The Portland Trail Blazers have filled 14 regular roster spots and have one two-way contract free as we get closer to the 2022-23 season. Whether General Manager Joe Cronin intends to fill the two remaining vacancies before opening night is unknown, but he has brought in four young bodies to, at the very least, compete in training camp.
Point guard Isaiah Miller, wing Jared Rhoden, power forward Devontae Cacok and center Olivier Sarr are also set to line up for the Blazers through the preseason. Veteran big man Norvel Pelle had a momentary dalliance with the team but was waived before a preseason ball was bounced.
For the purposes of this piece, we’re going to assume the quartet do not contribute enough to earn the 15th regular roster spot — especially if Cronin has his heart set on going into the season with 14 on the player sheet. Let's just say the candidates are competing to join Brandon Williams as the second two-way contract.
This is probably a good time to remind everyone about the criteria for two-way contracts.
Players with fewer than four years of NBA experience can sign a two-way contract with a team. However, teams cannot sign a player to a two-way contract for three seasons. The deals are limited to two years, and can’t include options.
Although two-way contracts can be for up to two years, a player who has three years of NBA experience can’t sign such a deal, since he’d have four years of service after the first season. As such, two-way contracts for players with three years of experience are limited to one year.
Of the four, Cacok has had the most experience. A member of the Los Angeles Lakers 2019-20 Orlando Bubble championship before spending a year with the San Antonio Spurs. Last season, Sarr played for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miller was with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ G-League affiliate Iowa while Rhoden only come out of Seton Hall this year.
The other factor to consider when deciding between the four is the current make up of the Blazers roster, with the team rich in guards and power forwards and a little slim at small forward and center. So fit might win over talent when deciding which of the four has the best chance.
So, let’s look at the candidates.
Measurements: 6 foot, 190lb
Draft: undrafted 2021
College: UNC Greensboro
Previous stops: Iowa Wolves (2021-22), Utah Jazz Summer League 2022
The tiny two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year put up four-year college averages of 14.9 points on an inaccurate 24 percent three point percentage, 4.8 boards, 2.6 assists, however redeeming himself with 2.4 steals.
Once in the G-League, he maintained averages of 12.7 points on 26.5 percent three point shooting, 4.7 boards, 3.2 assists and 1.6 steals. Miller makes up for his lack of height and long-range shooting with surprising athleticism and a ridiculous 6-8 wingspan helping him both compete on defense and finish at the rim on offense.
While Brandon Williams isn’t the defensive player Miller is, it’s hard to imagine the Blazers carry another smallish guard into opening night.
Measurements: 6’6, 210lb
Draft: undrafted 2022
College: Seton Hall
Previous stops: Sacramento Kings Summer League 2022
Rhoden enjoyed a successful five-game stint with the Kings in July, registering 11.8 points on 39 percent three point shooting, 5.4 boards, 1.6 assists and 1.4 steals. But I’m cautious taking too much from his Summer League long-range shooting with the four-year Seton Hall standout averaging only 31 percent from three over a more reflective 72 games.
Despite that, Rhoden’s movement and physical gifts share an uncanny likeness to Philadelphia 76ers wing Matisse Thybulle. Like the defensively-minded Australian wing, Rhoden owns a ridiculous wingspan at close to 7 foot and displays impressive lateral movement.
Unfortunately, Rhoden has shown only glimpses of three point shooting, instead leaning on his defensive talents to see the floor. I still don’t think the 23-year-old is the favorite of the four to make the Blazers roster, but he wouldn’t be the worst option if he proved he was able to play small forward competently and consistently.
The most experienced of the quartet, Cacok has an NBA championship next to his name, despite not contributing one playoff minute to the Lakers’ 2022 banner. Unlike the obvious exceptions, namely Gary Payton II, once a player reaches his mid 20s, we pretty much know what he is and what he can do.
As far as comps goes, I can definitely see shades of a slightly smaller Thomas Robinson thanks to his impressive physical profile and ferocity. But Cacok’s inability to spread the floor cancels out any chance he plays the small forward while standing only 6’7 he’s almost too small to play the four. We can’t really glean anything from his NBA minutes, averaging a tad over six minutes a game. However, his G-League stint with the Austin Spurs last season wasn’t awful, with the 25-year-old putting up 20.9 points, 12.4 boards, 2.7 assists and 0.9 steals in 30 minutes over 14 games.
But not sure it happens for Cacok, especially given the glut of power forwards already on the roster.
One thing is clear, Sarr has the potential to be one of those sought-after seven footers who can shoot from beyond the arc. His shot mechanics are smooth for a guy his size, not to mention decent enough composure and shot selection. He’s a solid defender and has little trouble protecting the rim.
In his 22 games with the Thunder last season, Sarr registered 7 points on a whopping 44 percent shooting from three, 4.2 boards, 0.9 assists and 0.7 blocks in 10 minutes a game. The height of his season came in an April 3 contest against the Phoenix Suns, where he put up 24 points on five of six from three, six boards, one assist and two blocks.
One more thing, Jusuf Nurkic is the only Blazer currently standing above 6’9. And with the big Bosnian prone to injury and foul trouble, having another seven footer waiting in the wings wouldn’t hurt.
Before we pick our winner, we should also prepare ourselves for the possibility that none of the four make the cut by the end of the preseason, with Cronin potentially looking further afield for young talent that addresses this team’s needs.
However, if we’re choosing from this group, it’s Sarr by a country mile with Rhoden being my outside bet. It’s no surprise they’re also the youngest of the four, owning skillsets at positions of relative need for this Portland team.
While Cacok has strength, athleticism and the ability to finish, he’s been given every chance to prove that he belongs in the league without any real success as he heads into his late 20s. Miller has decent enough defensive chops but his lack of size or shooting will hinder him getting him over the line.
If Rhoden can fill that defensive role and not be hopeless from three, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he was successful. But ideally, 7’0 Sarr gets that second two-way spot, giving the Blazers a modicum of insurance if Nurkic goes down. Sarr has the offensive and defensive gifts to at least have a shot at regular playing time but first he has to show that he deserves that vacant two-way contract.