The Portland Trail Blazers didn’t make much noise during free agency this off-season. They made some solid signings, but none that really moved the needle. As Damian Lillard enters his 10th season with the team, the pressure is on to make a deep playoff run while Lillard is still in his prime. Portland is banking on new Head Coach Chauncey Billups to have an immediate impact and for some of the current players to take that next step in their game. CJ McCollum looked like he was taking another step in his game prior to his injury. Which players have the most potential to breakout if given an opportunity this year?
After being one of the top-ranked recruits coming out of high school, the Trail Blazers were able to steal Nassir Little with the 25th overall selection in the 2019 NBA draft. He fell to the Blazers mostly because of having a limited role in his freshman season at North Carolina. Scouts viewed Little as a project due to his raw athletic game. Little was a one-and-done prospect who has yet to really make his way consistently into Portland’s rotation due to the team being in a win-now mode and his game remaining relatively raw. After showing promising signs in the minutes he did get last season, he’s in a solid position to take that third-year leap we’ve seen many other NBA players like CJ McCollum and Pascal Siakam make. Little’s stats from last season won’t blow you away, averaging 4.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per game on 46/35/80 shooting splits in just over 13 minutes a night, but in games where Little was allowed to play through mistakes and get in a rhythm, we saw him put together some promising performances. The biggest example of this was against the Bucks in February where he dropped 30 points.
The most significant area of improvement we saw from Little was in his jump shot. It looked far more fluid as his three point shooting percentage rose from 23.7% to 35.0%. Little has enormous potential as a slasher and defender due to his athletic ability. He can get a bit lost on defense but expect this to get better with experience. He possesses the physical tools to be an elite defender at the NBA level. It’s hard to gauge his slashing ability at this point in his career, as he mainly acted as a spot-up shooter under previous Head Coach Terry Stotts. Whenever we saw a backdoor cut or lob thrown to Little, he looked to be an adept finisher and that is something the new coaching staff should look to develop.
After the departure of Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Jones Jr, minutes should be available at the wing position. Little will have to earn these minutes over other newly acquired wings such as Tony Snell and Larry Nance Jr. With Portland’s recent defensive struggles, it opens the door for Nassir Little to break into the Blazers rotation this upcoming season.
Last season, we witnessed Anfernee Simons grow in confidence game by game as he received another season of consistent minutes as Portland’s backup guard behind Lillard and McCollum. While his overall per game numbers looked similar to the season prior, Simons was far more efficient, particularly from behind the three point line. He went from being a 33.2% three point shooter to one of the best in the league, shooting an impressive 42.6% on 4.4 attempts per game from beyond the arc. As things stand right now, unless someone challenges Simons for minutes, he may be the only guard off the bench this upcoming season.
Simons has the tools to take a jump. For him, it’s about putting it all together and becoming more consistent. We’ve seen flashes of Simons using his athleticism on the defensive end, including a couple month stretch last season where he was arguably one of Portland’s best defenders. While he has struggled creating for others as a true point guard, he was often asked to lead a stagnant second unit under Stotts. However, with his supreme athleticism and elite three point shooting, if Simons can continue with his personal progression along with increased opportunities, it’s looking to be another career year for the 22-year-old combo guard.
There’s no denying that Jusuf Nurkić wasn’t happy with his role on both sides of the floor. Following the Blazers’ defeat to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, he was asked if he wanted to be back next season. He replied, “In the right situation, yes.” The following question asked was, what would be the right situation? Nurkić answered, “We’ll see. I don’t know yet because this is not it.” Nurkić went on to express his desire for a more prominent role on the team, “I think I could help even more… I was really respectful and trying to do what they (the coaching staff) asked of me.” Stotts became known for his sets being perimeter-centric, with little penetration, leaving slashers and skilled interior players like Nurkić with a diminished role on offense.
While Nurkić doesn’t possess the statistics and accolades that’ll jump out at you, his impact should not be overlooked. He’s an integral piece to the Blazers defense. When Nurkić played last season, the Blazers had a defensive rating of 113.1, without him their defensive rating was 120.1. Nurkić isn’t blessed with elite athletic ability, but he’s smart with his positioning, a solid pick-and-roll defender, and acts as the anchor to this Blazers defense.
In terms of assists, the Blazers have consistently been in the bottom five of the league. However, Nurkić has frequently shown his impressive passing ability, hitting backdoor cuts and making plays from the elbow or low post. Unfortunately, he’s yet to average more than four assists per game. With Billups emphasizing that there will be better ball movement this season, we may see Nurkić receive more responsibility as a facilitator, similar to bigs like Nikola Jokić and Domantas Sabonis.
Nurkić having a career year this season comes down to his ability to stay healthy. In his first two full seasons in Portland, Nurkić was relatively healthy until right before the end of that second season. In 2019, he suffered a gruesome left leg injury. Last season a fracture in his wrist led to missing 35 games. Keeping the big man in the lineup and available for a majority of the season is crucial for this team.
There also remains room for improvement in Jusuf Nurkić’s efficiency. Last season Nurkić shot 51.4% from the field, with a 55.4% true shooting percentage. These aren’t poor shooting numbers, but when comparing them to other centers around the league, he can take a huge leap if he becomes a better finisher. On the other hand, Nurkić looked the most confident he’s been in his career from deep. Like many centers who extend their range beyond the arc, Nurkić took his first step to being a three-point threat by taking nearly one three pointer a game. It’s an extremely small sample size, but he showed some promise for the future, hitting 40% of his attempts on the season.
The ceiling of the 2021-22 Portland Trail Blazers will largely be dependent on the growth of those three players. At least one of them has to take a big step. If all three are able to take significant jumps in their productivity, then the Blazers could find themselves leaping towards championship contention.