Jason Quick

Al-Farouq Aminu and his 'monster' start propelling Blazers

Al-Farouq Aminu and his 'monster' start propelling Blazers

INDIANAPOLIS – As Al-Farouq Aminu dressed quietly, and away from the cameras and microphones that surrounded his more high-profile teammates Friday, his name was being attached to several adjectives around the Trail Blazers locker room.

Maurice Harkless called him a “monster.”

Coach Terry Stotts called Aminu an “unsung” player.

And CJ McCollum called him the “glue” that keeps the Blazers together.

Pick any of those descriptions, and Aminu has been that and more in the first two games of this Blazers season.

On Friday, he was a steady force in helping the Blazers dispatch Indiana 114-96, amassing 16 points and 16 rebounds while playing his usual steady defense.  That came on the heels of a five-point, 12-rebound performance in the season-opening win at Phoenix.

“If we get him to play like that all season,’’ McCollum mused, “we will be special.’’

Aminu has long been one of the more under-appreciated players on the Blazers, in part because he is a quiet sort, and in part because often his contributions are not adequately measured by statistics.

He is one of, if not the best, defenders on the Blazers. He is able to switch liberally from guards to forwards and he offers probably the best help defense on the team. 

So far this season, the 6-foot-9 Aminu has also been an elite rebounder. His 14 rebound average through two games is sixth best in the NBA, but he is the only rebounder in the top 10 who is shorter than 6-foot-10.

So how does a 6-foot-9 player dominate the boards?

According to Aminu, much of it mental.

“You have to think every shot is going to be off,’’ he said. “Then go after everything.’’

Another aspect, Aminu says, is to go into a game with a defensive approach, something he has adopted since he signed a four-year, $30 million free agent deal in 2015.

“If I go into a game thinking I’m going to score 100 points, then that’s all that’s on my mind, ‘’ Aminu said. “But if I go in thinking I’m going to hold my guy to zero points, then that’s what is on my mind. You have to challenge yourself defensively; that’s half the battle.’’

And it was a battle on Friday that Aminu won more often than not. His 16 rebounds were the most he has recorded in his two-plus seasons as a Blazer and four off his career high.

“It seemed like every time I looked up, he was grabbing a rebound,’’ Damian Lillard said.

His final stat line didn’t go unnoticed around the locker room.

“That was crazy. Crazy,’’ Evan Turner said. “He is balling out. His energy is at a high level and we need it. Most of those are defensive rebounds, and if we don’t get those, we are in big trouble. You give any NBA team more than one possession and it will be along night.’’

It’s not like Aminu’s value is a revelation. Last season, when he missed 19 games with calf and back injuries, the Blazers’ defense nose-dived to the worst in the league. While much of the Blazers’ late-season turnaround was credited to the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic, a nuanced reason was also Aminu rounding back into shape to shore up the defense.

“He’s the glue. He is awesome,’’ McCollum said. “He does a lot of the dirty work and doesn’t get a lot of credit. Gets a lot of rebounds. Plays defense. Switches … makes threes for us. He’s big.’’

He will have to be big Saturday night for the Blazers in Milwaukee. Aminu figures to be one of the Blazers’ wings who will be charged with slowing down the Bucks’ do-it-all star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is leading the NBA in scoring at 35.5 points a game to go along with 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists.

Today's Blazers' links:

The Talkin' Ball panel discusses Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler being dropped from the Top 50 list. 

Casey Holdahl of the Trail Blazers' writes about the post game of Evan Turner

The Indianapolis Star writes about Caleb Swanigan being a steal in the draft.

Bleacher Report takes a look at whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the game. 

 

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense

INDIANAPOLIS – The Trail Blazers rolled past their second straight opponent Friday night, this time a 114-96 dusting of the Indiana Pacers, and once again all anyone wanted to talk about was the Blazers’ improved defense.

Portland is 2-0 in the regular season, and dating back to the preseason has won seven in a row, all of the games examples of a connected, alert and active defense.

“We’re playing defense,’’ Al-Farouq Aminu said when asked what he likes most about the Blazers’ start. “I mean, in the past it hasn’t been one of our strongest suits, and this year, top to bottom, everybody is playing defense.’’

So how can a roster where 12 of the 14 players are the same as last season make what appears to be such a dramatic turnaround?

The answer is layered, but may best be explained with two simple concepts: The Blazers, Aminu says, are talking more on defense; and that communication is happening, CJ McCollum says, because the players are finally seasoned enough to know what to talk about on defense.

“Early on in your career you don’t talk because you don’t know,’’ McCollum said. “What do you say? If you don’t know what is going on, what do you talk about?’’

When teams bring up defensive communication, it could be anything from recognizing and then anticipating another team’s play, to calling out screens, to letting teammates know where they have help.

They are subtle developments that come through film study, game experience and repetition.

McCollum, for example, says as he begins his fifth season, he is talking more than ever.

“A lot more,’’ McCollum said. “My rookie year, I didn’t say anything, I was just trying not to vomit on myself … going down the court just trying to stay in the right spot and try not to mess up.  Think about it, you are young, you don’t know. All I know is: ‘Go score.’ That’s it.’’

The Blazers for the past three seasons have been among the youngest in the NBA. But that youth has experience. Damian Lillard has been a starter going on six seasons. McCollum is going on his third season as a starter. And Aminu and Harkless are beginning their third season where they are paired as interchangeable defensive forwards.

So even though Portland starts this season with the fourth youngest roster in the NBA (24.317 years), it is a roster that has not only played a lot of games, but done it together.

So now, Lillard and McCollum can recognize a team’s play call and can better anticipate where they need to be. And Harkless and Aminu are doing a better job communicating where and when their help is coming from the weakside.

“The big change that I’ve noticed is just how much we are talking,’’ Aminu said. “Guys are saying the coverages … and it becomes contagious.’’

After two games, Blazers' opponents have combined to shoot 37.7 percent from the field.

But that doesn't mean the Blazers’ defense is a finished product, or that there still aren’t lapses.

On Friday in Indiana, on the Pacers’ second offensive play, forward Bojan Bogdanovic went backdoor on Maurice Harkless for a layin. Irritated he wasn’t alerted to a back screen, Harkless motioned with his hands that his teammates needed to talk to him.

Still, coach Terry Stotts was pleased Friday with the overall defensive effort, particularly the team’s transition defense, which has been a point of emphasis.

And while nobody is going to confuse the Blazers’ first two opponents – Phoenix and Indiana – with a playoff-caliber team in the West, they are both teams that last year put up 118 points on the Blazers. That fact wasn't lost on Lillard.

"We came in here ready to guard,'' Lillard said. "We’ve had a lot of fun actually playing defense; we see what it can do for us.''

 

Trail Blazers' defense to get biggest test to date tonight against Pacers

Trail Blazers' defense to get biggest test to date tonight against Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS – So is this Trail Blazers’ defense for real, or what?

Portland on Friday night will get its best answer to date whether its defense is indeed new-and-improved when it plays at Indiana, which is coming off a 140-131 win over Brooklyn on opening night.

The Blazers’ defense looked great during the preseason, but Toronto played without DeMar DeRozan, the Clippers without Danilo Gallinari and Austin Rivers, and the Kings without four of five starters.

Then in the season opener, a 124-76 win at Phoenix, the Suns looked like a team that will vie for the worst record in the league.

It’s why coach Terry Stotts and the players have taken a cautiously optimistic approach when it comes to crowning the Blazers’ D as rehabilitated from last year’s disaster.

“It’s one game,’’ Damian Lillard cautioned after the Suns win. “I was happy to see it carry over. From camp, to preseason, then come the first road game, we did it again. We showed what we can do if we are committed to the defensive end.’’

While the Pacers figure to be a middle-of-the-road team in the East, they will be a better test than the rebuilding Suns. Plus, behind guards Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo and Corey Joseph, the Pacers are emphasizing a fast-paced approach under coach Nate McMillan.

“Nate has done an unbelievable job of letting us take the onus as point guards, and kind of let us run the show,’’ Collison told the Indy Star. “He was a point guard himself. He knows what it’s like to let us see the game, instead of micromanaging every single play. If we can play like that, call a guard game, play with one another, we will be all right.’’

The Pacers’ 140 points was the franchise’s opening night record, and if there has been a soft spot in the Blazers’ defense during the preseason and the opener, it has been in transition.

But the Blazers have been as active and connected as we’ve seen since the days when Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez vaulted Portland into the Top 10 in defense.

Stotts has repeatedly referred to this defense as “alert” and “focused” and on Wednesday in Phoenix the trio of Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu on the perimeter was as imposing collection of arms and length as I can remember from a Blazers team.

So another game, another test to see whether the Blazers really are ready to defend. Should be interesting. NBC Sports Northwest will carry the game at 4 p.m. with Rip City Live pregame show starting at 3 p.m.

Today's Blazers' links:

I wrote about Evan Turner and his defensive job on Devin Booker.

The Indy Star previewed tonight's game.

It's an Indiana homecoming for Pat Connaughton and Caleb Swanigan.

 

Evan Turner helps lock down Devin Booker, then praises Suns' rising star

Evan Turner helps lock down Devin Booker, then praises Suns' rising star

PHOENIX – If the Phoenix Suns were “embarrassed” Wednesday by the Trail Blazers, as coach Earl Watson suggested after the 124-76 defeat, Evan Turner says they can take solace in something: the will of Devin Booker.

It was a big night for Turner, who earned the spot start in place of the suspended CJ McCollum, an assignment that pitted him against Booker, of the NBA’s most promising offensive stars. The marquee defensive assignment was what Turner wanted, and it was a spotlight start to his quest to become All-NBA Defense this season.

“I think I did great,’’ Turner said matter-of-factly after Booker was held to 6-of-17 shooting and 12 points – more than 10 points below his season average last season.

But Turner wasn’t boasting. In fact, he wanted to talk more about Booker than himself.

What stood out to Turner was the way Booker kept fighting on a night that was frustrating both on a personal level and a team level. The Blazers led by as many as 58 and Booker could never get anything going, constantly running into the swarming arms of Turner, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, or the mobility of big man Jusuf Nurkic.

“Sometimes when you have young kids who don’t win ever, it seems like they become content with it,’’ Turner said. “But I think he has a next level, where he wants to win.’’

Turner could sense the frustration of the 20-year-old throughout the night, and it impressed him.

“He cares. I think that’s what I respect about him the most,’’ Turner said. “You go up against certain young guys in the league and they are … they get (an) NBA (attitude) … but I think that kid genuinely cares.’’

Turner said before the season he wanted to publicize his NBA All-Defense aspirations, much like Draymond Green did, in order to draw attention to his work on that side of the ball.

“I think it would be cool, and it’s an attainable goal,’’ Turner said. “Obviously, you have to put it out there first so the masses can get the idea to watch you play defense. You saw Draymond lobby for Defensive Player of the Year for four years, and he just finally got it.

“But sometimes, when it comes down to it, I think I’m an underrated defender. I will slide from guarding a 5-foot-9 guy to a 6-9 guy. So, I don’t know what it takes to be called elite, but I think I can be an elite defender in this league,’’ Turner said.

Wednesday against Booker and the Suns was a nice addition to his defensive portfolio, but Turner wanted to make sure his satisfaction with his defense wasn’t taken as a slight on Booker.

“I mean, not to knock the kid … he is super talented, super good - everything people think,’’ Turner said. “And he has a bright future because he can score in several different ways, and I think he is going to get even better. I just hope they are able to turn the corner. He has to understand there are going to be nights like this, where nothing clicks. That’s just how it goes. But I definitely respect the skillset he has as well as his knowledge of the game. You don’t see that much.’’

Blazers' Maurice Harkless starts his own All-Defense campaign

Blazers' Maurice Harkless starts his own All-Defense campaign

PHOENIX – Evan Turner says he wants to be named NBA All-Defense this season, but during the Trail Blazers’ season opener on Wednesday, he found he might have some pretty stiff competition.

And it’s coming from his own teammate, Maurice Harkless.

Harkless on Wednesday had such an inspiring and dominating defensive performance that at times during the Blazers’ 124-76 victory teammates stood and applauded him, while coaches bowed in respect.

Afterward, Turner feigned offense that Harkless stole his own defensive shine.

“I know I said I want to be All-Defense, but dang, Moe looked like he was about to do it!’’ Turner said. “He was all over the place. It was actually crazy. I was like, ‘Is that Moe again? Is that Moe AGAIN?!’’

Harkless had one block and tied Damian Lillard with a team-high five deflections, but his impact went beyond what any statistic could measure. If he wasn’t ball-hawking Suns’ touted rookie Josh Jackson, Harkless was offering help to cut off lanes for scoring specialist Devin Booker. And throughout the night, he was pairing with Turner or Al-Farouq Aminu on switches, providing a seemingly impenetrable wall of arms and hands.

Perhaps most notably, with the Blazers leading 43-30 in the second quarter, Harkless denied a perimeter pass to Jackson, but just missed. He recovered quick enough to cut off his baseline drive, then poked away the ball when Jackson tried to crossover dribble.

The play happened in front of the Blazers’ bench and had everyone standing. Assistant Dale Osbourne got so hyped, he pounded Harkless’ chest several times.

“Plays like that get the whole team excited,’’ Harkless said. “Sparks everyone to play like that on defense. If that’s what I got to do, then that’s what I got to do.’’

Harkless said that sequence took him back to the playground in Queens, where he learned to like defense.

“You are making the other guy mad. It’s funny. Like after that play, (Jackson) was mad,’’ Harkless said. “I was talking trash … stuff like that is fun, it takes you back to the playground,  playing one-on-one against guys, talking trash the whole time. That’s how I learned to play basketball, so it’s still fun to me.’’

Harkless has vowed this season to be a defensive leader, and that includes not letting a quiet offensive night carry over to his defense. Wednesday was exhibit A in being a defensive leader.

After his play on Jackson in front of the Blazers’ bench, Harkless had nice transition defense to stop Jackson, then later blocked a fast-break layin attempt. That prompted assistant David Vanterpool to yell to Harkless across the court and bow in respect.

The funny thing about Harkless’ standout night was it started so poorly. He was whistled for two fouls just 2:34 into the game and had to go to the bench. Sometimes when players get in early foul trouble, it creates a tendency to be tentative when they return.

Not Harkless.

“I think I have more of a hit-first mentality, whereas before I had a hit-back mentality,’’ Harkless said. “I’m approaching this year a little bit different. That’s how I’m looking to approach every game.’’

Like Turner, who’s hoping his talk about All-Defense will draw attention to his craft, Harkless is hoping that eventually referees will catch on to his more aggressive and physical defensive style and perhaps prevent a repeat of his two early fouls.

“Eventually, the refs will see I’m just physical, and let me play,’’ Harkless said.

Today's Blazers' links:

Speaking of Harkless, Mens Fitness writes about his core workout.

I wrote about Pat Connaughton making the most of his opportunity.

Damian Lillard says the Blazers couldn't ask for better effort.

The Arizona Republic writes about the worst loss in Suns' history.

Casey Holdahl at the Blazers writes that Connaughton proves he belongs on the court, not the diamond.

Joe Freeman at The Oregonain writes about Connaughton and Harklesss leading the way.

Pat Connaughton makes the most of his opening night opportunity

Pat Connaughton makes the most of his opening night opportunity

PHOENIX – Sometimes in the NBA, all it takes is a chance, an opportunity, to show one belongs.

We saw it three years ago, as the Blazers were dying in the 2015 NBA playoffs in Memphis, and a youngster named CJ McCollum was thrown into the fire. He responded with 33 points in Game 5, catapulting him into what is now a star-studded career.

We saw it last year, when a young center named Jusuf Nurkic, left to wilt on the vine in Denver, revitalized his career and a team in Portland, after he was given a chance to start.

And Wednesday, in the Trail Blazers’ season opener, Pat Connaughton was given his chance, and the third-year guard didn’t miss it.

Connaughton hit his first five shots on the way to a 24-point performance that helped make up for the suspension of CJ McCollum and carry the Blazers to a 124-76 win at Phoenix.

“He was prepared for this moment,’’ team captain Damian Lillard said of Connaughton.

The opening night performance comes on the heels of a solid preseason where Connaughton showed he had diversified, and improved, his game. No longer just a three-point shooter, Connaughton showed in the preseason improved play-making skills, particularly his ball-handling and passing, and a comfort level befitting of an established veteran.

Coach Terry Stotts didn’t blink an eye at the performance. He half expected it.

“He’s been shooting the ball with confidence, and he showed that tonight,’’ Stotts said. “He played with a lot of poise and a lot of confidence.’’

It wasn’t just an emphatic performance, it was a timely one, too.

When Connaughton entered just 2:34 into the game to replace Maurice Harkless, who was assessed two quick fouls, the Blazers were down 7-2. It soon became 9-2, and the Blazers were looking impatient and jittery on offense, perhaps out of sync because of McCollum’s absence.

But Connaughton hit a three, then beat Phoenix in transition for back-to-back layins. Then he hit another three, giving Portland a 15-13 lead they would never relinquish.

All told, Connaughton hit 9-of-14 shots, including 4-of-7 three-pointers, prompting Lillard to shout “Pat McCollum!” in the locker room afterward. While Connaughton is unlikely to make the Blazers forget about the silky shooting of McCollum, his performance Wednesday was a start to answering how the Blazers would respond to losing Allen Crabbe in a summer trade with Brooklyn.

“Everybody was wondering where the three’s were going to come from,’’ Stotts smirked. “Pat is one of them.’’

And to think, two months ago, there was debate whether Connaughton would actually stick in the NBA, or turn his attention to baseball, where he was drafted as a pitcher by the Baltimore Orioles.

The Blazers had until Aug. 31 to decide whether to exercise a $1.4 million option on Connaughton, and after a rather pedestrian showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, it was anything but assured Connaughton would be retained by Portland.

When the Blazers did pick up the option, it set in motion a diligent workout regime. Lillard said he recounted a time when Connaughton was making 1,000 shots a day.

Connaughton said he is aided by adopting his old baseball mentality, where a player has to learn how to move on from failure. It is a sport, after all, where a hitter can fail seven times out of 10 and still be considered excellent at his craft.

“It’s having that quote-unquote baseball mentality – the short memory -- and making sure that I’m in the right positions for my teammates to make shots for them or to make plays for them and get them open shots,’’ Connaughton said. “That’s something I’ve been working on all summer and quite frankly, the last two years, so that when I got my opportunity I was able to take advantage of it.’’

Blazers' shootaround notes: Stotts mum on lineup, but do jerseys give answer?

Blazers' shootaround notes: Stotts mum on lineup, but do jerseys give answer?

PHOENIX – At Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Trail Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts declined to reveal his starting lineup for tonight’s game at Phoenix, but the jerseys his players wore went a long way to speaking for him.

Only five players were wearing black jerseys – the rest grey – when the media was allowed onto the court at the conclusion of the hour-long walk-through practice.

Those in black: Damian Lillard at point guard, Evan Turner at shooting guard, Maurice Harkless at small forward, Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward and Jusuf Nurkic at center.

No big surprises, as Turner will fill in for the suspended CJ McCollum and likely start the game guarding Suns’ rising star Devin Booker. Turner has set a goal to be named All-NBA Defense this season and what a way to make a statement than going against the player who scored 70 points last season at Boston.

Other news and notes about the opener:

Shabazz Napier: Stotts said he has seen enough in practice from Shabazz Napier to play him in tonight’s game. Doesn’t mean Napier will see time, but he is cleared medically and has shown enough to Stotts in three practices to give the coach comfort to call on him if needed. Napier injured his left hamstring on the second day of training camp and didn’t return to practice until Sunday.

The rookies: Of all the tough decisions ahead for Stotts, his biggest entering the season might be which rookie to play. A low-key development in the preseason has been the rapid improvement of rookie Zach Collins. While much attention has been given to fellow rookie Caleb Swanigan, who started the preseason with a bang, Collins has quietly impressed to the point where he could command playing time over Swanigan.

Meyers Leonard: The Blazers' big man said he understands that he will not be in the rotation to open the season, and says he has adopted a “be ready” mentality.

“I thought I had a really good training camp, and for the most part in the preseason I thought I was solid,'' Leonard said.  "I didn’t like the Toronto game, but outside of that, I felt I was very focused and shot the ball well and definitely improved with defensive rebounding.

“But it’s an uphill battle. I can say that I didn’t give them a reason last year to have trust  me … so I’m going to take it day by day,’’ Leonard said.

Stotts and Leonard chatted briefly this week about his role and Leonard says he is in a good place mentally.

“That’s one thing I’ve come to understand after this summer, and coming into my 6th year is understanding the true, true professional side of things. That no matter what happens I have to stay in shape, keep working … because when number is called, you have to be ready.’’

Suns injury update: Leonard’s chances of playing Wednesday probably lessened after it appears Suns backup center Alex Len will miss the game with a sprained ankle. Len told Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic that he is “probably out” for tonight’s game beause of the left ankle sprain, but that he hopes to play Friday.

Extra work for CJ: CJ McCollum, who is suspended for tonight’s game after leaving the bench during an altercation in last week’s preseason game against the Suns, stayed after Wednesday’s shootaround to get in more court work. He is not allowed to be in the arena up to two hours before the game. 

Blazers want a good start to season - how does 12-4 sound?

Blazers want a good start to season - how does 12-4 sound?

PHOENIX – When Damian Lillard erupted for 35 points against the Clippers this preseason, he said it was to establish a “handle our business” tone to carry into the regular season.

Ten days later, Lillard and the Trail Blazers have reached opening night in Phoenix looking every bit like a team ready to handle business.

Rooted in a preseason of alert and active defense, and an effective and diverse offense, the Blazers appear to be in position to achieve one of their early goals: a successful start to the season.

How successful?

How about 12-4?

After watching this team in the preseason, I think Portland wins 12 of its first 16 games. Before you call me a homer, or optimistic, look at the schedule.

Eleven of the first 16 are at home. Nine of the 16 are against non-playoff teams from last season. On top of it all, the Blazers so far have looked deep, connected and … good.

I have Portland losing at Milwaukee, at home to Toronto, at Utah and at home to Oklahoma City. The rest are wins.

If the Blazers head into their five-game Thanksgiving trip 12-4, I think they can check off the first of their season goals: a good start.

That goal was prompted by the experience of last season, when a Blazers team with second-round playoff aspirations was nearly buried by a poor start. The Blazers scuffled in the early season, eventually dropping as many as 11 games below .500 by February before they recovered and finished 41-41 and with the final playoff spot in the West.  

This season, led by Lillard, several players have talked about the need to get off to a good start, particularly with what figures to be an ultra-competitive Western Conference.

With a promising preseason, and what appears to be a favorable schedule, don’t be surprised to see the Blazers among the league leaders.

Am I being overly optimistic?  Look at the first 16 games and tell me where you have the Blazers on the morning of Nov.19.

Today's Blazers' links:

Dwight Jaynes writes that former Blazers' broadcaster Mike Barrett is involved with group trying to bring baseball to Portland. 

The Arizona Republic takes a look at the Phoenix Suns' expectations heading into tonight's opener. 

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian notes that defense has been a focal point for the Blazers in the preseason. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Breakfast with the Blazers: Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Wednesday’s season opener figures to be quite the debut for Trail Blazers’ guard Pat Connaughton.

Not only has the third-year guard secured a spot in the rotation with a solid preseason, he also figures to play an integral part Wednesday in patching the hole left at backup point guard by the suspension of CJ McCollum.

Coach Terry Stotts on Monday said it is likely either Connaughton or Evan Turner will initiate the offense at Phoenix when starter Damian Lillard rests, with Shabazz Napier also a possibility providing his left hamstring is cleared by the medical staff.

“Most likely, if Pat were out there and Dame was not, I’m sure Evan would be on the court as well, so probably between Evan and Pat, whoever the point guard was not be guarding would initiate the offense,’’ Stotts said.

If initiating the offense in a season opener seems like a huge step for a guy whose future was in question until the Blazers picked up his contract option in late August, it’s really not. Stotts last season developed a comfort level with Connaughton’s smarts, versatility and steadiness, which led to him playing spot duty during some key situations.

Of course, there is a big difference between spot duty and running the offense in a season opener. The two skills that will be tested are ball handling and retention of the plays.

Connaughton said he has honed his ball handling skills over the summer, which was evident in preseason when he was able to split a blitzing double team.

“CJ has helped me a lot, Shabazz helped me a lot – just making sure ball handling is up to par with what it needs to be a two-guard in this league,’’ Connaughton said. “Not just to make plays for myself, but others.’’

As coach, Stotts said his role will be to keep Connaughton out of a scenario where he is pressured full court.

“I’m comfortable with Pat handling the ball,’’ Stotts said. “If he has a ball-hawking defender like Patrick Beverley, or somebody like that guarding him, I wouldn’t want to put him in that situation. But if he is out there and can bring the ball up and initiate the offense without a lot of pressure, yeah.’’

When it comes to knowing the playbook, there are no worries. Teammates have often said Connaughton knows the role all five players have on each play.

“I know where everyone needs to be, not just myself,’’ Connaughton said, noting the Blazers put in a couple new plays Monday that he will have to review. Coming from the other sports I played, you have to have a high mental IQ when it comes to the athletic side of things, and it’s better to know where everyone is going to be rather than just where you are going to be … you want to be able to pick guys up.’’

While part of Connaughton’s appeal is his versatility, nobody expected he would be in this role for opening night. But McCollum, who is the Blazers’ starting shooting guard and backup point guard, was suspended Sunday for walking onto the court during a preseason altercation, creating a void.

The unexpected opening night role is just another opportunity for Connaughton, whose $1.4 million option wasn’t picked up until Aug. 31. When Allen Crabbe was traded to Brooklyn in July, it opened up 29 minutes in Stotts’ rotation, some of which will go to Connaughton, who earned them by embracing what he envisions as a jack-of-all-trades role.

“Whatever is needed,’’ Connaughton said in describing his role. “Just making sure I can get guys the ball in spot they want to get it, hopefully take pressure of Dame, CJ, ET, guys who always have the ball in pick and rolls, things like that …  and make shots and defend.’’

And for a night, help out at backup point guard.

Today's Blazers' links:

My Inside the Blazers podcast includes an interview with Evan Turner.

Damian Lillard knocked off a bucket list item.

ESPN has the Blazers ranked 14th in its opening day power rankings.

The Oregonian's Mike Richman writes that Connaughton has gone from towel-waver to rotation player.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman writes on the Blazers' improved defense.

The Trail Blazers' Casey Holdahl and Freeman recorded their Rip City Report.

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener

Breakfast with the Blazers: Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener

Perhaps the most pressing subplot to the Trail Blazers season opener is the health of injured point guard Shabazz Napier.

With CJ McCollum suspended for Wednesday’s opener in Phoenix, the Blazers are not only losing their starting shooting guard and a player who averaged 23.0 points a game last season, they are also losing their backup point guard.

That’s why the progress of Napier is something worth monitoring over the next two days.

“Probably more than anything will be the minutes when Dame (Lillard) is out of the game,’’ coach Terry Stotts said Sunday in addressing the complications created by McCollum’s suspension for leaving the bench during a preseason altercation on the court. “That’s the obvious (question), is how will we manage those minutes?’’

Normally, Stotts would just turn to Napier, the fourth-year point guard who came on strong at the end of last season. But Napier has been sidelined with a left hamstring injury since Sept. 27, the team’s second day of training camp.

Napier on Sunday practiced for the first time since suffering the injury, but his participation was limited by the medical staff, who wants to ease him back into action.

“They say each day I will get to do five or 10 minutes longer, ‘’ Napier said. “But supposedly, I’m going to be ready for the start of the season, so I’m excited about that.’’

Stotts says he will be in a wait-and-see mode during the next two practices before penciling Napier into the opening night rotation. After all, Stotts said the plan was to have Napier play last week during the Blazers’ three-game preseason trip, but Napier was never cleared by the medical staff.

If Napier is not cleared for Wednesday, Stotts will most likely have to use Evan Turner, and possibly Pat Connaughton at point guard in the 8-to-12 minutes Lillard figures to rest.

Napier hopes Stotts isn’t left with that dilemma.

Napier said he can explode off his left leg and that he doesn’t feel any limitations when he plays. He said the team is taking a “preventative” approach to make sure the hamstring doesn’t become a nagging, season-long injury.  But in his mind, he is ready, and he is treating the Monday and Tuesday practices as if it were the regular season.

“I just have to make sure when I’m out there in practice that I take those reps as game reps, offensively and defensively,’’ Napier said.

Napier said missing the entire preseason, while not ideal, doesn’t worry him.

“It will be different, because preseason is a way to get your legs back, and show what you can do to help the team, but at the end of the day, it’s still basketball, and I’ve been doing that all my life,’’ Napier said.

Napier last season averaged nearly 10 minutes while appearing in 53 games, including starts in the final two games, when he had 32 points against San Antonio and 25 points against New Orleans. For the season, he averaged 4.1 points and 1.3 assists.

Today's Blazers' links:

Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune recaps CJ McCollum's thoughts on his suspension

KATU has a nice tidbit on the Blazers brightening the day of a teen recovering from an accident.

Maurice Harkless was behind the camera lens Sunday, taking photos of the Timbers.