The Portland Trail Blazers are fielding a brand new team this season, full of young players, lacking NBA experience, let alone experience with each other. The chemical reaction varies from night to night, at times explosive, at times just pffffftttt.
This variance offers challenges completely different than the team and its viewers experienced in the relative placidity of the now-passed Damian Lillard era. The game itself isn’t any harder to watch. It may be more entertaining, in fact! But it’s harder to know what you’re seeing, let alone what to pay attention to.
Last week we published a Blazer’s Edge Mailbag submission asking how, I, personally, watch and evaluate games. I discussed the process of recapping and some of the ways in which I’ve learned to process the action. In that post, I promised to follow up with specific things I watch for from this incarnation of the Trail Blazers. That’s what we’re doing today.
We already published five things I look for from the team overall. Below are five more that I watch for from individuals. They’re not the most important principles. Those are pretty obvious But around the edges are certain factors that appear to influence how the Blazers will play on a given night, indicators I use to judge how the game is going beyond the obvious. These are valuable for me to know as well, so I’m sharing them here.
Shaedon Sharpe Turnovers
Shaedon Sharpe has made headlines for the large amount of turnovers he commits, but not all games are created equal. He tends to have a metric ton of them or relatively few.
I’m not bothered at all when I see Sharpe shoot a low percentage from the field. That comes with the territory. I’d rather see him being aggressive and missing than passing up shots. When Sharpe’s turnovers skyrocket, though, I want to know why.
Sometimes Sharpe is trying to set up teammates. Bravo. That’s a skill he needs to learn. But I don’t like him in point guard mode. He’s not naturally inclined towards it. At this point in his career, his own scoring should come first. He’s too big of a potential weapon to ignore.
Turnovers off of passes are understandable. I get far more disturbed when I see Sharpe getting stripped on the drive or on his way up for a shot attempt. That means he’s neither fooled nor evaded his defender(s). It’s happening on a regular basis, I start looking at his pump fakes, his first step, and where he’s carrying the ball.
Sometimes Sharpe gets too single-minded and straight line, making it easy for even mediocre defenders to get hands into his play. If he gets half a step on an opponent—often by getting the opponent to think jump shot or by making a quick change of direction off the dribble—Sharpe should be able to get a clear shot off. If he’s not getting that initial sliver of separation, why? And should he then be pulling up for the jumper instead of continuing the drive against a salivating opponent who’s timed his dribbles and is just waiting for the poke-away?
Honorable Mention: Watch for Sharpe to contest shots on defense. When he’s active, it’s a good sign that he’s into the game and Portland’s defense is stout enough behind him to allow him to gamble. Noticing Sharpe’s bright play on defense is like seeing the beam of a flashlight. The light stands out, obviously, but you can also infer from it that the batteries are working.
Deandre Ayton’s Shot Chart
The Blazers may not have a ton of three-point shooters, but they do have a center who can draw defenders out of the lane with his face-up shot. That should open up opportunities for cutters from the diagonals, which in turn should free sideline shooters like Jerami Grant and Matisse Thybulle for threes.
That doesn’t happen if Ayton never touches the ball, or if his only attempts come off of offensive rebounding put-backs. In that case, the center becomes just another player—albeit a strong rebounder—clogging up the lane for a team that already sees that too much.
Don’t just ask how many shots Ayton is getting, but where they’re coming from. He should be on a balanced diet of jump shots, cuts, and put-backs. If one of those is missing, so is Portland’s ability to move the defense.
Sometimes I wonder if Ayton couldn’t operate more in a classic high post capacity, receiving the ball just above the free throw line, able to wheel for the shot or pass to cutters at his discretion. Right now, just having him active at multiple levels in the offense helps.
Scoot Henderson’s Pull-Ups
Modern analytics values the three-point shot more than any other, followed by layups and dunks at the rim. Point guard Scoot Henderson often gets locked into that binary mode, seemingly choosing between launching a three or getting to the cup. The problem is, he’s not that good at either yet. His best option may be in between.
Henderson has a devastating pull-up jumper. If he wants to make it all the way to layup land someday, he needs to prove to defenders that lowering his head and dribbling through isn’t his only approach.
Whenever Scoot pulls up a step short of, then shoots over, the wall of defenders that inevitably forms in front of him when he drives, it’s going to be a good night. Now the defense has to play up instead of laying back. They have to guess whether this will be the dribble that launches his shot or whether they need to keep shading him towards the bucket. It changes the dynamic for him, and them, completely.
Ideally Henderson would develop a three-point shot, the Big Daddy version of this phenomenon. He’s been on a roll from deep lately, but a 22.6% shooting percentage isn’t a high recommendation. If he doesn’t have a bankable distance shot yet, the mid-range pull-up J will work almost as well.
Malcolm Brogdon’s Layups
Point guard Malcolm Brogdon is in an inverse situation with Henderson. It’d be relatively easy for Brogdon to launch threes or drive-and-dish. He does both regularly. But the real sauce comes when Brogdon is scoring at the rim. That means he’s broken down his defender one-on-one. The opponent will need to send help to prevent him from going for 28. Unlike his young counterparts, Brogdon can see the floor, setting up Grant, Ayton, and Thybulle for the correct shots when he’s overplayed. Few sights should be as welcome for Blazers fans as MB laying the ball off the backboard for two. Joy is going to follow.
Jerami Grant’s Free Throws
Jerami Grant leads the Blazers with 6.1 free throw attempts per game. That’s not a huge number in aggregate, but you can tell things are going well for him whenever it rises.
Neither Grant nor the Blazers are as good when he becomes a distance shooter exclusively. That’s true whether he’s catching and shooting or simply opting for the long jumper instead of working his way inside. Nobody will quibble with his 42.6% three-point percentage. It’s the best on the team and one of the best in the league. But those free throws mean Grant is getting aggressive all over the floor. That often creates a serious threat on the opposite side of the court the ball starts on. Grant looming on the left side of the court opens the floor for the point guards on the right, also for Ayton to swoop in down the middle for offensive rebounds. The extra points generated by the free throws themselves don’t hurt either.
The more you see Jerami Grant heading to the foul line, the more confident you should be about Portland’s ability to score overall.
Tomorrow we’ll share some basic principles for watching games overall so you can create your own quirky “must-see” categories.