The Portland Trail Blazers are now entering a stretch in their current era where they need to win, now. With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum set to start their pricy extensions, the Trail Blazers know how their team is going to look going forward. Both guards will be paired with the Bosnian Bear, Jusuf Nurkic. The three of them together combine for one of the most devastating offensive trios in the league. It’s what’s around them that will be in question going forward, which is something GM Neil Olshey and the rest of his front office needs to figure out quick while Lillard and McCollum are in their primes.
The first step to figuring that out this coming season is to determine what to do with their draft picks, pick 16 and pick 46. They could always trade those pick for a player that could help right away, but Portland’s recent draft history should make them think twice before doing that. Zach Collins (Round 1, Pick 10), Gary Trent Jr (Round 2, Pick 37) and Anfernee Simons (Round 1, Pick 24) have all proven to be rotation contributors. While the jury is still out on last year’s draft picks, Nassir Little and Wenyen Gabriel, the Trail Blazer’s stockpiling cheap, young talent to supplement their stars could be a more stable long-term strategy.
Thanks to this weird, COVID-altered 2020, this year’s draft will take place on November 18th. In this article, we will take a quick look at the players that should be available when Portland is to pick in both the first and second round.
Small Forward, Power Forward, Back-up Center, Back-up Shooting Guard
Round One Prospects:
Saddiq Bey, Villanova
Projected Draft Slot: TheRinger.com (P18), ESPN.com (P17), NBADraft.net (P23)
At 6’8”, 216 pounds, Bey would give the Trail Blazers some much needed size on the wing. His 6’10” wingspan would be ideal when encountering opposing Western Conference forwards. Another huge plus is his 45.1% 3-point percentage as a sophomore, as well as his comfort taking those same shots on the move. While the Ringer is concerned about his dribble ability, they do point to his ability to pass and find the open man as a secondary facilitator as positives in his game. He would be in competition from the jump with Carmelo Anthony and Zach Collins at the forward spots. His biggest detraction is a lack of top-level athleticism, which would limit his ability to match-up on defense with the best forwards in the league.
Aleksej Pokusevski, Serbia
Projected Draft Slot: TheRinger.com (P12), ESPN.com (P18), NBADraft.net (P32)
As you see above, Pokusevski is a bit all over the place in where in the draft he might be selected. This is indicative of who he is and how you rate his skill set. His plusses include a 7’0” frame paired with a 7’3” wingspan, a workable outside jump shot and possesses serious upside as a playmaker. It’s easy to envision that profile as the second coming of Kristaps Porzingus or Nikola Jokic, a shot-swatting, floor spacing center that functions as an offensive hub. The problem is he is currently rail thin at 201 lbs and at first glance doesn’t look like he has the body type that can carry another 30-40 lbs of muscle. This is evidenced by him getting bodied fairly easily in 2nd Division Greek Basketball. There is every chance in a couple years that Pokusevski looks like the best player in this draft, but more likely he’ll at the back end of a rotation or be back in Europe.
I chose him as a potential option for the Blazers because they have displayed a willingness to take chances on blank slate players. Anfernee Simons didn’t play one second of college ball and Nassir Little failed to live up to his hype during his one season at North Carolina. But Simons was 18, Little was 19 and Portland believed they could grow them into good contributors with time. Pokusevski is the ultimate dice roll and if Olshey decides to gamble on the young 18-year-old Serbian, he could grow into a third offensive star to play off of Lillard and McCollum.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt
Projected Draft Slot: TheRinger.com (P19), ESPN.com (P13), NBADraft.net (P13)
Nesmith is much more of a Bey-like prospect rather than a Pokusevski. After spending two years at Vanderbilt, Nesmith showed, to quote the Ringer, “unlimited range”. Comfortable shooting from anywhere, Nesmith is also capable of firing away off of screens or off the dribble. He also showed some notable plusses on the defensive end, using his 6’10” wingspan to effectively subdue opponents. His greatest weakness is a consequence of his greatest strength, he suffers from noticeable tunnel vision. Nesmith can become hyper-focused on getting his own shot off rather than move the rock.
The good news is that Portland doesn’t need much offensive creation. Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic and Anfernee Simons are all able to create shots for others. What they need from Nesmith is the ability to knock down open shots when defenses key in on Portland’s big three, something that is his biggest strength. Nesmith could be a real piece to push this Portland team over the top.
Round Two Prospects:
Payton Pritchard, Oregon
Projected Draft Slot: TheRinger.com (P42), ESPN.com (P38), NBADraft.net (P48)
Now here is someone that Portland fans will most likely be very familiar with. A four-year starter with the Ducks, Pritchard operated as the floor general and star in many huge games. While a limited athlete, his ability as a knockdown shooter and passing vision would give him a ton of value as a bench guard for just about any team in the league. While his ceiling may be capped, NBA GMs can be assured that Pritchard would do anything in his power to maximize his impact and help his team win games.
If Portland were to take him, it’d put him in direct competition with Simons at back-up point guard. While the Blazers remain high on the young scorer, he showed last year that he has a ton still to learn to be able to make a game-to-game impact. While it’s possible he makes that leap this year, Pritchard could be high quality insurance if that doesn’t happen or be able to play off of him with his shooting ability.
Cassius Stanley, Duke
Projected Draft Slot: TheRinger.com (P47), ESPN.com (P52), NBADraft.net (P42)
Stanley is an absolute monster of an athlete for a 6’6” guard, which he uses to get on the boards and man up against opposing players. He made enough of his threes in college (36%) that Stanley should be a danger to defenses outside of the paint. The hope is that he keeps improving there to become enough of a weapon that teams will have to do more than just be aware of him. Other areas of improvement are his ball-handling ability, as he has both a loose handle and tunnel vision, and his off-ball defense as he can be unaware of the offensive sets taking place around him. In the end, basketball IQ is his biggest weakness.
Stanley resembles another flawed Duke prospect that Portland drafted in the second round, Gary Trent Jr. They both had similar deficiencies, a lack of defensive awareness and an inconsistent jump shot. Given Trent’s success, the Blazers might go to that same well again.
Vernon Carey Jr, Duke
Projected Draft Slot: TheRinger.com (P49), ESPN.com (P43), NBADraft,net (P17)
As you can see in the above projections, Carey’s draft slot is all over the place. This is mainly due to what vision of Carey you want to believe. The Ringer feels that he may be a player-type that is being phased out of the league, a post-scoring big who can’t consistently protect the rim on defense. NBADraft.net, on the other hand, feels that his shooting stroke (38% on 24 3-point attempts, 67% at the free throw line) and his mobility on defense points to quite the opposite, a switching big who can space the floor. Whatever his outcome, he easily possesses enough positives to take a gamble on in the second round.
Portland, in particular, could use a back-up center with Hassan Whiteside set to hit free agency. Even if they bring him back (or find another free-agent big), Portland could use a young player at the position to develop. And if Carey’s shooting proves to be real, he could give Portland an element they currently do not possess at the center spot.
Portland is a win-now team that desperately needs more athleticism on the wings. They are currently set to start Carmelo Anthony or Gary Trent Jr at the small forward spot, with both having glaring flaws that bigger playmakers can exploit. A true 3-and-D wing (like Bey or Nesmith) could give Portland a player with the ideal size to throw at the Lebron Jameses or Kawhi Leonards of the world. Offensively, they both fit snugly with Portland’s trio of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic. Making a move for this player type certainly makes the most sense.
But the Blazers have shown a tendency to take unrefined players in the past high in the draft. It seems like that may pay dividends with Anfernee Simons and Portland could take a big swing on Pokusevski should he fall to them. While he is rail thin right now, Portland could certainly force feed him enough Voodoo Dougnuts over the next couple years to fill out his 7-foot frame. If he physically gets there, his guard-like skills could give the Trail Blazers a true third offensive star. The question is, do they have time? Both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are 30. By the time Pokusevski can realistically hit his ceiling, the Blazers may have already aged out of this current iteration of the team.
Whatever direction they choose will be interesting, as they are a team that highly values the draft and constantly works to develop the players they choose. While some teams don’t put much stock in second rounders, Portland will give those players real playing time to prove themselves in the league. The draft is in less than a week and Portland has a chance to add a real difference maker with the 16th pick.