SAN ANTONIO – Most college basketball players who stayed all four years in school are often labeled by scouts as players who don't have much upside entering the league due to their age when they come out.
There are some exceptions, of course.
So what does that say for 26-year-old Portland Trail Blazers rookie Joel Freeland who is experiencing his share of problems adjusting to the speed, athleticism, and quickness of the NBA game after playing seven years over in Europe?
The 6-10 forward has only appeared in 34 games and is averaging 2.2 points and shooting 39 percent from the field. How much of his struggles are lack of NBA experience or simply having reached his ceiling?
“You want to just quit living at 26? Sheesh,” Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts said. “Everybody has room to grow. I think for him, it's more about improving in the context of the NBA game. He has defined skills, he's a good mid-range shooter, he works hard, he's physical and has good quickness. It's just a matter of him learning the speed and quickness of the NBA game.”
Freeland isn't buying that ceiling stuff, either.
“A ceiling is what you make it,” Freeland said. “I don't believe in it. Everyone has their limits, obviously. The ceiling for everybody can be anything. You never know what that ceiling is going to be.”
Coming into the 2012-13 season, Freeland was expected to be the one big off the bench that was likely to produce immediately. His foot work in the post is polished, his mid-range jump-shot is consistent, he's someone who doesn't back down from a challenge and his work ethic is second to none.
He has shown flashes this season of resembling the player he was when he starred for the Spanish Euroleague club Unicaja Malaga. However, it just hasn't clicked for him on a consistent basis thus far.
Despite the limited success we've been able to observe in game situations, Freeland says that's not really a true measuring stick to gauge if he has improved or not. And he's adamant that he hasn't hit his ceiling yet.
“Nah. No way,” he said. “I can see myself progressing everyday even though I'm not playing on the court. My knowledge of the game is getting a lot better. That's one of the main things I had to work on because I was used to the European game, having knowledge of the European game and not really knowing the NBA. That's something that I really had to work on.
“I feel like I'm seeing progression everyday in practice at knowing my rotations, knowing where I'm suppose to be on defense, knowing offensively where I'm suppose to be to help my teammates out. These are things I'm picking up off of the players and coaches.”
Athletically, where are you at at this stage of your career?
“I'm 26 now, I'm not 20 anymore,” he said. “I feel little aches and pains going into practice every now and then. But I think for me now, it's not really an athletic thing, it's more about being smart.
“You look at players like [Phoenix Suns forward] Luis Scola, he's not an overly athletic player, but he knows how to play. He's incredible with playing with angles, space, timing and those are the kind of stuff I need to pick up right now.”
In order to get himself on the court, Freeland has worked relentlessly to lose 13 pounds from the beginning of the season and his body fat has gone from 14 percent to nine. He said he's never been below 10 percent body fat during his professional career.
“Now that I've lost that body fat, it's time to put on a little bit of muscle and get stronger,” he said.
In the meantime, Freeland will continue to wait for his number to be called. And to make sure he's ready, he gets up extra shots with Trail Blazers Assistant Coach Dale Osbourne after practices and shootarounds.
The results might not be there on game day as of now, but Freeland is confident that after what he's learned during the course of the season, he believes he's better equipped to make a positive impact now.
“I feel at the moment that I've learned so much throughout the year and all I need is to be out on the court to put everything that I've learned into action,” Freeland said. “It's all well and good doing it in practice, but until you get into a real game, you never know if you can do it or not. I feel like I've learned all I need to learn at the moment. I'm still learning, progressing at the same time, but I just need that game time to put it to work.”