4 Lessons from Trail Blazers Summer League 2023

Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have completed their 2023 Summer League schedule. Their 3-2 record didn’t distinguish them from the field, especially not compared to their Summer League Championship showing from last year. But the annual tournament isn’t about accolades as much as discernment. In Vegas, trends and observations weigh more than trophies. To that end, here are a few general observations from Portland’s tour this summer.

As always, these should be taken with a grain of salt. Exhibition games aren’t the best showcases for young players, especially those who haven’t experienced the crucible of in-season NBA basketball. Nicolas Batum famously outperformed his Summer League showing as a rookie back in 2008, while players like Armon Johnson and Jerryd Bayless would be All-Stars if Summer League were the yardstick.

With room to wiggle and a few asterisks, here’s what we know from Summer League, 2023

Scoot Henderson is the Real Deal...

...but watch out for the bumps.

Nobody made more of 21 minutes of play, 12 minutes of real production, than Scoot Henderson did this summer. His first quarter against the Houston Rockets was the stuff of legends. Dribbles look like wizardry; his shots were pristine. For a single period, he made Trail Blazers fans forget about Victor Wembanyama AND Damian Lillard all in one blow.

If you want to know how an NBA dribbler is doing on his drive, watch his shoulders compared to his defender. If the shoulder is even—or for Pete’s sake beyond—the defender’s, the offensive player has a huge advantage.

Not only does Scoot have the reflexes and handle to get the initial jump on the opponent, his shoulders are approximately the size of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His size and athleticism should allow him to convert with contact. He won’t be diverted much on the drive. He might be a true force of nature. That’s exciting.

If defenders come to help, Henderson has two options. We knew about his pull-up jumper from his G League play. It’s as good as advertised. The only surprising thing was how little hesitation he showed taking it. His confidence is off the charts. It’s like he’s already playing his own game out there.

Portland’s point guard in waiting also demonstrated court vision and passing ability, better than advertised from the brief glimpse we got. His change-of-pace dribble was a revelation as well. When he puts defenders on a string, it’s like hummingbirds breaking into Handel’s Messiah.

Given his quick-twitch ability, vision, and strength, Henderson projects to be a better defender than the Blazers have seen at guard in a while too.

In short, Scoot is the real deal. What’s not to like?

He’s still going to encounter a steep learning curve adjusting to the league, though, especially if Lillard departs and Henderson becomes the starting point guard on Day 1. He did not look as secure shooting from distance as he did off the dribble in the mid-range. Opponents will sag off him, given themselves a three-foot start in the shoulder race, until he shows he can knock down that shot consistently.

Henderson hasn’t encountered true NBA-athlete defense either, particularly in the passing lanes. His vision and boldness may work against him at first. When he (inevitably) turns over the ball, remember it’s not bad decision-making, but adjusting to how quickly NBA defenders can close.

Eventually, Henderson is going to round out his game and adjust to the Big League tempo. At that point, it’s going to get scary.

For those used to Damian Lillard’s boundless grace, Henderson will be an eye-opener. Though he doesn’t have anywhere near the height, he’s going to be closer to Clyde Drexler and Jerome Kersey in style of play. Portland probably needs some of that.

Shaedon Sharpe, Good and Bad as Ever

The good news for Blazers fans is that Shaedon Sharpe looks as intimidating as ever. At any given moment, he’s exactly half a nanosecond from a step-back three. He’s a spider’s seam away from a soaring dunk attempt too. Once he’s rolling down the runway on either, nobody’s going to stop him.

We knew that going into the tournament. The real question on everybody’s minds is, “Is he ready to start yet?”

At this point, not even close.

Even the best part of Sharpe’s game, offense, remained sketchy. Over four games in Vegas, Sharpe shot an inefficient 34.8% from the field, 27.3% from the three-point arc. His inability (or unwillingness) to put the ball on the floor and move forward against defenders was near-maddening. That step-back three seems like a crutch for him. It’s his first, second, and third option, the fourth being passing the ball. Or turning it over.

Defensively, Sharpe was a puzzle. He looks amazing when he reads from the help position and swoops in to block or alter shots. Straight-up defending, he ranges from decent to, “Ummm...where is he? Over there? Why???”

This isn’t to bag on Sharpe. He hasn’t played nearly enough organized ball to expect anything different. All we know is, if anyone was hoping for a miracle acclimation, it hasn’t happened yet.

Sharpe can, and will, play. He’ll get bigger minutes this year than he did last. But he’s going to have to work and study to catch up if he wants to become dependable. Starting him on a team with any kind of winning agenda is, well...a non-starter.

He has a couple months between now and October. Let’s see what happens next.

Bigs Needed

The Blazers threw a bunch of frontcourt spaghetti against the wall this summer, hoping something would stick. Their bigs ended up just noodling around.

John Butler, Jr. had Victor Wembanyama’s body type before it was cool. His combination of shot-blocking potential and shooting is enticing, but he played less than 12 minutes per game, not exactly a vote of confidence. He was the wildcard hope in the field.

Jabari Walker was the most solid among Portland’s bigs.His shooting percentages and rebounding were phenomenal. You can see why they like him. He’ll contribute just fine. He gives every indication of being a stalwart, dependable bench player, at least, with extra efficiency and IQ thrown in. It’s more than you could hope from a second-round pick, but he’s not going to be Portland’s salvation.

Ibou Badji was a non-factor. Duop Reath had a couple good games but whether he can transfer it to the next level is questionable.

“Not bad, but not special” encapsulates Portland’s young big-man corps. If they’re looking for a bump at power forward or center, they’re going to have to depend on veterans or further drafts.

Surprise of the Tournament

Michael Devoe score 18.8 points per game shooting 53.2% from the field and an amazing 64.7% from the three-point arc on 4.3 triples attempted per game. He showed a little passing ability too, though he also turned over the ball a bit.

Devoe should be poking around training camp. It’ll be interesting to see if he can flourish with the Rip City Remix. Portland’s flush with shooting guards right now. Devoe hasn’t shown the defensive chops to recommend him over their incumbents. But if they trade away guards and need some instant offense, he’s at least put his hand in the air to be called upon. If he translates that scoring ability into G League distinction, he’ll get a look somewhere.

You’ve seen my big take-aways. What were your observations and surprises from Summer League, 2023? Feel free to share below and further expand our knowledge on the state of the young Trail Blazers!

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