The Portland Trail Blazers enter the 2023-24 season with championship expectations lying somewhere near the bottom of the Willamette River. While this transitional roster won’t deliver many wins, it will give the franchise’s rookie-scale contracted players a chance to shine.
Once Damian Lillard departs, and assuming returning players aren’t of a veteran vintage, Jerami Grant, Jusuf Nurkic and Matisse Thybulle will be the franchise’s elder statesmen. The rest are currently aged 24 or younger.
The lights will be focused squarely on Scoot Henderson, Anfernee Simons, and Shaedon Sharpe. But is there another Baby Blazer primed to take advantage of this new opportunity?
I present, Jabari Walker, who coincidently turns 21 tomorrow.
The versatile forward enjoyed a nice two-year stint at Colorado between 2020 and 2022, earning Pac 12 All-Freshman Team and First Team All-Pac 12 in consecutive years.
Walker was taken with the penultimate pick in last year’s draft, introduced to the NBA world as the son of 2002 Los Angeles Lakers championship forward, Samaki.
By the end of his first Summer League, Walker had caught the attention of pundits and fans, exhibiting cerebral, energetic, and versatile play off the roster’s bench.
His knack for rebounds and second and third efforts was particularly apparent. Walker appeared to have a real chance at one day earning real NBA minutes.
Like most rookies, dues needed to be paid.
Through the first month, Walker was fixed to the bench as the well-performing Blazers rattled off win after win. He twice played more than 10 minutes through the first six weeks with Grant, Josh Hart, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford, and Nassir Little contributing in front of him.
But as injuries to key veterans accumulated, Walker was gradually thrust onto the court to fend for himself. His minutes increased, but remained inconsistent through December, January and February as the Blazers simultaneously flirted with the Play-In and the NBA Lottery.
Walker’s place in the rotation was eventually solidified after the All-Star Break when the team leaned into the tank, sitting key rotation players to jostle for a lottery position.
Hart was moved at the trade deadline. Little and Winslow missed time through injury while newcomer Cam Reddish’s court-time fluctuated before he was shut down in late March.
By the start of April, Walker was getting more than 20 minutes a night, averaging 9.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 21.8 minutes through the last 10 games of the season.
These numbers helped bolster his season averages of 3.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 0.6 assists. He shot 41.9% from the field and 28.6% from the three-point arc.
By season’s end, Walker had established himself as a strong rebounder on either side of the ball. On offense, he exhibited capable dribbling, passing and shooting fundamentals. While his length (6’9 with a 7’0 wingspan) frame, lateral movement and basketball instincts made him a legitimate defensive option across multiple positions.
Walker also showed maturity off the court, offering composed, considered and introspective opinions, suggesting a strong work ethic and high-end basketball IQ.
Trendon Watford’s departure
Watford’s waiving at the end of last month is particularly integral to this discussion. Last season Watford played both back-up four and five minutes, serving as a Swiss army knife off the Blazers bench, offering capable playmaking, rebounding and scoring.
But Watford also has his floors. The former Summer League Championship Game MVP was undersized for the five even in intentional small-ball units, making him a liability against bigger bodies. Watford’s three-point shooting appeared great (39 percent last season) but at only one attempt a game it wasn’t a reliable offensive option.
We’re still unsure why the Blazers let Watford go. Perhaps to keep a roster spot open for an unbalanced deal coming. But perhaps they knew they had his higher upside replacement, in Walker, waiting in the wings.
At this year’s Summer League, Walker’s larger frame, athleticism, quick and smoother shooting stroke, and defensive instincts were apparent. He was active, dynamic, able to correctly anticipate plays while making the correct decisions most of the time.
The depth chart
Walker’s versatility allows him to line up at all three frontcourt positions. Last season, he spent the majority of his time at power forward at 55 percent, 43 percent at small forward and 2 percent at center.
As the roster is currently constructed — with at least two more additions required — Walker will compete with Matisse Thybulle and Nassir Little for minutes at the three, Jerami Grant and Kris Murray at the four, and Jusuf Nurkic at the five.
General Manager Joe Cronin will almost certainly add another center to ensure the 6’9 Walker is not Nurkic’s sole understudy. But I also wouldn’t be shocked if Coach Chauncey Bullips uses the 21-year-old at the pivot as part of smaller, faster units.
Walker’s ability to play positions three-through-five opens up 144 possible minutes for him to take the court.
Wins won’t be the highest priority
Regardless of what happens with Lillard, this team, still with only 12-contracted players, will not be winning many games, prioritizing draft position and development.
Cronin did re-sign Jerami Grant and Matisse Thybulle to likely start at the two forward positions. But all the minutes will be up for grabs with young, potential-laden players, like Walker, to be given the opportunity to show they belong.
Jabari Walker has a real opportunity to stake his claim as a versatile rotation-level frontcourt NBA player this season. He’s able to operate on both sides of the ball, possessing dogged determination, finesse and smarts that should contribute to winning basketball in time.
With the Blazers leaning into development this season, there might be no better time for Walker to thrive in a larger role off Portland’s bench, playing whatever role Billups deems necessary.
How big of a role do you anticipate Jabari Walker playing this season, and in what capacity? Share in the comment section below.