Obviously everyone on the Blazers needs to improve their overall defense but here is one specific skill I would like to see each player work on or add to their game this off-season. Hassan Whiteside, Carmelo Anthony, Caleb Swanigan, and Wenyen Gabriel are all free agents so I didn’t include them in this article.
Damian Lillard: Learn to throw pinpoint lob passes.
Dame averaged a career high 8.0 assists per game in the 2019-20 season which was good for 5th in the league. In the limited games Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins played in they both struggled to finish around the rim and catch passes in traffic. Dame can’t shoot for them but he does have an opportunity to make things so easy on his big men that they’ll automatically make more shots and that is by becoming a better lob passer. A good lob pass allows the recipient of the pass to just locate the ball and dunk it which removes a lot of thinking or maneuvering around defenders out of the equation.
After LaMarcus Aldridge got familiar playing with Andre Miller and Marcus Camby, both good lob passers, his points per game jumped 3.9 points from 17.9 to 21.8 and one of the main reasons for that is getting one or two alley-oop dunks each game. Nurk averaged 17.6 points in the 8 seeding games so if Dame can find a way for him to get a similarly easy basket or two per game then Nurk could easily become an efficient 20 point per game scorer. Collins has had a really difficult time in the NBA so far catching passes especially on the move towards the basket and he also has a tendency to over pump fake instead of just shooting right away when he catches the ball. Dame can help them out by waiting just an extra second and throwing passes up near the rim instead of the dump off bounce passes he usually does in pick and roll situations. Also, when Nurk or Collins are situated near the free throw line there are times throughout the game where their defender is overplaying and if Dame recognizes this he can make eye contact with his big and they can just spin towards the basket and Dame just needs to throw an accurate pass for an easy two points. We saw this in prior seasons with Evan Turner connecting with Jake Layman so I know Dame can do it too, especially with the chemistry he has with Nurk.
CJ McCollum: Use penetration more as a playmaker instead of as a scorer.
We’ve seen CJ put up big numbers in games where Dame is out both in scoring and passing. He’s become one of the best ball handlers in the entire NBA and a prolific mid-range scorer. Following CJ’s breakout 3rd season, his assist percentage (number of teammate shots assisted on) had plummeted each of the next 3 seasons from 21.6% in 2015-16 all the way down to 13.6% in 2018-19. This season it went back up for the first time since that 2015-16 season to a respectable 19.1%. For perspective, Dame had an assist percentage of 34.4% this year. Now unless CJ gets his own team he’s never going to approach that 34.4% number but it would be nice if he improved somewhere closer to 25%. CJ can accomplish this using his incredible ability to collapse the defense when he gets around the free throw line as a means to get teammates open looks instead of mostly just looking to shoot. If defenses start to catch on then he’ll face less coverage when he does shoot. The better shot selection will lead to both better scoring efficiency for CJ and a more effective offense that utilizes more passing and team ball.
Trevor Ariza: Become a mentor.
Trevor could be helpful by teaching some of the younger guys savvy vet moves. On recent teams Trevor is the best I’ve seen in awhile at being able to cleanly navigate through screens without losing his man or having to switch. If he could teach the rest of the roster how to do this effectively it would really improve our defense because most of the players really struggle with using the proper technique to get through picks and switch way too easily. With his championship experience he could guide this team on how to take the next step.
Zach Collins: Cut down on unnecessary fouls.
Zach needs to get healthy first and foremost but while he’s recovering he should be watching film of every game he has played to see what situations he gets himself in trouble by playing good defense but then reaching in when he doesn’t need to. I think his foul proneness is a little overstated as he averages 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes over his career. What he needs to cut down on is getting two quick fouls early in games. Usually Zach does a good job of defending vertically but he gets undisciplined at times where he doesn’t need to be.
Jusuf Nurkić: Become a better finisher inside.
This season we saw Hassan Whiteside shoot 62.1% from the field and he’s a career FG% of 58.2%. Nurk has a career 49.2% FG%. If he can get that up closer to where Whiteside was at he would be an unstoppable force and easily one of the top centers in the league. We’ve seen Nurk drastically improve his FT% over the last two seasons so it’s not unrealistic for him to get into the mid 50’s in terms of FG%. If Dame improves his lob passing as mentioned earlier, this will help Nurk achieve this. He also needs to focus on attacking the rim more often than less controllable flip shots. Trying to dunk more often will also lead to the defender fouling him and Nurk getting more attempts at the free throw line.
Anfernee Simons: Get on the CJ ball handling regimen.
CJ’s first two years in the league it looked like he would never be able to play any point guard. Even in summer league he would have a tough time getting the ball across half court against pressure. Now that seems silly since CJ has some of the best handles in the game. Moving forward if Anfernee is going to become a good rotational piece he’s going to have to develop his dribbling to an extent where he isn’t a liability being the main ball handler in the 2nd unit. He needs to ask CJ how he overcame this problem and copy his routine.
Gary Trent Jr: Develop a couple of post moves.
We saw Gary break out in a major way this season. He is already a capable 3 & D wing that I feel very confident seeing a big role next season. He plays very similarly to Wesley Matthews when he was here. Gary doesn’t have a super quick first step off the dribble like Wes so he should mimic what Wes did and that is to use his physical nature to back down defenders and score in the post if the outside shots aren’t there.
Nassir Little: Keep working on three point shooting.
Within the season Nassir’s shot went from looking very clunky to a smooth release with nice form. He had to put in a ton of work to change it that drastically during the season. I was very pleased with his defensive abilities and much like Trent this year if Nas can start hitting threes he could find his way into the rotation with a more consistent role. He should spend the entire off season trying to get up as many threes as he can every day.
Rodney Hood: Just continue rehabbing.
Hood was having an amazing year shooting the ball last year. You never know if an Achilles injury will be career threatening or if he’ll be able to regain any of his form pre-injury. The good thing is Hood uses his length more than pure athleticism so that makes me hopeful he’ll somewhat resemble the old Hood once he is healthy. I love seeing the videos of him taking steps in his recovery like dunking flat-footed off of two feet. I’m not sure if he’ll be ready to contribute at the beginning of the season or not but he seems to be taking his rehab very seriously and that should lead to him coming back towards the beginning of the season.
Mario Hezonja: Play more like a role player.
When Mario gets into trouble it’s almost always because he’s trying to make a play he just isn’t capable of making on a regular basis. It’s the same reason why Kent Bazemore struggled while on the Blazers last year too. If Mario is getting minutes it needs to be more unnoticeable. This means playing within the flow of the offense instead of trying to make plays that aren’t there. He can also really make an impact if he starts slashing and cutting to the basket more often much like Jake Layman was getting good at doing while on the Blazers.