite limited touches.
Intangibly, Eubanks has been very vocal when in the game. While the audio rarely gets picked up, seeing how vocal and active players are in calling out screens and directing the coaching schemes on both sides of the ball is a telltale sign of how good of a teammate one is. Eubanks has been a model teammate.
Why? Because defense is predicated on trust, and none more than a zone. In a man defense, your teammates trust that you are apt to guard your man, and that if you get beat, you’ll have someone sacrifice to come to your aid.
With a zone, the tables are turned, where you trust your teammates more. Specifically, once a player has breached your zone and makes his way to the next, you don’t have to overcompensate and compromise your position, but rather understand that the next man up will man his zone. And in the NBA, where teams will run a pick-and-roll regardless of the defense in front of them, the center becomes the most vital part of the plan, where he now has to come up to show, and has to scramble to make up ground.
Eubanks has found a way to juggle all of this, and on top of that, when stops are made, he runs hard in transition. Everything you could want from a role player – save outside shooting – is brought to the table by the Mississippi native.
Also, Eubanks has proven that his stats from a season ago with Portland were not an absolute fluke. The old trope that, on a bad team, someone has to score the ball, could have fit the bill with him. He averaged 14.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game on a prime DeAndre Jordan-esque 64.6 percent from the field.
While those numbers probably would not have been sustainable this season had he been starting – given the myriad of offensive weapons that the Blazers have on the wings – he has exemplified model efficiency and IQ that has shown even in half the minutes played, with a quarter of the shots put up.
In his first start of the season against the Charlotte Hornets, he mustered up 14 points and eight rebounds on 6-7 shooting from the floor in 22 minutes.
One area that Eubanks has grossly struggled in, however, has been the glass. There is no eye test that can justify 2.5 rebounds in a little over 14 minutes a game. Even in San Antonio, he was putting up around four rebounds while given near-identical minutes.
Such is life.
Eubanks will surely look to dominate the boards more while inserted into the rotation. With such high activity and energy brought to the game, he provides Rip City with exactly what it needs in its second unit, and that’s energy.
It might still behoove the Blazers front office to pick up another center, in case of injury. Nurkic has had a history of getting hurt, especially missing time in the postseason. Without a big that could back up the big, that could spell real trouble for Portland. They currently have what feels like an umpteenth amount of wings between 6’6” and 6’9” on their roster.
Perhaps trading one or more for another competent center who has fallen out of a rotation, such as Orlando Magic big man Mo Bamba, might gift them added defense and size to their reinforcements. Nonetheless, Eubanks has been a major reason for the Blazers’ early success, where they currently sit at No. 3 in the west. It would be remiss not to give him his flowers. It’s now his job to keep nurturing his play, so his flowers don’t dry up.