Talkin' Ball - Taking your questions!

Talkin' Ball - Taking your questions!

We're on LIVE now with the Talkin' Ball crew over on Comcast SportsNet. Got questions? NBA? Ducks? Beavers? NFL? Post them in the comments!

Week 4 Preview: Seattle Seahawks at New York Jets

Week 4 Preview: Seattle Seahawks at New York Jets

Perhaps a little cross-country trip is just what the doctor ordered for the Seattle Seahawks.

Fresh off their most dominant performance of the season – a 37-18 victory over the San Francisco 49ers – the Seahawks look to be rounding into form.

Seattle’s lone road trip this season, in Week 2 to Los Angeles, was the low point in their 2-1 start. They were inept on offense, scoring three points, and looked nothing like the franchise that had made two Super Bowl appearances in the last three years.

It took facing the 49ers, a team giving up 27.6 points per game (23rd in the NFL), to cure Seattle’s woes on the offensive side of the ball. Finally, they were able to run (Christine Michael became the first Seahawks player to reach 100 yards rushing in a game this season); they could pass (Russell Wilson, playing just a shade over two-quarters, threw for 243 yards), and, most importantly, they showed a spark that had been missing.

For once, it looked like they believed in what they were doing.

On Sunday, the New York Jets, much like Seattle’s first two opponents this season (Miami and Los Angeles) rely heavily on the performance of their front four on defense, ranking third overall in total rush defense. Led by second-year standout Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson, the Jets are giving up just 71 yards per game on the ground. Compound that with Seattle’s offensive line - which looked better against the 49ers but far from great – and Seattle could easily be turned into a one-trick pony.

That may not be a bad thing.

Hobbling along on one good leg, Wilson was masterful last week in locating his deep targets. If there’s one sure-fire way to soften a defense, especially one as stout against the run as the Jets, it’s by blowing the top off the secondary. Between Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham, who combined for 264 yards receiving, Seattle may have finally found the over-under combination they envisioned when Graham was brought in.

Pack in the box to stop Graham? Baldwin will beat you deep. Soften up coverage to avoid getting beat by the deep ball? Wilson and Graham will pick you apart.

There’s nothing revolutionary about the concept; it’s one of the most tried-and-true formulas in all of football. But having the players to execute it is not always as simple. It appears that the Seahawks not only have the pieces, but have discovered how to properly use them.

Offensively, New York has settled into their normal slot of “slightly below average NFL team, with no real threats.” Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had quite the eventful offseason before finally resigning with the organization, will look for Brandon Marshall or Eric Decker. Then, he’ll look for them again, and again. Matt Forte has taken the reigns at running back, but at 30 years old and in his 9th season, the former Chicago Bears star is no longer the threat he once was.

In sports, it’s not uncommon for teams to feel more at ease on the road. The pressures of playing at home, in front of family and friends, are removed; they can more easily focus on the task at hand. After Seattle’s sluggish start to the season, it appears they may have hit on something last week. Going across the country to New York is never an easy task, but something tells me this Seahawks team is looking forward to it. At 2-1, and with NFC West favorites Arizona off to a slow start, the opportunity is there for the Seahawks to not only build on their offensive momentum, but to make an early-season statement: despite the injuries and slow start, this team is ready to hit their stride.

 

Prediction

Seattle 21, New York 10

 

Fantasy

With last week’s performance (164 yards, one touchdown), Doug Baldwin, like the his teammates, broke out of his early-season slump, much to the chagrin of the 49ers secondary. Now, he and his cohorts take on a Jets defense ranked 21st overall in pass defense. The Jets are allowing 284 yards through the air, and 26 points per game. Darrelle Revis, who in years past would have been a virtual lock to take on Baldwin and shut him down, is showing the wear and tear that comes with playing in his 10th season.

Alas, this sets up as a big game for Baldwin. Take him if you can.

No matter position, Blazers' Evan Turner says 'I can make a lot happen.'

No matter position, Blazers' Evan Turner says 'I can make a lot happen.'

There shouldn’t be any surprise that Evan Turner will share the backup point guard duties for the Trail Blazers this season.

The 6-foot-7 Turner last season was a primary ball handler for the Celtics off the bench, and the newly-signed wing said he grew up playing point guard from youth ball to college.

“I came out of (Ohio State) a point guard, and the experts said I was a wing,’’ Turner said Wednesday. “I never shot a spot-up shot in my life … I am what I am. I grew up playing with the rock. I knew how to play all the positions, and I think if I get minutes on the court, I can make a lot happen.’’

It’s the major reason why the Blazers signed Turner to a 4-year, $70 million deal this summer – he can do so much from so many different positions.

But over the course of his six year NBA career, during which he has played for Philadelphia, Indiana and Boston , it’s clear Turner has some frustrations with his perception. Whether it’s labels that he is a wing, a poor shooter, or a point-forward, Turner thinks it’s unfair.

“I think of myself as a basketball player. Dribble, pass, defend, right? Somehow, I get labeled an enigma. But a one-trick pony has a spot in this league, you know what I’m saying?’’ Turner said. “In this world, we don’t recognize injustice until 30 years from now.’’

He said he was always a point guard as a youth in Chicago, except for middle school, when he moved to shooting guard to allow Iman Shumpert to play point. Shumpert now plays with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He said he grew five inches when he reached high school, and he found himself playing forward, even though he still gravitated toward handling the ball.

Now, the Blazers envision him playing everything from point guard to power forward, although he will likely spend most of his time at small forward and point guard.

Big man Ed Davis said Turner has already shown he is one of the better passers on the team, which combined with his ball handling, is the reason the Blazers believe Turner can alleviate some of the play-making burden on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

If there is a weakness to Turner’s game it’s his three-point shooting. Last year he shot 24.1 percent (20-of-83) and he is a career 30.5 percent from three-point range. On Wednesday, Turner stayed after practice and worked with assistant David Vanterpool on his shot.

The Blazers, who are one of the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the NBA, don’t figure to rely on Turner to make three’s, but that doesn’t mean coach Terry Stotts won’t encourage him to take the shot.

“If he is open at the three-point line I want him to shoot the ball,’’ Stotts said. “He is going to work on it just like Mo (Harkless), Chief (Al Farouq-Aminu) and Gerald Henderson did last year. If they are open and it’s a good 3 and you are comfortable I want you to shoot it.

“Evan shot the three really well … I’m surprised how much people are making about his three-point shooting with how much he brings to the table. If it’s in rhythm and he’s set, I want him to shoot it. He’s too good of a shooter to not have the confidence to take open threes.’’

Whether that comes while he is playing forward, guard or point guard, Turner says it doesn’t matter. He is a basketball player.

“I’m going to do whatever coach asks,’’ Turner said. “Whatever happens, happens. I just want to play.’’

Lack of discipline costing Ducks close games

Lack of discipline costing Ducks close games

EUGENE - Welcome to the new normal for Oregon. It involves close games against once-middling teams that come down to the wire. Matchups that require greater attention to detail to win. Contests that these Ducks have yet to prove they can emerge from victorious. 

The Ducks, after losing 41-38 at home to Colorado on Saturday, are 3-5 in games decided by seven points or less dating back to last season, and have lost three such games in a row dating back to the Alamo Bowl debacle. Since the Ducks became national title contenders in 2010, Oregon is 7-10 in close contests with just 14 losses in seven seasons. 

Essentially, when opponents keep games close they have had a better than 50 percent chance of winning.  That's bad news for Oregon given that the Ducks (2-2) are likely to play in many more close games this season in what looks to be a balanced Pac-12 Conference led by No. 7 Stanford and No. 10 Washington. The question for Oregon is if it has enough talent and discipline to win the vast majority of such games in order to contend in the North Division. So far, the answer is no. 

That reality led to a players-only meeting following Monday's practice held for the team to yell, point fingers, clear the air and redirect this sinking ship in the right direction.  

"I think maybe that's what the team needed, is to get called out at certain positions," senior guard Cameron Hunt said.

The result was a spirited, fast and physical practice on Tuesday that coaches and players called one of the team's best, especially for the defense, which has woefully under-performed and blown fourth-quarter leads in losses at No. 15 Nebraska and to Colorado. 

Too often Oregon blames itself for losses rather than give much credit to the opposition. However, there is no denying that in their last three defeats the Ducks committed gross unforced errors late in the games that contributed greatly to them losing. 

From 2010 through 2014, Oregon found itself in only nine close games out of 68 contests (13.2 percent). Mistakes made in other games were covered up with blowout victories. However, the post-Marcus Mariota (2012-2014) coupled with the dramatic improvement of offenses within the conference have led to the Ducks finding themselves in eight close games out of 17 played (47.1 percent) dating back to the start of last season.

So what's to blame for the failure in close games?

Some outside of the program blame coach Mark Helrich and his staff. The players, however blame themselves. 

"I think our effort was terrible, both sides of the ball, special teams," Hunt said. "I think we can do a lot better and that's something that shouldn't be questioned. Or effort should be full-go. There shouldn't be anything left in the tank when the game is over."

Part of the problem liess with younger players who arrive at Oregon with a grandiose sense of self worth without ever having accomplished anything at the college level. 

"That entitlement, that cannot exist," Helfrich said. 

It did a bit in 2013, leading to veteran leaders such as Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu working to eliminate bad attitudes among players. The result was a run to the national title game during the 2014 season. Now today's veterans are out to perform the same type of eradication project. 

"We have a lot of young players on the team who really don't understand the culture and how we do stuff here," Hunt said. "That's something that is non-negotiable, 100 percent effort on every play, best you've got."

All that said, the veterans also share heavily in the blame, according to senior wide receiver Dwayne Stanford. 

"It's not just the younger guys making mistakes," he said. 

Stanford also added veterans must share in the mistakes made by younger players within their position groups.

"If a receiver messes up, that's on me," Stanford said. 

One young player who certainly gets it is linebacker Troy Dye, who had a lot to say about the defense's lackluster performance.

"There's too many missed tackles, lack of effort," Dye said. "It's the effort and the fight and the hunger. We have to want it more."

In Helfrich's experience, sometimes it takes failure for players to realize the importance of executing the little things within a game plan. He said that often times failure on a second down in the second quarter is as important as a poorly thrown pass that's intercepted in the fourth quarter. 

Plus, nothing screams undisciplined like frequent penalties. Oregon ranks last in the conference in total penalties (41) and penalty yards per game (97.2). Stanford, in three games, has committed just 13 penalties for 32 yards per game. 

If the players-only meeting helps reaffirm the understanding that they must play with more discipline and effort, the Ducks could turn the corner. 

"I think those kinds of things are almost always positive in the end," Helfrich said of the team meeting held on the field following practice. "Like a lot of things there's words and then there's actions and commitments that come out of things."

Oregon next plays at 1-2 Washington State on Saturday. The Ducks are the superior team. Both teams are in desperation mode. Oregon could win going away. Or, if the players-only meeting doesn't pay off, the Ducks could find themselves in another close game they could easily lose. 

Oregon's discipline, or lack thereof, could determine its fate. 

"I hate losing," Hunt said. "I bet you a lot of guys on our team hate losing, as well. So, I mean, you hate it, but what are you going to do now to fix it? That's the big question. It's up to some of these guys on the team whether they want to grow up fast and fix it or if not, we're going to continue to lose."

Lillard vouches for Plumlee's new shot: 'It looks better'

Lillard vouches for Plumlee's new shot: 'It looks better'

When Trail Blazers center Mason Plumlee on Monday said he had developed a mid-range jumper that he plans to unveil this season, many took a wait-and-see approach to the news.

After all, Plumlee took less than a handful of shots outside the key last season and won’t confuse anybody for a pure shooter.

But according to those who have played against Plumlee this summer and who have watched him workout, the center is indeed making an earnest effort to add the shot to his offensive repertoire.

“A big part of shooting is having confidence … and he’s been confident in his shot all summer that I’ve seen him,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He’s been in here working on it and in pickup he has been taking the shot. It’s a lot better shot. It looks better and he’s making it a lot more. So, if he spends the time doing it, hopefully it’s something we can depend on.’’

Plumlee has cautioned that he won’t make every shot, and that the shot will only be taken within the flow of the offense. During the team’s first practice on Tuesday, the media was allowed to see 3-on-3 competition, but Plumlee didn’t attempt an outside shot.

“I’ve seen him work on it,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I think for him, if he is standing out there, it’s just getting use to take those shots and having the confidence to do it. He has put in a lot of time over the summer, and if you can make a mid-range shot and keep the defense honest, that’s a good thing. But it’s not going to happen overnight. He has to get comfortable.’’

The proof will come once the preseason begins Oct. 3 at home against Utah, then ultimately in the regular season, when the Blazers kick off the schedule Oct. 25 against the Jazz.

Plumlee said he studied his shot and broke it down this summer, much like a golfer would examine and refine his swing.

Last season, Plumlee refined his free throw form after a disastrous 5-for-20 start at the line. He ended up shooting a career-best 64.2 percent.

Now, after a summer of altering and practicing his shot, he says he will abide by a simple approach.

 “If I’m open, I will take it,’’ Plumlee said. “I’m happier with my form.’’

It could be a substantial development for the Blazers and Plumlee, whose agent is in talks with the Blazers about a contract extension before the Oct. 31 deadline. Already an important cog in the Blazers’ offense because of his athleticism and passing ability, if Plumlee adds even the threat of an outside shot, it could present a bevy of problems for defenses.

“If he does (develop the shot) he becomes even more effective than he already is,’’ Lillard said. “In pick and rolls … it makes him an even more lethal weapon for us.’’

Stotts says he doesn’t want Plumlee to worry too much about the shot and thus forget about the things that made him so valuable last season.

“He is good at what he does: he’s a great passer, can put the ball on the floor, and he makes opportunities for his teammates,’’ Stotts said. “He was really good for us last year at the offensive end, and if he is able to make a mid-range shot, it’s all the better.’’

Agent for Mason Plumlee on extension talks: 'Everything is in a good place'

Agent for Mason Plumlee on extension talks: 'Everything is in a good place'

After an unprecedented summer of spending, the Trail Blazers still have one order of business left on the table: Whether to offer an extension to fourth-year center Mason Plumlee.

Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations, said this week he has “dabbled” in extension talks with Plumlee’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, but feels no rush before the Oct. 31 deadline.

Bartelstein, meanwhile, says he remains in “constant” contact with Olshey about Plumlee, but their talks haven’t gained traction.

“I can’t say whether or not we will get something done or not,’’ Bartelstein said Tuesday. “We are fine either way, we really are. If we get a deal done now that works for both sides, great. If not, we will revisit it in the summer.’’

If the deadline passes without a deal, the Blazers will almost surely extend Plumlee a qualifying offer at the end of the season that will make him a restricted free agent in the summer of 2017. The Blazers will then have the right to match any free agent offer Plumlee receives – the same path they took this summer with Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe.

It’s a tricky equation for both sides: Signing an extension now prevents a player from entering the free agent market while also providing security should a catastrophic injury happen during the season. For Plumlee, there is also the lure of another projected spike in the 2017 salary cap – from $94 million to $102 million – creating another market where rich contracts are offered.

Even though the two sides are in open dialogue, Olshey said he doesn’t foresee straying from his usual approach to extensions – waiting until the final hours before the deadline to start zeroing in on terms.

“I’ve been pretty consistent with this: I don’t have extension discussions -- unless it’s a no-brainer max discussion – until the week that the deadline hits,’’ Olshey said. “But unless it’s a no-brainer Damian Lillard max (contract), or a no-brainer CJ max, nothing gets done over the course of four months that can’t get done over the course of four days.’’

Last season, Olshey made a 4-year, $40 million offer to Leonard the week of the deadline, an extension Leonard turned down in November. In July, Leonard signed a 4-year, $41 million offer.

Today, Leonard reflects back on his decision and says it played with his mind. And Plumlee on Tuesday said he would be lying if he said he didn’t think about the extension and the thought of this being a contract year, especially after the Blazers doled out $242 million in contract this summer.

“But look: I’ve spent one year here, and some of these other guys have been here longer, so I’m happy to come out here and prove myself and grow with the team. Like …  I’m very content either way. I’m OK playing another year;  I’m OK signing in the fall. So, we just have to look at it and make a decision, both the Blazers and me.’’

Plumlee had a career season for the Blazers after being acquired in a draft-night trade with Brooklyn. He averaged 9.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists. In the playoffs, he was the catalyst to beating the Clippers, averaging 8.0 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists.

This season, he has added 10 pounds to his frame and says he has added a mid-range jumper.

The question now is do the Blazers, and/or Plumlee, want to secure his talent and potential now, or wait until the free agent market?

“Extensions are always difficult to do because you are dealing with some unknowns,’’ Bartelstein said. “There’s not a so-called marketplace. But Neil and I talk all the time, and Neil is someone I really enjoy doing business with because we look at a lot of things in a similar way.

“But one of the things I do know is Mason had the time of his life last year,’’ Bartelstein said. “He loves it in Portland. He loves the guys, he loves playing for Coach Stotts, and the fans embraced him. Portland fans know the game, and they loved his energy, his athleticism and his motor.’’

Plumlee, who turns 27 in March, said he is confident he won’t let the contract talks be a distraction, even if it’s on his mind.

“I’ve always had mentality that every year is a big year because you only get so many of them,’’ Plumlee said. “The life of the NBA is not forever, but I don’t wait until a contract year to prepare differently or do anything differently. I take the same approach every year.’’

In the meantime, Plumlee says he lets Bartelstein do his job so Plumlee can do his. And right now, roughly four weeks from the deadline, Bartelstein says the two sides are still in the early stages.

“We’ve kicked around some ideas and talked about different things,’’ Bartelstein said. “Everything is in a good place. It’s just a matter if it makes sense. If we get something done, great. If not, Mason will be locked in and trying to help the Blazers win.’’

UO RB Royce Freeman to return at WSU

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Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

UO RB Royce Freeman to return at WSU

Oregon junior running back Royce Freeman has a chance to rewrite the programs rushing record list this season. Each week we will provide an update on his progress. 

EUGENE - Oregon junior running back Royce Freeman will return to action after missing one game with a lower leg injury, Oregon running backs coach said today following practice. 

"He's been practicing full, so I expect him to be 100 percent," Campbell said following Tuesday's practice. 

Freeman, not available for comment, left Oregon's loss at Nebraska on Oct. 17 in the first quarter with 31 yards. He then was held out of Saturday's loss to Colorado at home. 

Missing seven quarters of action, and the team losing two games, have pretty much killed Freeman's chances at becoming a Heisman Trophy candidate. 

The action missed had also severely hurt Freeman's chances of breaking Oregon's career rushing record held by LaMichael James.

Freeman is 1,555 yards away from James' record of 5,082 set from 2009 through 2011. 

Freeman began the year with 3,203 career yards after rushing for a program-record 1,838 yards in 2015. That figure broke James' previous single-season record of 1,805 set in 2011. 

Here is a statistical breakdown of Freeman's run at both the yardage and touchdown records:

RUSHING YARDAGE

James' record: 5,082 yards.

Last week: Freeman sat out the team's 41-38 loss to Colorado. The week prior at Nebraska he rushed for 31 yards before leaving the game in the first quarter with an injury during the 35-32 loss. 

2016 total: Freeman has gained 325 yards on 37 carries this season. 

Career total: Freeman has 3,528 career yards. He needs 92 to move into second place all time ahead of Kenjon Barner (3,623)

Freeman needs: He sits 1,554 yards away from breaking James' record. 

Average needed per game (13-game season): With nine games remaining, Freeman must average 172.7 yards per game to break James' record. 

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS

James' record: 53.

Last week: Freeman sat out. 

2016 total: He now has four rushing touchdowns. 

Career total: Freeman sits at 39 for his career. He needs two touchdowns to tie Barner (41) for second place. 

Freeman needs: He is 14 rushing touchdowns away from breaking the record. 

Next up: The Ducks play at Washington State (1-2). 

Terry Stotts reveals part of Trail Blazers' rotation

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Brett Davis/USA Today Sports Images

Terry Stotts reveals part of Trail Blazers' rotation

Don’t expect Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts to declare a starting lineup anytime soon, but after Tuesday’s opening practice the coach did reveal one important note about his rotation: Newcomer Evan Turner will share backup point guard duties with CJ McCollum.

“It’s one of the reasons Evan is here,  to help with that,’’ Stotts said Tuesday. “He played point last year with Boston. Whether you say he is point guard or point forward … he can initiate the offense from his position. I think if you watch what he did last year with Boston he is a very versatile player on both ends of the floor.’’

Last season McCollum exclusively – and capably -- handled the backup point guard duties, but the Blazers made an offseason point of emphasis to add another ball handler to alleviate the double-teaming pressure teams applied on McCollum and starter Damian Lillard.

Turner, who signed a 4-year, $70 million free agent deal with Portland, will be that man while third-year point guard Shabazz Napier is expected to be used only in emergency situations.

“That’s one of the reasons we signed (Turner) to begin with … there was so much pressure on Damian and CJ to be the primary ball handlers. Adding another play maker … this league is about being able to make plays and Evan is very comfortable with the ball in his hands. He’s an excellent passer, he can find bigs, and he can bring the ball up the floor.’’

Turner, of course, will also be a candidate to start at small forward, with competition coming from Maurice Harkless and Allen Crabbe. It figures to be the only intrigue in Stotts’ opening night lineup, as Lillard and McCollum will start in the backcourt and Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee figure to start in the front court.

Stotts, who eschews talk of starting lineups throughout the season, held true on the first day of training camp, saying he wants to keep an open mind.

“That’s what October is for,’’ Stotts said. “I’m not going to talk starting lineups. I think you are going to see different players get starts throughout the preseason; that’s what this three, four weeks is for.’’

Whichever lineup Stotts chooses for the Oct. 25 season opener against Utah doesn’t mean it will be etched in stone. Last season, Stotts used seven different starting lineups, and this season his roster is much deeper and more versatile, affording him to make adjustments on the fly. 

“It’s fun … it’s a challenge,’’ Stotts said of his options. “You want to make good decisions, but again, that’s what October is for: Who plays well with whom?  (Seeing) different lineups and different combinations and then we will settle on something. But I don’t think you have to have all the answers going into the first game of the season.’’

Notes: Rookie Jake Layman did not practice Tuesday and Ed Davis withdrew himself from the end of practice, both because of injuries the Blazers did not disclose … Owner  Paul Allen attended the first practice. “I’m really optimistic about this year and I think you can feel that atmosphere in the gym,’’ Allen said after the practice … Neil Olshey, Blazers president of basketball operations, said the team will give “full support” should its players choose to express themselves on social issues through protest or other means. Damian Lillard said he imagines he will do something, but doesn’t have anything planned at the moment.

First practice highlight for Blazers: The return of Meyers Leonard

First practice highlight for Blazers: The return of Meyers Leonard

It was only the first day of Trail Blazers training camp, and it was only a 3-on-3 drill, but there was a welcomed, if not surprising, sight Tuesday on the court: Meyers Leonard.

But it wasn’t just that the 7-foot-1 big man was on the court after having April surgery on his left shoulder. It was what Leonard was doing.

He made a nifty back-door pass that resulted in a layin from a cutting CJ McCollum. He made a sweeping hook shot in the lane. He made a smart swing pass to McCollum for another basket. And twice he defended the rim, which mirrored his earlier efforts during the team’s defensive drills.

“I blocked more shots today than I ever have in a practice,’’ Leonard said.

It was only a snapshot of the team’s 2 ½ hour workout, but Leonard was certainly one of, if not the, highlight of the segment open to the media.

“The truth is, I felt really good out there,’’ Leonard said. “I was a bit surprised. I didn’t think my mind would be as good as it was. I made shots. Defended. And like I said, I’ve been trying to work on my game in the post.’’

Leonard is still under the watchful eye of Chris Stackpole, the team’s director of health and performance, and isn’t scheduled to take part in 5-on-5 activities until Oct. 8.

But on Tuesday he banged bodies, contested shots, and was in the fray of the action – all without incident on his surgically repaired left shoulder, and with some noticeable results.

“I thought he had a good day in the things he was able to do,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “He played with confidence, had no ill effects from his shoulder surgery. It was good to see him out there.’’

Captain Damian Lillard said it was difficult to fully judge Leonard because it was only 3-on-3, but he liked what he saw.

“He looked good, especially for not having played so long,’’ Lillard said. “The scrimmaging we did today really benefitted him because he was popping back and there was no other guys on the weakside, so he could make jumpers. But he looked really good.’’

Leonard is stressing he is a changed player and person this season because he has freed himself of the mental burden he carried last season after turning down a $40 million contract extension and playing through injury.

In July, Leonard signed a 4-year, $41 million deal after averaging 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from three-point range. He is projected as a backup power forward and center on this year’s team, although Stotts said he will evaluate all of October’s practices and exhibition games before naming starters.

If Leonard continues to show what he did Tuesday – heady passes, a defensive presence inside and a steady shot – he figures to be a factor.

But Leonard is the first to remind: It was only one day, and one practice. But still, it was a positive step.

“Every day isn’t going to be as good as today,’’ Leonard said. “But I have a standard for myself and a clarity in my mind that allows me to be in a good spot every day.’’

Just one little inside story from Trail Blazer media day ...

Just one little inside story from Trail Blazer media day ...

When I started showing up for Trail Blazer media day it was a little more than three decades ago and things were a lot different.

Players had to autograph a few hundred basketballs, as they do to this day, pose for promotional pictures, read a few scripted lines for promotional videos or the radio and then, at the end of a long day, head into the media room for interviews. I never blamed them for dreading the media part of it during what was already a taxing day -- nobody likes to be asked the same questions over and over, particularly on live television or radio where there are no do-overs.

Monday, as the Trail Blazers went about their duties of autographing everything from skateboards to basketballs, mugging for promotional pictures and all the rest, I could have excused some weary and wary looks from the players as they joined our "Talkin' Ball" set. But after a full day of all the other chores, they came to us with an almost universal attitude that I don't recall from previous teams.

Now remember, I go all the way back to the Jack Ramsay and Rick Adelman eras and the players in those days were, by and large, an affable group. Good guys. I can't say nearly as much for players of other eras, though.

But I was extremely impressed with what I saw from the Trail Blazers Monday. Almost without fail, each player reached across the desk, looked us in the eye and shook hands with each of us prior to the cameras turning on. Players were not just polite, they were cordial, outgoing, smiling and seemingly trying their best to have fun with the situation. During the interviews they were relaxed, letting a little personality show.

Now while I'd like to think that all this was simply because they'd missed us over the summer and were just excited to renew our acquaintance, but I know better. This is just a pretty nice group of people on this team. Good guys from all I can see. What you hear from the coaching staff and front office about these players and their character appears to be legit.

"They're good guys," said head coach Terry Stotts after practice Tuesday. "I've said this before, but last year was a very refreshing year from a coaching standpoint because of their work ethic, their character, the type of people they are and certainly they're talented. But all that stuff matters. It makes them want to come to work. They enjoy coming to work and they enjoy each other's company.  It makes it easier for the coaches and everyone else in the building."

Does having players like that make a long-term difference on the court for a franchise?

"Yes," said Stotts emphatically. "Certainly you have to have talent. It starts with talent. But character and culture and all those things  aren't far behind."

The team certainly brought a lot of enthusiasm to Tuesday's first practice, at least the part the media was allowed to watch. I'd expect that to continue. The leadership among the players is as solid as it is in the front office and on the bench. This organization is tight. Close.

And that can only help it navigate through the long season ahead.