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5 Things to Keep Eyes on During the Trail Blazers’ 2023 Summer League Play

The Portland Trail Blazers open up Summer League play tonight against the Houston Rockets. Here, we consider five things to keep eyes on during the title defense.

Washington Wizards v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Now that the confetti has finished falling for their division rival Denver Nuggets and their 2023 NBA Finals run, the time has come for the Portland Trail Blazers to begin preparations in defending their own championship in the Las Vegas Summer League.

With them are a mixture of returning faces, some new, fresh faces, headlined by the 2023 NBA Draft’s No. 3 selection in Scoot Henderson, and, for the first time in forever in Blazers vernacular, a roster filled with size and height.

While it remains bottom-fold to the unfortunate Damian Lillard saga, there will be plenty worth observing, starting tonight against the Houston Rockets. Below are five topics that could pique some interest.

1 — Does Shaedon Sharpe Pass the “Too Good to Be Here” Test?

Among the more unofficial signs that you’ve got a burgeoning rookie set to make a seismic jump in his second season. Their talent looks to be out of place during the ensuing Summer League play. Mere weeks removed from logging valuable minutes in a seven-game postseason series, Keegan Murray provided his best Will Ferrell in Back to School impression during Wednesday’s California Classic. The 41-point performance told a singular story: despite just one year of professional play, he was a man among boys on the summer stage. A few days prior, fellow All-Rookie First Teamer Jalen Williams had similar plans.

In a perfect world, Shaedon Sharpe provokes those same thoughts over the next week, showcasing just enough of that tantalizing potential — with a highlight or five — and leaving it injury-free and a stronger rapport with No. 3 selection Scoot Henderson.

There’s some question as to how much Sharpe will actually play, so opportunities to dissect how much he’s added to his game since that Apr. 9 season finale could be difficult.

It’s to each their own depending on what they will be looking for most; from a personal standpoint, outside of the chemistry he builds with Henderson, the most intriguing subplot will be with his playmaking. His numbers over his final 10 games — 22.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists on 47-38-77 percentage splits — threaten a player with all-around star potential. Tasked with more offensive responsibility, he uncorked passes such as this, mixing in both that all-world athleticism with IQ to match:

If there’s a “next step,” maybe it involves simply getting more repetitions and gaining comfort, but also recognizing plays such as this and manipulating the defense:

It’s easier said than done, but to this point, Sharpe has responded and improved in every facet of his game since becoming a Blazer. Lillard’s recent trade requests open the door for more to be placed on the 20-year-old’s shoulders as a shot creator for himself and others. In both a literal and physical sense, the torch could soon be passed.

2 — Year One vs. Year Two: How Different Does Jabari Walker Look?

Over the last two first rounds of the 2022 and 2023 NBA Drafts, one could say that the Blazers have swung for the fences with home run potential in Sharpe and Henderson, and went with a more safe, stable approach in the ensuing picks (Walker and Kris Murray).

Seeing how Murray’s perceived flaws (a need for a quicker first-step and creating separation) as well as his strengths (the nifty fakes, shooting, IQ) translate will be must-watch, but seeing as though we’ve gotten a year to see Walker, observing where he’s gotten better at might be equally important.

With Walker, the hope is that he’s gotten a little bit niftier around the rim. He’s already sort of figured out the avenues with which he can contribute; most of his rebounding statistics ranged from good to great to elite. If he cleans up some of his missed layups and dunks(?) around the rim, the outlook on him heading into 2023-24 should be much higher:

Body strength was also an issue of Walker’s a season ago, but he’s said to have been focused on this throughout the brief offseason. Without knowing what Portland’s depth chart in the frontcourt will look like in full next season, a big Summer League performance could go a long way towards building some optimism.

3 — The Great Irony: Will the Blazers’ Size Fuel Their Repeat Hopes?

Remember back in mid-February when the Blazers’ front office eagerly expressed their desire to “get bigger” with the roster? Good times. Since that time, they’ve lost 6-9 Drew Eubanks — their tallest player at times last season — waived 6-9 point forward Trendon Watford, and moved on from 6-8 Cam Reddish.

This isn’t to say that the Blazers made the wrong decisions, or that they didn’t ace the 2023 NBA Draft. But, it’s hard not to overlook the lack of urgency there, and not just because Portland’s easy to look over. They’ve perennially rostered one of the shortest teams across the Association.

The Summer League Blazers and the every-other-month-besides-July Blazers have done things entirely different, though. Take a look at the size on this year’s team:

With four players north of 6-11, it’s entirely possible that the Blazers see something in this year’s Summer League group that draws their eye.

John Butler Jr., despite not showing a ton of that often-discussed shooting ability during limited action last year, inked a two-way deal. The same goes for Ibou Badji; Sean Highkin of the Rose Garden Report noted in his guide that outside of Henderson, there’s no player he’s more excited to see play than Badji. Consider him one to watch.

4 — Scoot Henderson and Rayan Rupert’s Shooting Touch … and Everything Else:

The could-be main event ends up at No. 4 here. There’s no questioning just how much of an impact Scoot Henderson can (and should) have on the Blazers from Day One. Viewed as a player that would’ve convincingly been the No. 1 pick in both 2020 and 2022, the mixture of breathtaking on-court talent and off-court leadership, mental toughness and infectious positivity will make him a franchise centerpiece and potentially, a long-term superstar.

In the meantime, as we enjoy the aerial displays and highlights in abundance, Henderson’s perimeter shooting will be one personal aspect to consider. Per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connell, he knocked down just 28.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts during G League play, and 39.4 percent of his midrange attempts.

Of course, there are tons of factors that help alleviate some of these concerns: (1) Henderson’s tireless work ethic, (2) the somewhat-inspiring 76.4 free throw percentage, which can often foreshadow better shooting in the future, (3) the fact that he had been shooting NBA-range 3-pointers — while most of his Draft counterparts shot collegiate 3-pointers — all the while being youngest professional basketball player in U.S. history as a 17-year-old just two years ago. Within that same realm, the shooting form itself looks presentable, and with the work of the Blazers’ scouts, one of the organization’s consistent bright spots, there’s hope there, even if we don’t see it right away.

In the meantime, Henderson will provide tons to appreciate, from his feisty perimeter defense and approach and pick-and-roll comfort, to his clutch play and everything in between.

The same could be said for Rayan Rupert, a player who, despite being taken at No. 43, was listed at No. 20 on ESPN’s Top 100. At 6-7 with a 7-3 wingspan, he has a much-needed energy that could be perfect for the Blazers in the long-term. For the New Zealand Breakers, the athletic forward sometimes seemed to be moving at a lightyear faster than everyone else on the court.

However, similar to Henderson, there are concerns about the three-point shot. In that report, it noted that he shot 7-of-36 on pull-ups and just 26.9 percent in the catch-and-shoot department, something that truncated his playing time during the NBL Finals. Though, he’s said to be “rapidly improving” in this area.

As with everything tonight, it’s wise to avoid game-for-game overreactions, but this’ll be something else to keep eyes on.

5 Who Will Be “This Year’s Brandon Williams?”

In 2008, it was Jerryd Bayless; in 2018, it was K.J. McDaniels; last year, it was Brandon Williams (and to a degree, now, Trendon Watford). In nearly every iteration of the Blazers’ Summer League exhibitions, there’s been a player or two that, despite not making a long-term impact in the Pacific Northwest, their cup of coffee was worth remembering fondly.

It’s likely that the Blazers have one this year during their quest to repeat a title, given how many different circumstances there are surrounding this year’s roster. Keon Johnson, the oldest player on this year’s ledger, could be it. Justin Minaya pieced together a string of decent play towards the end of last season — see a few examples here and here — and the same could be said for Jeenathan Williams, with examples here and here. Malachi Smith deserves a mention. Rowan Kent of Rip City Project listed out a couple, namely 6-1 scoring machine Antoine Davis. Every game is an audition. With cards played right, there could be a contract on the horizon.

Three of the last four Summer League Finals MVPs aren’t on active NBA rosters at this time, which shows that it isn’t the most important thing to consider. The harsh reality is that some of these players will thrive; others, we might not hear about again. But, for the time being, this may be as close to a “title” as the Blazers are able to do it, which gives some incentive to enjoy the ride, starting with tonight’s showdown against Houston.