In the month of July, long before much of the NBA world had adjusted its sights to the upcoming 2022-23 season, Portland Trail Blazers big Trendon Watford was busy setting the groundwork and gaining momentum ahead of his sophomore season.
Taking full advantage of the opportunity to help lead the Blazers to a championship — well, a Summer League championship, but still! — Watford put the best of his distinctive, adaptable skillset on display, earning the championship game’s Most Valuable Player for his efforts. In the process, the 22-year-old offered a brief glimpse of what Year Two would look like. Here’s how his 2022-23 statistics shook out by season’s end and a general review of his sophomore season:
Per Game Stats:
— 7.4 points per game
— 3.8 rebounds per game
— 2.1 assists per game
— 56.0 percent from the field (on 5.2 attempts)
— 39.1 percent from 3-point range (on 1.0 attempts)
— 72.0 percent from the free throw line (on 1.6 attempts)
— 60.2 percent on 2-pointers (league average: 54.8 percent)
On-Off / Advanced Stats:
— -6.4 on-court plus-minus; -4.0 on-off swing
— 55 percent of time at C; 44 percent at PF; 1 percent at SF
— 77th percentile on screen assists
Across the Pacific Northwest, few topics offered as many opinions as the one regarding the Blazers’ roster construction. In a sense, Watford’s role last season exemplified both sides of it. On one hand, it spotlighted Portland’s ability to both unearth and develop undrafted gems, as Watford was, before becoming an integral part of the rotation. On the other hand, it put the Blazers’ lack of frontcourt size on notice with a red “X” and bold lettering; as you may have noticed, Watford, at 6-foot-9 (depending on where you look), logged over half of his minutes at the “5” last season.
Though, Watford’s most endearing qualities — such as that versatility and workhorse-like grittiness — allowed the undersized positioning to work in plenty of areas. Watch Watford play, and it’s clear that depending on the speed and size of the opponent, he had a go-to, signature move prepared for whomever. In the same way that, say, The Undertaker could end a match with his patented choke-slam, or mix it up with his “Last Ride” or “Tombstone Piledriver,” Watford kept his repertoire stocked with moves that were sometimes “too strong” for forwards and guards, and in other cases, “too quick” for the bigs.
By and large, the majority of that production came with Watford’s soft touch from floater range. For example:
Last year, Watford’s success rate on said floaters earned a brief segment on Zach Lowe’s “10 NBA Things,” and the Portland big kept the momentum going this year, hitting 63.2 percent of his shots from inside of 10 feet, and 48-of-89 (53.9 percent) of shots that NBA.com defines as “floaters.”
Just as distinguishable, Watford packs some creativity in getting to that floater, with a herky-jerky style, catching defenders falling asleep with fake DHOs and getting those bigger defenders with in-and-out crossovers to create a pathway to the paint.
He’s also adept at exploiting those 4-on-3 situations when defenses trap Damian Lillard and the Blazers star needs an outlet, or in the coast-to-coast, point forward-type role. But, in terms of a “biggest improvement” from season-to-season, Watford’s refined 3-point shot feels like the easy answer. After shooting 9-of-38 (23.7 percent) from deep in 2021-22, he returned in Year Two to shoot 25-of-64 (39.1 percent). Volume be darned, that number was actually higher than the NBA’s league average (36.1).
The growth there is promising, but it feels wise to proceed with caution. Reviewing the season a little deeper, it’s worth noting that Watford shot 24-of-50 on 3-pointers (48 percent) when he had 6+ feet of space (deemed “wide open”). Tighten it and put a defender closer than that, and he shot just 1-of-11 (9.0 percent). The small sample size, paired with Watford’s proven work ethic provide hope, but it’s something that could provide some pause.
Not everything went according to plan with Watford’s Year Two, though. Thinking about it chronologically, there was the weird stretch from November through late-January where there was the possibility he might contribute 20 minutes … or he might not play at all.
Over that 35-game stretch, he logged seven DNPs and eight games with single-digit minutes. It couldn’t have helped that a hip flexor disrupted his schedule, or that an Achilles injury popped up in December. And, to boot, battling for minutes with the likes of Jusuf Nurkić, Drew Eubanks, or even Justise Winslow proved difficult.
To his credit, Watford did make the most of his opportunities when called upon. At one point, Chauncey Billups both acknowledged Watford’s falling out of the rotation and his tendency to stay ready. And then in March — Watford’s finest stretch of the 2022-23 season — Damian Lillard gave him the ultimate endorsement, calling him the “Most Valuable Player” of Portland’s must-win Eastern Conference road trip, coinciding with perhaps his best game.
There’s a question worth entertaining in wondering which sorts of lineup combinations Watford fits best in. Despite making his share of “winning plays,” the Blazers were outscored in most of the on-court pairings featuring Watford, though the ones that did prove successful either had him at the “4,” or sharing the center role with, say, Jabari Walker. That reintroduces that question of the Blazers’ size, or lack thereof.
Watford’s defensive numbers, individually, were a bit of a mixed bag. For example, he contested 36.6 percent of shots at the rim for an elite 87th percentile mark, and his 8.3 rim contests per 75 ranked in the 90th percentile according to BBallIndex. They also profile him positionally as an incredibly-versatile defender. But, his block rate (15th percentile) wasn’t great, and his numbers didn’t paint him as a fear-worthy defender. Opposing players shot 2.7 percent better than normal against his defense.
All told, though, Watford’s 2022-23 season feels like a success, in that Portland provided him with a four-year, $5.8 deal in February of 2022, and, on a roster filled with potentially-questionable signings, this certainly isn’t one of them. At age 22, Watford is still younger than many of the players both selected in this past draft and some of the soon-to-be-selected players in the 2023 NBA Draft. With both room to continue growing and a proven willingness to do so, the multifaceted Blazers big feels positioned to remain a trending topic for the Blazers — or “Trendon topic,” if you want to go there — in 2023-24 and beyond.
Other Random Notes:
— BBallIndex charted him as a 98th percentile player in terms of “defensive matchup versatility,” and 83rd percentile in passing versatility.
— Watford averaged 1.42 points per shot last season.
— One odd wrinkle that came up during some personal notes while watching him: There’s a weird traveling tendency. Per Stathead, he got called for nine traveling violations, mostly when trying to make a move before catching the ball. For comparison’s sake: Jerami Grant led the team (10 travels), but played in 1,064 more minutes.
— Talk about being a “trail blazer”; Watford averaged 8.9 points on 58.9 percent shooting on the road, compared to 5.6 points on 50.9 percent shooting at home.