As the Trail Blazers’ arrived at Monday’s media day, we knew they were a deeper and more expensive team than last season.
But we also found out some other interesting tidbits.
Some players had developed new shots. Some had adopted a new mindset. And others had a new position.
To help you sift through the day’s events, here are the Top 10 things you need to know from Monday’s four-hour media day, starting with the top five most important storylines.
1. Mason Plumlee says he has developed a mid-range jumper.
Nothing was potentially bigger Monday than the oh-by-the-way revelation from the Blazers starting center that he had developed a mid-range jumper this summer.
Plumlee cautioned the development is “not a storyline,” but anybody who has followed the Blazers understands what this could mean to the team’s success.
Plumlee last season was an exceptional passer. He was a solid rebounder. And he was supremely athletic for his size and position.
But he was also painfully non-existent as an offensive threat.
When he would receive passes from Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum in the middle of defenses last season, Plumlee wouldn’t even entertain the thought of shooting. Instead, he would look to only pass, even though the defenses were playing off him and daring him to shoot.
Even without the threat of a shot, Plumlee was a dangerous weapon. Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers, who were torched by Plumlee in the first round of the 2016 playoffs to the tune of 8.0 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
Now, if Plumlee has indeed developed a reliable shot around the free throw line, it will force defenses to be more honest in guarding him, making him not only a bigger scoring threat, but also a factor in creating better spacing for the Blazers, which will allow for him to better pick apart defenses with his sharp passing.
Last season, Plumlee might have taken five mid-range jumpers, usually to beat the shot clock. So will we really see Plumlee consistently shooting mid-range jumpers this season?
“For sure,’’ Plumlee said on Monday.
The fourth-year center said this summer he broke down his shooting form much like a golfer studies and changes his swing.
“I’m happier with my form going into the season,’’ he said. “I really broke down my shot this offseason. I’m looking forward to expanding my game within our offense, just being more prepared for the same situations.’’
Plumlee, who early last season made adjustments to his free throw stroke with great success, says his shot will look different this season.
“Look, I’m not here telling you all I’m going to make every shot I take,’’ Plumlee said. “That’s something I felt was going to be open, the way we play basketball. To me, it’s not a storyline or anything. It’s going to be taken within our offense and it’s something I’m looking forward to improving upon. I’m not here as a finished product … but it’s something to be worked on each day and taken advantage of in games.’’
By the way, Plumlee was also singled out by team captain Damian Lillard as a player who impressed during offseason pickup games. Lillard said he was impressed with how Plumlee was moving – footwork being another facet Plumlee said he worked on this summer. Lillard also estimated that Plumlee took 20 charges during pickup games.
Whether all of this translates to the games remains to be seen. But how much Plumlee has evolved offensively will be a key subplot to the Blazers’ preseason.
2. Word from the players: Maurice Harkless opening eyes
No player on Monday was mentioned more by his teammates than Maurice Harkless.
Damian Lillard recalled being on the losing end of pickup games at the team’s facility because Harkless couldn’t miss with his outside shot.
Unsolicited, CJ McCollum brought up Harkless’ improvement.
And newcomer Evan Turner took note first of the “unreal guard play,” then remarked on the versatility and athleticism of Harkless.
Harkless, whose late-season insertion into the starting lineup at small forward helped change the team, said he spent much of his summer altering his shot.
The biggest change, Harkless said, is he no longer looks at the ball as it is leaving his hands. And judging from Lillard’s experience of being on the losing end of pickup games because of Harkless’ shot, the adjustment is working.
“It’s really helped a lot,’’ Harkless said. “It’s nothing mechanical. A couple of guys have been telling me that for a while, but I spent the whole summer buying into it. I would have guys watching my eyes the whole time.’’
Like Plumlee, if Harkless shows improvement with his shot, it could be a game-changer for the Blazers. His value last season was in his defensive versatility in being able to guard anyone from Chris Paul to Klay Thompson to Draymond Green, and his ability to get rebound baskets or scores off slashes to the basket.
If there was a downside, Harkless shot 27.9 percent from three-point range, and he wasn’t encouraged to take mid-range shots. Now, if his shot has improved, Harkless could be a complete player who could make coach Terry Stotts’ job of doling out playing time even tougher.
“I’m just another guy on the team, trying to get minutes,’’ Harkless said. “That’s up to coach to decide. We are all just pieces to the puzzle – he’s supposed to put it together.’’
If Harkless has a more consistent outside shot, he becomes a much more important piece to that Blazers’ puzzle.
3. Meyers’ mindset: Leonard free of pressure, negativity
Nobody on Monday was more introspective and honest than Meyers Leonard, who was stunningly blunt about his mental struggles last season and his approach to this season.
Leonard, who says he is ahead of schedule on his recovery from April shoulder surgery and will begin full-contact practicing on Oct. 8, said last season was “by far the most stressful of my life, without a doubt.’’
Between turning down a $40 million contract extension in November, to trying to play through a separated shoulder early in the season, Leonard said his mind was never right last season. He said for the first time in his life, he feared failing.
“I told everybody I was fine,’’ Leonard said. “I wasn’t.”
It’s what many figured throughout his struggles last season, when he averaged 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds and was replaced in the starting lineup by Noah Vonleh: his biggest hurdle was between his ears, not the job in front of him on the court.
He says he has freed his mind of the pressure that comes with being a self-proclaimed people-pleaser with the help of journaling. He started on July 17 with writing in a “gratitude journal” with which he begins each day documenting what he was grateful for the day before.
Later, he writes in his “mindset journal” which answers his “Why?” each day (i.e. why wake up?) by stressing his core values.
“When you lose your why, you lose your way,’’ Leonard said.
The goal of these exercises is to flood his mind with positive thoughts, which he hopes translates to the court.
Leonard, of course, could be one of the most unique and potent weapons on the Blazers. As one of the game’s top three-point shooting 7-footers and a solid mid-range shooter he provides spacing that enables Lillard and McCollum to attack the rim easier. And last year, Leonard was the best Blazers big man in guarding physical offensive centers like DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol and Greg Monroe.
The potential is there, but so too has been the getting caught out of defensive position, his propensity to foul, and his tentative nature to take open shots.
Now, with a surgically-repaired shoulder and a 4-year, $41 million contract, his mind is cleared of what stressed him last season, and his focus has shifted to what he can do, instead of what he hasn’t done.
On the court, he says he worked this summer to get his shot off quicker, hone his mid-range shot and further develop his post game, which included work with facing up much like Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan.
But it is clear that Leonard won’t make his full impact until he gets his mind right, and he appears to at least have started that journey, if not made headway. Part of that process is tempering even his own expectations. He says he doesn’t believe he will figure everything out until he is 27. He turns 25 in February.
“Mentally, I’m in the best place in my life,’’ Leonard said.
4. Damian Lillard’s health and conditioning
One of the undercurrents of the season will be whether Damian Lillard’s plantar fasciitis resurfaces in his left foot.
Last December, the painful condition that is centered in his heel, became so troublesome that Lillard missed seven games.
Lillard on Monday said his foot “feels great” even though there are days he thinks about it.
“But it hasn’t caused any pain,’’ Lillard said.
Lillard is well known for his relentless workout regiment and his emphasis on honing his skills, but interestingly he said his focus this summer was more broad.
“My conditioning and my strength in my legs and health is what focused on the most,’’ Lillard said. “The stronger I am and the better shape I’m in, then I can be more efficient … that’s what’s most important – get to the end of the game and still be effective.’’
5. Festus Ezeli and his knees: Signed not for October but later
One of the more telling quotes of Monday came from Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations, in regard to the organization’s plan for center Festus Ezeli, one of the team’s free agent signees.
“Sometimes there are signings that are not about Oct. 1,’’ Olshey said. “They are about later in the season.’’
That is the case with Ezeli, the muscular center who was signed to a two-year (partially guaranteed) contract because of balky knees. In August, Ezeli had a platelet-rich-plasma treatment done on his left knee, the same knee that was operated on in February, which sidelined him for 31 games while he was with Golden State. In 2013-2014, Ezeli did not play because of surgery to his right knee.
“The good news is we have a lot of depth at that position and can be patient,’’ Olshey said, referring to Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis and Meyers Leonard.
After the Aug. 23 procedure to his left knee, the Blazers estimated Ezeli’s return at six weeks, which would be a mid-October return. Ezeli on Monday said he started running last week.
“My knee is getting better,’’ he said. “It’s getting better and getting stronger. We are going to go based on feel. There is no rush. We just want to do everything right.’’