A pledge to Portland: Damian Lillard states his intentions to a city and organization

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A pledge to Portland: Damian Lillard states his intentions to a city and organization

In the wake of Friday’s thorough defeat to the Golden State Warriors, Trail Blazers captain Damian Lillard said something that should be noted.

He was asked about a rather non-descript accomplishment during the blowout loss – becoming the first Blazers player to amass 40 points and 10 assists in the 20-year-old Moda Center.

Tucked ever so nicely in his answer was a significant notion: He wants to spend his entire career in Portland.

First, some perspective.

This is a Trail Blazers franchise haunted by defection.

LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t feel he was important enough. Rasheed Wallace was never comfortable here. Clyde Drexler wanted to go home. Bill Walton didn’t like the medical care. And Maurice Lucas wanted more money.

So they all forced their way out.

The franchise has made bad decisions, like trading Jermaine O’Neal right before he blossomed into a star. And nobody has to be reminded about this organization’s bad luck, from Sam Bowie’s legs to Brandon Roy’s knees.

They were all gone too soon.

So when Lillard was asked that question Friday night, about becoming the first Blazer to have 40 and 10 in the Moda Center, his answer should catch your ear.

“It’s always good to be the first one to do something,’’ Lillard said. “Especially being part of an organization I plan on being a part of for my entire career. It’s an honor, but I would have liked for it to be in a winning effort.’’

“…part of an organization I plan on being part of for my entire career … “

 To this city, this fan base, and this organization, his sentiment should mean something. And so should the timing.

As the chill of this winter begins to settle on Portland, so too has the notion this Blazers team will be anything more than a lottery team. The losses have become more frequent. So too have the blowouts. Shoot, these days the team can’t even get its active list in order.

For Lillard, the slippage has been accompanied by a balky case of plantar fasciitis in his left heel, an injury whose long-term prognosis can scare even the most hardened athlete.

In other words, these are not the best of times for the Blazers. Typically, times like these are when you find out about people.

Do they quit? Do they place blame? Do they make excuses? Do they look for a way out?

Lillard on Friday stood and looked at the maelstrom with his familiar look-in-your-eye stare of seriousness, and calmly reminded he was going nowhere.

“Things get tough. It’s a tough league,’’ Lillard said. “You have ups and downs. We flipped our roster, man.  We completely flipped and got a brand new team. And I signed up to be a part of it. To be a part of the growth. I have to grow just as much as our team has to grow, and I’m excited about that, that’s why it’s not hard for me to say that’s what I want.’’

The cynics out there will say it is easy for Lillard to say he wants to be here. The franchise over the summer awarded him a $120 million contract extension.

But for Lillard, it goes much deeper than money.

He says the organization has embraced him as a person. Also, the city and fan base appeal to his core values.

“When I really like what a place is about, that’s what I want to stick to. I want to stick to things that click with who I am as a person,’’ Lillard said.

He lives year round in Portland, where he has championed causes like Special Olympics, inner city youth programs, anti-bullying campaigns and helping sick children.

And inside the Blazers’ walls, he feels the team has made the effort to know him, and his causes, and taken the initiative to show they understand him.

He likes that he comes to work in the morning and Coach Terry Stotts will playfully call him by his rap name “Dame DOLLA.” He likes that when he launched his adidas shoe line, players and coaches came to the release. He likes that the organization plays his rap songs in the arena. He likes that employees who sit behind desks at the practice facility take part in his 4-Bar Friday concept that challenges the public to rap on Instagram.

“It’s been like a hand-and-glove fit,’’ Lillard said. “The fact that they have embraced who I am, the person along with the basketball player … I don’t think there is anything more comfortable than that. That’s why I have no problem committing to something like that.’’

 The Blazers (15-24) have lost three in a row to fall to a season-low nine games below .500, with Oklahoma City up next on Sunday (6 p.m., CSN). The Thunder embarrassed the Blazers in the first meeting, which at the time was one of the rare blowouts Portland has suffered. Now, as the competition has improved, the Blazers’ have suffered blowout losses in four of the past five games.

Until his 40 and 10 night against the Warriors, Lillard had looked shaky in the two games after his two-week stint on the sideline. His season-long shooting slump continued, and his turnovers were unsightly and frequent.

That cozy embrace from the Blazers faithful was starting to feel a draft. Was CJ McCollum better equipped to anchor the Blazers? Had Lillard regressed after such a meteoric rise early in his career?

I asked Lillard if he would feel as comfortable in his commitment to Portland if the fans turned on him?

“If the fans turn ... I will say this: I think the real fans of this organization, the real fans of this city, I don’t think they ever will,’’ Lillard said. “I understand fans have emotions, just like we do as players, and they have a right to be like ‘Man, Dame … whatever’ … But I just don’t see that happening here.

“They are loyal to who is loyal to them, and I don’t plan on giving them a reason to turn.’’

He knows he can shoot better this season. And he knows he can take better care of the ball. But he also doesn’t hold himself above admitting he too needs to grow, just like Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard and the rest of the young Blazers. Part of that growth includes shouldering a more prominent leadership role, an area that Stotts says Lillard is exceeding.

“When he was injured,’’ Stotts said, “he was the best leader in street clothes I’ve ever been around.’’

So Lillard marches on, oblivious to the noise around him, unconcerned with the chill left by a season heading south. The franchise pillars before him all found a reason to leave Portland when the going got tough, but Lillard figures now is the time to dig his heels in, even if they are sore.

“(Wanting to leave) is the easy thing to do. It is. That’s the easy thing to do,’’ Lillard said. “I have always been the type of person, when things are hard, to not think about how hard it is now. I think about what it will be like when we get through this, and how it turns into what I want it to turn into. Then, that will be the ultimate satisfaction.’’ 

 

Hooked on a feeling: Neil Olshey was sold on Zach Collins in January

Hooked on a feeling: Neil Olshey was sold on Zach Collins in January

It was in January this year when Neil Olshey had a feeling about Zach Collins.

Throughout his career as an NBA executive, Olshey had often experienced a defining  moment in his evaluation of college players that changed his view of a player from a prospect to a target.

On Thursday, Olshey used his latest feeling to trade up in the NBA draft to select Collins – a 7-footer from Gonzaga -- with the 10th overall pick.

“He is a franchise-level building block,’’ Olshey said.

It’s not the first time Olshey has felt this way about a player.

In 2013, Olshey drove through an east-coast snowstorm to watch a Lehigh guard named CJ McCollum. It wasn’t the 34 points McCollum scored that night against Bryant College that stuck with him. And it wasn’t the fact McCollum missed a floater at the buzzer to win it.

It was how the loss gutted McCollum to the point where he stayed motionless in the key after the buzzer sounded. To Olshey, it showed a player who cared more about winning than his individual stats.

That summer, Olshey took McCollum with the 10th pick, and McCollum today has emerged as one of the NBA’s most prolific and creative scorers.

The year before, in 2012, after an afternoon of workouts with draft prospects, Olshey picked up a point guard named Damian Lillard on the way to a dinner with owner Paul Allen. Olshey was fresh on the job with the Blazers and didn’t know the area beyond the Blazers’ practice facility, and soon found himself lost en route to Oswego Grill.

“I remember he didn’t know where he was going,’’ Lillard would say later. “We got off on the wrong exit. Then we had the right exit, but were going the wrong way … and he was all mad, saying ‘Where the hell we at!’’’

During it all, Olshey remembered looking over at Lillard. He was calm. Cool. Unfazed. And as Lillard recalled, he remembered telling Olshey, “I know you are going to find it.’’

To Olshey, that moment of chaos revealed something special about Lillard. The young point guard was cool under pressure. And he was supportive of a teammate, even if it was an executive stressing behind the wheel.

A few weeks later, Olshey took Lillard with the No. 6 overall pick, and Lillard has shown the same traits both on and off the court as he has become on of the NBA’s marquee players.

Which brings us to January, and Collins, and Olshey’s latest moment.

The scene was the University of Portland’s Chiles Center and the event was Gonzaga at Portland, where Olshey and assistant general manager Bill Branch went to scout Collins.

At the time, the Blazers were scuffling through a disappointing season, were out of the playoff picture, yet to inflicted with Nurkic Fever. They were targeting lottery picks and were unsure whether they would find a target at the West Coast Conference game.

But soon, they saw a 7-footer who had a nice shooting touch. He also defended. He was also tough and competitive. Then, there was one play that sealed it. It wasn’t as subtle as the McCollum or Lillard moments, but it was enough to turn him from prospect to target.

“He caught a ball on the left block, got doubled teamed, and threw a behind-the-back, no-look pass,’’ Olshey said.

He turned to Branch.

“I said, OK Billy, we can go home,’’ Olshey said. “We’re done. Top 10 pick. We knew right then.’’

**

Funny thing is, in one way, Collins beat Olshey to the punch when determining his fate.

In October of 2012, when Collins was 14, he was playing the NBA 2k video game, which enables you to create yourself as a player. Collins created his profile and entered the video game’s draft.

He was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 11th overall pick, which he captured with a photo and tweeted.

As he remembers, Collins that season with the Blazers on the video game won the Rookie of the Year.

“Possibly MVP,’’ Collins said.

Nearly five years later, Collins acknowledged that video games are easier than real basketball, but that didn’t stop him from aspiring to match his 2012 “award.”

“I don’t see why I cant be the Rookie of the Year,’’ Collins said.

While Olshey touted the Las Vegas-native as a franchise-level building block, he also cautioned that Collins might take some time to make an impact, especially on a deep  and experienced team like the Blazers.

Still, Olshey offered a glowing assessment.

“He’s the whole package,’’ Olshey said. “He’s a big-time rim protector, a great one-on-one defender, a big time post defender, he can really pass it … he can stretch the floor, score over both shoulders … he’s everything you look for in a big man in our league today.’’

**

By Thursday morning, Olshey and his staff knew they wanted Collins, but weren’t sure he was attainable. The Blazers owned the 15th, 20th and 26th picks and long knew Collins wouldn’t last until the 15th pick based in part by their inability to get him to Portland for a workout.

“We had no shot to get him in (to Portland for a workout),’’ Olshey said. “There was no way he was going to be there at 15. I think we got lucky he got to 10.’’

Olshey figured the key would be Sacramento at 5 and New York at 8. If the Kings didn’t get a point guard with the No. 5 pick, the conventional wisdom was they would use 10 to pick either Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith. But once Boston drafted Jayson Tatum at No. 3, it opened the way for the Kings to take point guard De’Aaron Fox at five, giving them flexibility to explore trades.

And when Ntilikina went to the Knicks at eight – not Malik Monk like some had projected – he knew it was time to pounce at the chance to get Collins.

So Olshey swapped 15 and 20 with the Kings for No. 10.

“He’s the only guy we would move both picks to get,’’ Olshey said.

In reality, Olshey’s anxiety about Collins started in March as Collins started taking on a bigger role in Gonzaga’s run through the conference and NCAA tournaments.

“He just kept playing better and better, and we kept getting more and more frustrated, knowing the more minutes he got, the more the rest of the country was going to catch up,’’ Olshey said.

In the end, Olshey followed his gut and that feeling from January, and got his man.

The plan is to play Collins as a backup to Jusuf Nurkic, and perhaps at times alongside Nurkic against bigger lineups.

Collins says he doesn’t want to pigeon-hole himself as a center or a power forward, he just wants to play, improve, and mostly, win. Other than that, he says he doesn’t know much about the team outside of the latest players who Olshey had a “feeling” about -- Lillard and McCollum.

“I just know they are a tough team and they don’t really back down from anybody – and those are traits I grew up with and those are part of my game as well,’’ Collins said. “I think … I can fit in perfectly there.’’

Trail Blazers may have addressed several needs with draft picks

Trail Blazers may have addressed several needs with draft picks

If you want to go down a checklist of things the Trail Blazers could have sought in the 2017 draft that would make their team better, it might go this way:

  • Outside shooting in the front court.
  • Rim protection.
  • Overall defensive improvement.
  • Toughness.
  • More players who can pass.

And after the draft, you might just be able to put a checkmark next to all those categories.

Portland traded two first-round picks for Gonzaga center/forward Zach Collins at No. 10 and then selected Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan at No. 26.

Collins, a seven-footer, doesn't lack for confidence, calmly telling the Portland media via conference call, "I don't see why I can't be rookie of the year."

Neil Olshey, Portland's director of basketball operations, called him "a franchise-level building block" and pushed Collins as a rim-protector, one-on-one defender, pick-and-roll defender and gritty competitor. "We got lucky he got to 10," Olshey said.

Swanigan, a 6-9 forward who can pass and make threes, is known for what is now his rags-to-riches story of attending 15 different schools and living in homeless shelters before getting his weight under control and his life together. "An incredible kid... a great story," Olshey said.

If social media is any indication (and it's not always) the Blazer fan base came away from draft night with a degree of disappointment. There was no blockbuster trade involving Jimmy Butler or Paul George and no drafting of any of the available Oregon Ducks.

But Olshey is sticking to the plan he's had since taking over this roster. "At the end of the day, we have to do what's right, long-term," he said.

The Blazers have built around Damian Lillard and his career arc. The idea is to accumulate players around Lillard's age or younger, then grow them together and be ready as a team for a championship run when Lillard reaches his peak.  Collins is still 19 and Swanigan turned 20 just a couple of months ago so both will need development time.

But front-court players who can make threes, pass and defend always have a shot at playing time. Collins, I would expect, has a real shot at earning rotation minutes as a rookie. Swanigan is one of those players who doesn't quite fit a position but is what Olshey called "a basketball player" -- and the league is shifting more and more to players who don't necessarily fit a stereotype.

How will it work out? Nobody really knows... but it's going to be fun to watch.

2017 Draft Profile: Oregon forward Jordan Bell

2017 Draft Profile: Oregon forward Jordan Bell

Jordan Bell

Oregon Junior

Age: 22

Height: 6'9"

Weight: 227

Wingspan: 6'11 ¾"

Season Averages: 11.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists  

Fun Fact: Bell is the all-time leading shot-blocker in Oregon basketball history with 221 career blocks.
 

***For even more information on Jordan Bell check out the Draft Profile video above.

2017 Draft Profile: UNC small forward Justin Jackson

2017 Draft Profile: UNC small forward Justin Jackson

Justin Jackson

North Carolina Junior SF

Age: 22

Height: 6'8"

Weight: 193

Wingspan: 6'11"

Season Averages: 18.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists

Fun Fact: According to goheels.com, if Jackson wasn't playing basketball he would like to try and master ping pong.
 

***For even more information on Justin Jackson check out the Draft Profile video above.

Bringing some 'dog' to the Blazers: Jordan Bell says he would be a good fit in Portland

Bringing some 'dog' to the Blazers: Jordan Bell says he would be a good fit in Portland

Playing last season in Eugene, Jordan Bell was able to catch just enough Trail Blazers games to know that he would be a good fit for Portland should they select him in Thursday’s NBA draft.

“I think I fit very well,’’ the Ducks’ forward said. “Obviously, the (Blazers’) bigs weren’t as tough this year, in my opinion, so I think I could bring that dog to this team. Be the tough guy on defense ... ancoring the defense.’’

Bell, who on Monday worked out for the Blazers, said he thinks he will be drafted anywhere from 18th to 31st. He said he knows that Indiana and Atlanta have shown interest, and if he could choose a dream scenario, he would be picked by one of the Los Angeles teams (his hometown) or the Blazers.

The Blazers own the 15th, 20th and 26th picks.

“That would be the best,’’ Bell said of the prospects of Portland selecting him. “I like the rain, the weather and the people around here are some of the nicest I’ve met. ‘’

Bell said Thursday was his 12th and final workout with NBA teams, and he rated his Blazers’ workout among his best. He competed against North Carolina wing Justin Jackson, Cal forward Ivan Rabb, Kansas State forward Wesley Iwundu and international 7-footer Isaiah Hartenstein.

“I didn’t shoot it as well as I wanted to, but playing, it’s probably one of my best performances,’’ Bell said. “Just the way I played – matchups, the way I defended on the ball, switching, off the ball, the energy I played with … I just played within  myself.’’

Bell’s stock seems to be on the rise as Thursday’s draft nears, as he has gone from a mid-second round projection to as high as a late-first rounder in some mocks.

He boasts that his resume is unique in that it is straight-forward and no frills: He is a versatile defender, comfortable guarding anyone from a point guard to a center, and he will arrive to a team willing to do whatever it takes to win.

“I get more of a thrill blocking a shot than making a shot,’’ Bell said.

He said his approach and his style of play is molded largely by Golden State star Draymond Green.

“All my life people have said they don’t know what position I am, they don’t know what I do well ,’’ Bell said. “Same thing with (Draymond Green): you don’t know what position he is … 6-7, can guard 1 through 5 , a real defensive force, offensively whatever the team needs to win, finding shooters, understanding his role, knowing his personnel around him.’’

Bell, who is listed at 6-foot-9 and 224 pounds, said he has been working on the NBA corner three, but said he doesn’t expect to play outside of his talents after averaging 10.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks as a junior for the Ducks, when he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

“I think a lot of people coming out of college were top scorer – averaging 20 and then they have to adapt to a role,’’ Bell said. “Me, exactly what I did in college is exactly what teams are going to ask me to do. They are not going to ask me to stop shooting the ball, because I already don’t shoot the ball. They are just going to ask me to keep defending, blocking shots and playing within myself.’’

2017 Draft Profile: Cal PF Ivan Rabb

2017 Draft Profile: Cal PF Ivan Rabb

Ivan Rabb

Cal Sophomore PF/C  

Age: 20

Height: 6'10"

Weight: 215

Wingspan: 7'1 ½"

Season Averages: 14.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists

Fun Fact: Growing up Rabb lived right across the street from Trail Blazers’ star Damian Lillard in their Oakland neighborhood.  Rabb talked about Lillard at the NBA Combine in May and told CSNNW, 'I’ve been knowing him for a time and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to know him a little more.'

 

***For even more information on Ivan Rabb check out the Draft Profile video above.

Blazers bring in the big guns days before the Draft

Blazers bring in the big guns days before the Draft

It's NBA Draft week! And the Trail Blazers are flexing their muscles three days before the Draft by bringing in some high flyers: Justin Jackson, Jordan Bell and Ivan Rabb.

Jackson, who played on the National Champion North Carolina Tar Heels, won the ACC Player of the Year Award, leading UNC with 18.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He is a projected top-20 pick. 

Former Duck Jordan Bell is at Monday's workout, as well. His Draft stock has been climbing since the NBA Combine where he registered the fastest shuttle run time in Combine history. The PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Bell averaged 10.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game as a junior. He is a projected late first-round to early second round pick. 

Rabb, an early entrant into this year's Draft, has a special connection to Blazers Damian Lillard. The 6'10" forward grew up across the street from the Blazers point guard and went to hometown UC Berkeley where he averaged 14 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. 

Isaiah Hartenstein, who played for Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania but was born in Eugene, Oregon, also provides some intrigue into Monday's list of pre-draft workout attendees. 

Here's the Draft profiles of each:

 

2017 Draft Profile: Zalgiris International C/PF Isaiah Hartenstein

2017 Draft Profile: Zalgiris International C/PF Isaiah Hartenstein

Isaiah Hartenstein

Zalgiris International C/PF

Age: 19

Height: 7'0"

Weight: 225

Wingspan: 7'2 ¼"

Season Averages: 1.0 point, 0.8 rebounds and 0.2 assists in five games played while averaging 3.2 minutes per contest  

Fun Fact: Isaiah Hartenstein was born in Eugene where his father Flo was a stand-out basketball player for the Oregon Ducks.  Isaiah spent the first 11 years of his life in Eugene before his family moved to Germany for Flo’s professional career.
 

***For even more information on Isaiah Hartenstein check out the Draft Profile video above.

2017 Draft Profile: Duke SG Luke Kennard

2017 Draft Profile: Duke SG Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard

Duke Sophomore SG

Age: 20

Height: 6'6"

Weight: 202

Wingspan: 6'5 ¼"

Season Averages: 19.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists

Fun Fact: In addition to Kennard being a big time scorer on the basketball court, he was also one of the top high school quarterbacks in the state of Ohio.

 

***For even more information on Luke Kennard check out the Draft Profile video above.