The 2021-22 season is one that many Portland Trail Blazers fans will want to forget. However, even in the pain that was watching the Blazers trip and fall over the finish line, there was a silver lining. Players that normally would not have had a chance to prove themselves in a normal season got extended playing time. One of the best examples of this was Trendon Watford.
The undrafted rookie out of LSU got a chance to shine in a bigger role than many anticipated for him. He saw greatly extended run after the all-star break where he saw a minute increase from 12.6 to 30.2 minutes per game.
The big man saw a large increase across the board during this time. His points increased by almost 10 points per game up to 14.3 for his final 15 games of the season. His rebounds and assists per game also increased by 3.0 and 2.0 respectively during that stretch. However, the big question after this season moving forward is what does this past season mean for players who will likely find themselves on a team hoping to compete next year.
Watford saw play early this year in garbage time and as a back up center after Cody Zeller got injured. His backup role will probably serve as an indicator for what he will do moving forward with the Blazers. The question remains, what does this mean for the Blazers future?
Watford showed promise on the defensive side. His defensive rating both pre- and post all-star break matched the team’s rating: 115 before and 125 after the break. These numbers are nothing special, but for a team that struggled defensively all year, the numbers are not alarmingly high either. Watford shows promise defending both in the paint and in his ability to guard opposing big men on the perimeter. He seems to be a good fit as the backup center behind Jusuf Nurkić as he thrived in that role during the four game winning streak right before the all-star break. He also seems to be serviceable enough on the perimeter to be able to play next to Nurkić at times.
Watford’s real value seems to come at the offensive end. His play in the high post as both a threat to score and a facilitator is reminiscent of Nurkić. The 21-year-old big man averaged 3.1 assists in his increased role and played the role of the high post facilitator well. His assist percentage ranks in the 83rd percentile among players at the same position according to Cleaning the Glass. This passing prowess will help the flow of the Blazers offense as it allows for both Anfernee Simons and Damian Lillard to find it easier to get open looks. The high post facilitator is something that the Blazers have come to rely on.
That’s not to mention the potential he has in the pick and roll when working with a facilitator like Damian Lillard or Anfernee Simons. Watford only started logging significant minutes after Lillard’s season was over, and Simons’ ended not too long after. It is exciting to see what Watford could do with either of those two guards after improving exponentially late in the season. Watford working in a two man game as a roll man or in pick and pop situations with one of the two could open up the floor for kick outs from Watford on the roll. His play as a passer and his ability to penetrate defenses would lead to many open threes in the corners.
In a season that ended up as nothing more than a sprint to the lottery, it’s difficult to assess what parts of a players’ performance are empty stats, and which stats are meaningful Although Watford’s 15.3 point per game tally is likely inflated, the way he got those points showed why he could be valuable to the team. He is decent with the ball in his hands, something he has attributed to working on a point guard skill set when he was younger. He has no problem getting to the basket on his own, but also excels when taking entrance passes.
Watford is not the flashiest player when finishing around the basket, but he gets the job done. He has a great grasp on the fundamentals and plays with enough finesse in his game to finish over or around bigger defenders. His post game is good enough already to exploit a mismatch in the post, and should only get better in the offseason.
The biggest improvement from where he started the year and where he ended was his three point shooting. He never shot at a high volume, averaging less than one attempt per game, but towards the end of the season he started shooting more, and some started falling. Watford shot 9-31 during the last two months of his season. A 29.0% clip doesn’t stand out as a reason for optimism, but if they start falling, Watford will be able to stretch the floor and have to be respected by defenses. This improvement will allow him to easier play next to Nurkić without clogging the lane on offense.
This two-big lineup would also dominate on the glass. Watford ranks in the 93rd percentile in offensive rebounding percentage, at 31.8%, when he plays power forward. He averages 8.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. That level of rebounding could be just what the Blazers need to supplement Nurkić, who was 8th in the league in rebounds per game this last season among players who played 56 or more games. This frontcourt could help when the Blazers face bigger teams. They would also have the option of running Watford as a smaller five against many lineups.
Watford’s greatest asset to this current Blazers roster might be his youth. The former LSU big man is just 21, and he plays like it. Setting aside all the obvious improvement that comes with being young, Trenton Watford plays like he’s betting house money. He is. Watford is an undrafted rookie who got a shot to show what he’s worth with a team that gave him the longest leash they could. He plays with energy, he plays like he wants to be out there, and most importantly, he’s willing to do what it takes to stay out there. He’ll fight in the trenches for loose balls and make winning plays, because that’s what he knows will keep him on the court. He plays with energy and just seems happy to be out on the floor. He always has a smile on his face, on the court or cheering from the bench.
The Blazers haven’t had many draft picks in the last few seasons, but seemed poised to shift slightly towards a younger team. Watford seems to be right in the middle of that transformation going forward, and he could play an important role in coming seasons.