The Portland Trail Blazers are finishing out a season that hasn’t gone according to plan. They began the year behind the familiar duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum with a run at playoff relevance as their target. With 60 games under their belt, they’re struggling to field a team with any recognizable players, aiming for ping pong balls instead of rings.
As priorities have shifted, Portland has also experienced more roster turnover this season than in three “regular” years. These are not your slightly-older brother’s Trail Blazers. That movement also opens up a ray of hope, though, which is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
There doesn’t seem to be much to play for as our roster continues to fall apart but every crack creates a new opening, right? Which of the new and young players you are most excited about? Who’s your pick for our diamond in the rough?
Of the new players, you have to like Josh Hart best. He’s the most reliable. He’s also experienced. He’s the best candidate for the regular rotation, the most likely to turn into your 3rd-5th player on the roster. He defends, he can score, and he’s a glue guy. If he ever develops a bankable three-point shot, he’ll move to the higher range of the depth chart. Even if not, he’s going to keep getting big minutes as an all-around utility player.
But Hart is entering the prime of his career, and we’re not seeing anything from him we didn’t know he brought beforehand. As such, it feels like cheating to answer your question with him.
For my money, Trendon Watford is the player to watch out of the current group of hopefuls. He’s got boundless athleticism, coupled with size. That makes him a tantalizing prospect.
Though size and athleticism are hardly unique among Blazers newcomers, two qualities have impressed me with Watford beyond the obvious.
He’s picked up a lot, particularly on offense, in a relatively short amount of time. Granted, Portland’s non-competitive situation this season allows for young players to play through mistakes, inhabiting more space with fewer consequences than normal. But Watford has made fewer mistakes than you’d expect as the season has progressed, stretching his game at the same time. He began the year as a cutter and offensive rebounder: the classic “slash towards the hoop, try to make something good happen” player. He’s now added a short-range game as a scorer. The Blazers are also using him to set screens up high, and he’s responded well.
37 games isn’t a lot of time to go from fairly raw athlete to doing stuff within the offense. When I see Watford set a sturdy screen, or observe his relative calmness as he lofts a shot, I nod.
During this progression, he’s also played within himself. One of the hardest things for young players—especially high-energy, athletic ones—is that they stand out in a bad way while they’re trying to stand out in a good one. They break schemes going for steals, or shots, they have no business messing with. I’ve noticed Watford plenty this season, but I’m trying to remember a game where I went, “Oh...this is painful.” Not many come to mind.
Watford could be in an eddy on the side of the river, looking artificially calm. He’ll experience plenty of bumps when he joins the main stream, playing bigger minutes and assuming a bigger role. Still, it often takes multiple seasons for a player to look as in tune with himself and the floor as Watford looks right now, during the steepest parts of his learning curve.
Starting, or even playing huge bench roles, begins with talent. Once that’s established, trust is the second most important commodity. It’s not enough to be good. You also have to be reliable and attached to the process. I get excited when I see a player like Watford who appears to be doing that early. It gives me hope that he might accelerate into a bigger role than forecast.
Insert the necessary caveats about small sample size, the possibility of me misreading the situation, and so on, but if you’re going to ask me which new/young Trail Blazers player I’m most excited about, Watford would be my choice.
Thanks for your question! You all can send in yours to firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish. Also, let us know your choice for Portland’s “diamond in the rough” in the comments below.