Breakfast with the Blazers: Swanigan's toughness is latest reveal

Breakfast with the Blazers: Swanigan's toughness is latest reveal

It seems with each passing day during the Trail Blazers’ preseason, the sensation that is Caleb Swanigan grows.

Throughout Summer League, training camp and the first preseason game, the rookie big man has shown the ability to score inside, from mid-range and from beyond the three-point line. He has also been an active defender, solid rebounder and dive-on-the-court  bundle of energy.

But inside the Blazers’ locker room, never did his stock grow more than Thursday, in the second preseason game, when Swanigan displayed a trait that has been glaringly absent in this franchise since Joel Przybilla left in 2012: Toughness.

During the third quarter, Swanigan sent All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry to the floor with a screen/clear out that allowed Damian Lillard to take a three-pointer at the top of the arc. Lowry was up in arms after he was called for a foul for trying to climb over Swanigan.

Less than 30 seconds later, Swanigan was under the basket irritating Raptors’ power forward Serge Ibaka, a chiseled and well-respected veteran. Swanigan had beaten Ibaka to the ball a possession before for an offensive rebound, and this time, he knocked the ball out of Ibaka’s hands, but was called for a foul. Ibaka took exception to the repeated pestering by the rookie and let Swanigan know. Swanigan held his ground and snapped back.

The exchange led to a technical on Swanigan, who immediately began clapping.

Lillard, the Blazers’ captain who has been here five seasons, soaked it all in.

“I loved seeing it,’’ Lillard said. “Right after he got (the technical) I told him: ‘We aren’t going to take nothing.’’’

It has been something the Blazers have talked about before -- most recently at this month’s Media Day when center Jusuf Nurkic said the Blazers need to adopt the “Bad Boys” persona of the Detroit Pistons – but have never been able to back up.

They haven’t been able to back it up because for the most part, the Blazers have been a group of nice guys, players whose toughness is measured more by their work ethic and mental capacity than their brawn or physical actions.

“We have to establish that,’’ Lillard said. “I feel like since we have been here we’ve been like a team that not mean, we are not going to cause no trouble, we are (just)  going to play hard. But he’s got an enforcer type mentality,  and I told him ‘Do that. I’m not mad at you, be who you are.’ We need that kind of attitude where we are not taking nothing from nobody – preseason or not, practice or not – we are not going to take nothing, We need that attitude.’’

By now, after Summer League and more than a month of pickup games and practices, the Blazers veterans are comfortable knowing exactly what Swanigan brings. They rave about the rookie, who carries himself much like he plays on the court: straight-forward, no frills, no nonsense.

“He’s a dawg,’’ CJ McCollum said. “I like the aggressiveness. How you see him out there is how he acts every day. It’s not a front. He plays hard and I think he is passionate about the game. He’s not afraid.’’

For coach Terry Stotts, Thursday just reinforced what he has seen since Swanigan was the 26th overall pick.

“I liked his energy,’’ Stotts said. “I liked his fire.’’

Today's Blazers links:

Casey Holdahl at Trail Blazers.com talked to CJ McCollum after he signed a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

Billboard magazine talks to Damian Lillard about his new album.

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes asks: What if the Blazers played big?

https://audioboom.com/posts/6372492-inside-the-blazers-w-jason-quick-my-biggest-regret

Breakfast with the Blazers: Anthony Morrow shooting way to roster spot

Breakfast with the Blazers: Anthony Morrow shooting way to roster spot

The Trail Blazers won’t make their final roster cuts for another 7-to-10 days, but it’s hard not to think Anthony Morrow made the team Thursday night after his preseason performance against Toronto.

The 32-year-old shooting guard, who has made a nine-year NBA career out of being a sharp-shooting specialist, lived up to his reputation Thursday when he made 4-of-5 three-pointers in an eight-minute span of the Blazers’ 106-101 victory.

For a Blazers team that is lacking veterans and is wondering how it will replace Allen Crabbe’s long-range shooting, Morrow is looking like the perfect fit.

“That’s a skill that is always going to be needed,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It just shows why he is still around: He can shoot the ball.’’

Morrow is competing for the 15th and final roster spot with rookie point guard Isaiah Briscoe and former first-round pick Archie Goodwin.

The Blazers don’t need a fourth point guard, and it seemed from the start that the competition for the 15th spot would be decided either by Goodwin’s potential or Morrow’s ability to shoot.

There are still four preseason games left, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Neil Olshey wasn’t drafting up a contract late Tuesday night.

“Obviously, it helps,’’ coach Terry Stotts said when asked whether Morrow’s Tuesday performance solidified his chances of making the team. “But as I’ve said before, we will talk about him making the team – or whoever – we will talk about the 15th spot in a week in a half or two.’’

One thing is certain: Morrow wants to be in Portland, and not just because it would extend a career that has passed through Golden State, New Jersey, New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Oklahoma City. He says this group of Blazers have created the most enjoyable of the 10 training camps he has attended, and he says the Blazers’ offensive system is made for him, and reminds him of his time in Golden State, which included the 2008-2009 season, when he led the NBA with a 46.7 three-point shooting percentage.

“I thank God that they reached out to me in summertime. I knew that offense is pretty much tailor made for me, and the way I play,’’ Morrow said. “(Shooting) is what I do, and that’s what I’ve been doing the last nine years and that’s something they said they needed and wanted to give me an opportunity. So I just want to take advantage of it.’’

Morrow has been around so long that Lillard said he can remember as a high schooler going to watch the Warriors play, and seeing Morrow establish a then-career high. And Stotts said he was in the gym at the Las Vegas Summer League when Morrow scored a record 47 points.

However, a long career will inevitably raise questions. Does Morrow still have the shooting touch at age 32?

That question, players say, has been answered. Emphatically.

“I think the first day of camp, I don’t know if he missed a shot,’’ CJ McCollum said. “When he is open, he usually makes it. You can just see every shot he shoots looks good. He’s a shot maker, and that’s something we need.’’

The Blazers are also finding out that Morrow is a stand-up professional, a good guy who fits their work-hard, team-first culture.

“You know just from being around him he is a professional,’’ Lillard said. “Obviously, when he came we knew this guy is a shooter. He makes shots and we’ve seen it in practice everyday – when he shoots it and gets it off, it’s going in.

“He has an elite skill that everybody doesn’t have. Every team needs shooting, especially with us losing A.C … knowing you can rely on him, the attitude he has had … it’s a pleasure to have that kind of weapon.’’

Today's Blazers Links:

NBCS Northwest's Dwight Jaynes has some high praise for Caleb Swanigan.

Orlando Williams breaks down the heady passing from Swanigan.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman asks how the Blazers will replace Allen Crabbe?

In case you haven't heard, Damian Lillard dropped his second album on Friday.

Trail Blazers: Figuring out a starting lineup and a rotation is going to be tough

Trail Blazers: Figuring out a starting lineup and a rotation is going to be tough

First reactions to the Trail Blazers' exhibition-game loss to Phoenix Tuesday night:

  • The biggest takeaway for me was just how much talent there is on this roster. There is depth -- good players up and down the bench. Terry Stotts is going to have a difficult time finding playing time for all these players. And keep in mind, part of his mission this season will be to continue the development of the young players. Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins are part of the future of this team and every minute they get on the court is going to aid their development. But then there is the culture of earning minutes and trying to get every win possible. And don't forget that combinations matter -- they lead to balance. You don't always have your five best on the floor at all times because of issues of balance between offense and defense, rebounding and shooting -- and all things in between.
  • I wouldn't want to have to set up a rotation here because there are going to be a lot of players who may deserve more playing time than they are going to get.
  • The Blazers are going to be able to put a very big team on the floor -- but will they? In an era when just about everyone else is going with small lineups, I like the idea of going big. Be different. Make the other teams adjust to you, rather than always trying to match up with them.
  • Swanigan is already Portland's best offensive player at power forward. He may have some problems at the defensive end but it's too early to tell. Starting him wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
  • Jusuf Nurkic is improved and it's going to be fun to see just how good he can be. He's also a free spirit and I hope he can keep all that under control. Right now, he is charming, funny and different -- and I hope he stays that way. Sometimes, though, that can get on people's nerves over time.
  • Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are improving with each season and nobody seems to notice that they play off each other better each year, too. They are a great foundation for the growth of this team.

Exhibition season a time for observations, but not judgments -- yet

Exhibition season a time for observations, but not judgments -- yet

For me, as someone covering an NBA team, training camp is the most frustrating part of the season.

I'm supposed to comment on or analyze changes the team is making, update people on new players and, in general, talk about how things are looking for the upcoming season. And I have to tell you, the way things are today, that's very close to impossible to accomplish.

We don't get to watch more than a few minutes of each day's practice and what we do watch isn't enough to draw conclusions. Hence, the frustration. That's why the exhibition season is a lot more fun.

And, of course, it begins tonight with a Moda Center game vs. Phoenix that you can watch at NBCS beginning with Rip City Live at 6:30.

What will I be watching tonight?

For me, it's about player development. I never worry about that with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum because we've seen their off-season work ethic and assume they will come into each season better than they were the previous season. But here are a few other players I'll be anxious to see:

  • Jusuf Nurkic -- We already know he's lost weight but what about his game? We've heard he has improved his shooting range but I want to see what we're going to get on the defensive end. How is his rim protection going to be? His rebounding?
  • Zach Collins -- Certainly Caleb Swanigan got all the early rookie attention with his play in the summer league, but lately, there is a buzz about Collins. He's looking comfortable and confident, we hear. I want to see where he is in his development.
  • Caleb Swanigan -- This team is looking for a starter at power forward, could a rookie claim that job? I wouldn't be surprised.
  • Meyers Leonard -- Well, you know -- confidence.
  • Evan Turner -- Where will he fit? He can be a valuable contributor in the right role and I'm interested in what that will be.

Obviously, there are other players of interest but these will be my main focus for the first few games. And let me add, it's real dangerous to make snap judgments at this time of year. To the veterans, these games are just a chance to get loose and work on specific things. Don't go overboard either way on performance.

It's time for observations, not judgments.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts has preseason 'challenge' at point guard

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts has preseason 'challenge' at point guard

When the Trail Blazers open their preseason tonight against Phoenix, coach Terry Stotts admitted that his biggest task is not finding indications of who he should place in the starting lineup or even a playing rotation.

It’s keeping stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum off the court.

Because backup point guard Shabazz Napier is nursing a left quadriceps injury and will be unable to play, Stotts said the “challenge” of his night will be limiting the minutes of Lillard and McCollum.

“The concern without Shabazz is not running up Dame and CJ’s minutes,’’ Stotts said. “That’s an important thing in preseason.’’

It is unknown how long Napier will be sidelined. He has not practiced since injuring his thigh last Wednesday, but he has been seen doing light running and side-to-side movement.

Stotts said he plans to play everyone who is healthy, but he doesn’t figure anyone will play more than half of the game. Last season in the preseason opener, Evan Turner played the most (26 minutes) while Lillard played 23 minutes and McCollum 22. Napier helped ease the point guard minutes by playing 17 minutes.

Lillard, who averaged 36 minutes in the regular season last year, said limiting his minutes can sometimes be easier said than done.

 “Usually (Stotts) tries to save me from me,’’ Lillard said. “He knows once I go out there and start feeling good in the game, and get into the flow of the game, I will be like, ‘Leave me in. Leave me in.’’’

Perhaps that’s why Stotts noted Monday that “it will be a little bit of a challenge” to limit his prized backcourt on Tuesday night.

Lillard said he doesn’t see it as a problem, pointing out that shooting guard Pat Connaughton knows every position and that rookie point guard Isaiah Briscoe has been handling himself well in camp. Also, Turner could play some spot minutes at point.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pat out there handling it a bit,’’ Lillard said.

Briscoe stands the most to gain. The rookie from Kentucky is one of three players trying to win the 15th and final roster spot, along with sharp shooter Anthony Morrow and guard Archie Goodwin. He performed  very well in the team’s intra-squad scrimmage on Sunday, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists while hitting 6-of-7 shots.

Today's Blazers Links:

I wrote about Stotts' beginning his quest to find the right fit with lineups.

Willamette Week recaps an appearance Damian Lillard made on OPB.

Neil Olshey made an appearance on Courtside last night:

Here's Olshey on Jusuf Nurkic.

Here's Olshey on the Blazers' vision.

Here's Olshey on the rookies.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman previews the preseason opener.

Terry Stotts and his Trail Blazers' puzzle: Finding a fit in preseason

Terry Stotts and his Trail Blazers' puzzle: Finding a fit in preseason

The puzzle that is the 2017-2018 Trail Blazers roster will begin to be sorted out Tuesday in the preseason opener against Phoenix.

Coach Terry Stotts says he has three starters locked in for the October 18 season opener at the Suns – Damian Lillard at point guard, CJ McCollum at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center – but the starting forward spots and the rest of the rotation are up for grabs.

“I have a pretty good idea some of the lineups we will try, but I’m not sure what will be the final product,’’ McCollum said. “Coach isn’t set in stone; he’s going to let guys play for minutes, earn minutes, or lose minutes.’’

The small forward competition is between Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu while the power forward starting spot will be between Aminu, Ed Davis, Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins. Noah Vonleh, who is nursing a shoulder injury, will also be in the equation when he returns in early November.

Both Lillard and McCollum said they are most interested in how the power forward position shakes out, and Stotts said the starting power forward is probably his biggest decision.

“We have a lot of very good players at that position – a lot of them have similar skillsets,’’ Stotts said. “So, seeing which ones complement each other. I like the versatility of those guys and the different combinations, so it’s going to be interesting over the preseason games to see how they play with each other.’’

Stotts said he intends to play everybody on Tuesday, except injured players Shabazz Napier (quad), Vonleh (shoulder) and CJ Wilcox (knee). He said nobody will play more than a half and one of his main concerns is limiting the playing time of Lillard and McCollum, especially without Napier being able to handle point guard duties.

The players say several factors go into what they think should be a starting unit and the second unit.

Harkless, who has started 83 of his 156 games in Portland the past two seasons, said continuity is important. In that regard, the best lineup would probably be Harkless at small forward and Aminu at power forward.

“Any time you have a group that has been together for some time, they can only get better,’’ Harkless said. “You guys watch, (he and Aminu) are able to do so many different things defensively.  We can switch pretty much anything between us two. We both do a really good job communicating with each other so we can help other guys. We pretty much got each other’s back in any situation, and that’s important, especially defensively.’’

Stotts, who ended the 2015-2016 season and began last season with Harkless and Aminu as the starting forwards, said their track record will be noted.

“Playing Mo and Chief together has been good in the past. The last two years that has been a good combination,’’ Stotts said. “So we will take that into account.’’

Stotts has favored the Harkless/Aminu combination in the past because he likes their defensive versatility in being able to switch interchangeably.

However, last season, he eventually went to Vonleh as the starting power forward after Aminu had early season injuries to his calf and back.

“Chief got hurt and that kind of changed the dynamics of the season,’’ Stotts said.

Another factor to consider is Turner, who started to find his footing late in January once he was made the starting small forward. Turner took on the opposing team’s point guard defensively, and started getting into more of an offensive rhythm when he broke his hand at Dallas in February.

Turner says he thinks the collective intelligence of units is important when considering lineups, while also looking at whether a unit has an identifying strength.

“You have to have a sure-fire advantage in one area – whether that’s offense or defense,’’ Turner said. “You need to have something that makes that unit go, or something that makes it unique.’’

McCollum said two factors stand out to him when considering the starting lineup: balance and chemistry.

“And guys who are willing to accept roles,’’ McCollum said. “Once you get past that starge, you can pretty much elect whoever you want in those spots. A lot of times, it’s not the five best  player. Part of maturing and being a man is understanding your role, understanding how you help the team.’’

Stotts said he figures to mix-and-match lineups throughout each game, trying to find the right combinations. Tuesday will be just the start, the first of six before the real season starts.

“There are a lot of different routes we can go,’’ Lillard said.

Tuesday's game: Phoenix at Portland, 7 p.m. (NBCNW).

Breakfast with the Blazers: Fan Fest scrimmage observations

Breakfast with the Blazers: Fan Fest scrimmage observations

Some observations after the Trail Blazers’ Fan Fest scrimmage Sunday at the Moda Center, keeping in mind that is was just a intra-squad workout:

CJ’s ‘target practice’

As crazy as it sounds, it looks like CJ McCollum is primed for an even better season than last, when he averaged 23 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 42.1 percent from three-point range and an NBA-best 91.2 percent from the line.

Some of the shots McCollum made Sunday had Neil Olshey, the team’s top executive, shifting in his seat and chuckling at the absurd ease in which McCollum scored over blanket coverage. All night -- be it with his ball handling, court vision or shot making --  it seemed as if McCollum was toying with the competition.

All told, he hit 6-of-9 shots and all three of his three-pointers and finished with 15 points and the MVP trophy.

“Pretty good target practice,’’ McCollum quipped afterward.

This training camp, McCollum seems more at ease. Confidence has never, ever, been a problem for him, but in the past, it seemed like he carried an angry confidence, like he was in a rush to get recognized, or in a hurry to prove people wrong.

This season, that confidence seems more … peaceful, more comfortable.  I think that was on display pregame, when McCollum and Damian Lillard had a midcourt conversation with television broadcasters Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd.

In those settings, Lillard is usually the one who owns the stage. But on Sunday, it was McCollum who held court, telling stories about his travels to Africa, and making quips about social media posts.

To me, it looks like a young star coming into his own, as a player and a person. When that synergy happens, look out … and it’s why I think it’s possible McCollum surpasses Lillard as the team’s top scorer this season. 

The surprise

The biggest surprise Sunday was the play of guard Isaiah Briscoe, the rookie from Kentucky who is one of three players trying to win the 15th and final roster spot.

Briscoe scored 14 points and hit 6-of-7 shots while adding six rebounds, five assists and two steals.

After the game, coach Terry Stotts shrugged and said that’s what the staff has been seeing all training camp out of Briscoe. He is in competition with NBA veteran sharpshooter Anthony Morrow and guard Archie Goodwin, a 2013 first round pick – a spot I think many figure will go to Morrow – but after seeing Briscoe on Sunday that might be more of a battle than we think.

Solid Swanigan

Caleb Swanigan had 13 points and four rebounds, and what I liked best was his no-hesitation three-point attempt, which he made.

His ability to be a spacing power forward will only help him get on the floor in what figures to be the most heated position battle of the preseason. Between Swanigan, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless, and eventually Noah Vonleh when his shoulder heals, coach Stotts will have many options.

I’ve been curious this training camp how Stotts and the players view Swanigan from a spacing standpoint, and all have had basically the same response: He hasn’t shot it well the first week, but they know he can. If he can consistently hit the jumper, that will give him a better chance to be on the floor with Lillard and McCollum.

Of course, the bread-and-butter for Swanigan is his nose for the ball, and that was on display Sunday. He is not afraid to bang inside and he is one of those guys who is constantly in motion.

“What saw from Caleb is what we’ve seen for the last month: Effective scorer, tough, feels very confident on the block,’’ Stotts said.

Odds & Ends

While Swanigan has earned much of the attention and figures to be more game ready, don’t sleep on fellow rookie Zach Collins. On Sunday, Collins had a nice block on Swanigan at the rim, and word out of practices is that Collins has emerged as the team’s best rim protector … Speaking of defense, Meyers Leonard looked much better at contesting shots on Sunday. People often fixate on his shot, but for the coaches, it’s his defense that has prevented him from playing more. Leonard knows this and perhaps that’s why he was pumping himself up and talking to the crowd after holding his ground during a couple of Jusuf Nurkic’s forays into the lane … Ed Davis was really active and bouncy, which is exactly what the Blazers need from him. Next game, spend a couple possessions where you just focus on Davis and you will notice how many little things he does – keeping a ball alive, tipping a rebound to a teammate, showing help defense to cut off a drive, setting a hard screen. He makes this team better … Looks like it could be another hold-your-breath-and-pray shooting seasons for Al-Farouq Aminu. He went 0-for-4 with one airball and a near airball … Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless were late scratches to the scrimmage, but Stotts said both should be available to play Tuesday in the preseason opener against Phoenix. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Return of Ed Davis already being felt, and heard

Breakfast with the Blazers: Return of Ed Davis already being felt, and heard

Sometimes, the value of a player can’t be measured by metrics or statistics.

On the Trail Blazers, perhaps nobody exemplifies that better than Ed Davis.

Davis, you see, is not only a ferocious rebounder, intimidating defender and savvy veteran, he is also the team’s champion trash talker.

“You guys have to listen to him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He talks all day long in practice. It’s just …’’

Harkless started laughing before finishing his sentence.

“… Annoying.’’

Davis’ presence in the team’s training camp – which comes after he missed the final two months of last season because of left shoulder surgery -- has been noticeable. Both visually and audibly.

“Ed,’’ Al-Farouq Aminu said, smiling, “hasn’t missed a step on talkin’.’’

Perhaps that is why several players have said this training camp has carried an exceptional feel. Some players have noted that while the practices have been long, physical and grueling, the spirit has been fun, light-hearted and enjoyable.

And Davis, with his deadpan wit and quick-on-his-feet verbal jabs, might be the biggest reason.

“Players and coaches alike just enjoy having him out there,’’ coach Terry Stotts said.

Added Damian Lillard: “You know, practice is definitely different with Ed Davis as opposed to without Ed Davis. For me, Ed is like a big picker-upper.’’

So what is it about Davis that adds so much to the Blazers?

For starters, Evan Turner says, Davis is an old soul.

“He always says he hung out with older people, and he plays cards, so he probably picks it up at the card table,’’ Turner said. “But he’s definitely dope.’’

For Lillard, it’s not only what Davis says, but how he says it.

“It’s not loud or super aggressive, it’s just real slick. He’s a slick talker,’’ Lillard said. “If he block your shot, he’s saying something. If he guards you and you make a shot anyway, he’s like, ‘You are supposed to make that … good shot though’ then he shakes your hand.’’

CJ McCollum says that sometimes, it can be as simple as a look from Davis.

But usually, it’s something quick and clever. Last week, Davis barbed Harkless during a scrimmage. Harkless received a $500,000 bonus last season for shooting 35 percent from three-point range, which was achieved in part by not attempting a three-pointer in the final four games. During the scrimmage last week, Harkless sized up a three-pointer while Davis rushed at him with a hand up.

Harkless missed the shot, and Davis scored the dagger.

“He started walking away and said ‘Man, you gotta play the percentage: 35 on the head, 35 on the head,’’’ Harkless said, chuckling. “Stuff like that. It’s funny. He constantly talks.’’

Davis said he establishes parameters for his trash talking.

“I keep every PG, everything friendly, man. No disrespect,’’ Davis said. “Just out there having fun, that’s it. But honestly, I do it for myself. It helps me get going during practice … sometimes these practices are so long and you need something to get you going.’’

Of course, the Blazers and Davis hope his impact goes beyond keeping things light and witty in practice. Two seasons ago, before his shoulder injury, he averaged 6.5 points and 7.4 rebounds and was one of the most productive big men reserves in the NBA. His 599 rebounds was a franchise record for rebounds by a reserve.

This season, he is competing for the starting power forward job while also being a likely candidate to be Jusuf Nurkic’s backup at center.

“Just being back out there and getting timing right … It’s just fun for one,’’ Davis said. “When you are on injured reserve, you take things for granted, just being able to be at practice, laughing and joking on the sideline. It’s just not the same. Just being out there with the fellas is a good feeling.’’

 The feeling is mutual.

“For me, it’s a lot of fun because he picked up the energy level of practice,’’ Lillard said.  “The competitive level is just higher when he is out there.’’

Today: Fan Fest at Moda Center, 1 p.m. (Broadcast live on CSN)

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Sunday is Fan Fest, a free event to see team scrimmage

Breakfast with the Blazers: Sunday is Fan Fest, a free event to see team scrimmage

Sunday is the Trail Blazers’ 13th annual Wells Fargo Fan Fest, which is essentially a chance to see the Trail Blazers scrimmage for free at the Moda Center.

If you have never been to the event, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s free, first-come-first-serve on the seating, and a chance to see the Blazers’ players in a setting that is relaxed and intimate.

“It’s like they came to a practice, and we are just hoopin’ in front of them,’’ Damian Lillard said. “Like a pickup (game) … that’s pretty cool.’’

Doors open at noon and the team will scrimmage around 1 p.m., which will consist of four six-minute quarters played on a running clock except for the game’s final minute.

To receive a free ticket, click here or go to www.nba.com/blazers/fanfest.

It will be Blazers’ fans first look at rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, the first chance to see what a slimmed down Jusuf Nurkic can do on the court, and to see for themselves whether Meyers Leonard has improved.

But more than anything, it’s a chance to interact with the players and see them without the pressure of a game weighing on them.

“It’s good for the people who can’t afford to go to the games,’’ Ed Davis said. “And it’s a good chance to be up close and see us.’’

Coach Terry Stotts said he puts very little stock into what happens during the scrimmage, so don’t expect a player to win or lose a rotation spot because of what happens Sunday, but he also stressed that the event is not a time for horseplay.

“I like that our players are able to interact with the fans during certain parts of it, and from a basketball standpoint, we make it a competitive game,’’ Stotts said. “It’s not a practice, but it’s not like we are just out there screwing around. It’s a competitive game and guys are trying to win. And we use it as an opportunity to work on the things we’ve been working on in camp.’’

Lillard, who has won the Most Valuable Player of the event three times, says he doesn’t plan on winning it this season. He said plans on playing only limited minutes in order to give the rookies and other players a chance to showcase for the fans.

Then again, he said the same thing last season then came out on fire, hitting his first five three-pointers, which prompted him to keep playing. Not so this year, he says.

“This year, I will probably play very, very little,’’ Lillard said. “I’ve been here five years, they’ve seen me play, they know what I’m going to do. They want to see who else is out here, who has improved.’’

In past years, the event has drawn anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 fans. If you aren’t able to attend, you can watch on CSN at 1 p.m.

Either way, it’s an event worth watching.

“As players, we enjoy playing in front of a crowd,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We enjoy being able to provide them with a free experience. I know a lot of fans don’t necessarily have the time, or the money, to go to as many games as they would like to. So to be able to go in and sit courtside at the arena … it’s a good environment. And it’s a first chance to look at the new guys.’’

Today's Blazers Links:

I wrote about teammates praising Meyers Leonard after first week

Dane Carbaugh listed five questions the Blazers must answer this season.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman has a story on Anthony Morrow and his fight for the 15th spot. 

Has Meyers Leonard improved? Blazers teammates say 'yes'

Has Meyers Leonard improved? Blazers teammates say 'yes'

It’s only training camp, and it’s only been one week, but the early returns on a new-and-improved Meyers Leonard are encouraging.

According to some of his Trail Blazers’ teammates, Leonard has made an impression this week during the team’s two-a-day workouts.

“He looks good,’’ CJ McCollum said. “This is my fifth training camp and I think this is the best he has looked. He’s aggressive, he is playing strong, he is making shots. I think it’s just more about staying consistent with it through training camp … then transitioning from good training camp to good preseason to a good season.’’

Leonard, 25, entered training camp optimistic that he had improved his game after spending much of his summer working out with noted trainer Drew Hanlen in Los Angeles. His summer came on the heels of what he called a disappointing season in which he averaged 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 38.5 percent fro the field.

A 7-foot-1 center with soft touch and unique physical tools, Leonard has said much of his past struggles have been mental. After the summer workouts with Hanlen, which included a mechanical tweak to his shot and developing a “plan” in how to diversify ways he can attack a defense, Leonard felt he was as healthy – mentally and physically – as he has been since becoming the 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft.  

His teammates agree.

Captain Damian Lillard on Friday said it’s hard not to see a change in Leonard.

“It’s noticeable. I think everybody notices,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard cautioned that it’s one thing to show confidence in training camp practices and another to show it against a real opponent. But he said he likes the first steps Leonard is taking.

“You can tell he’s trying to show something, he’s trying to prove it,’’ Lillard said. “The best thing right now, he’s really pushing (Jusuf Nurkic). He’s challenging him, playing physical with him, not backing down from him, making him have to play through fouls, making him have to run the court. He’s doing a great job alone, but he’s really pushing Nurk too.’’

The next test for Leonard will come next week, when the Blazers play home preseason games against Phoenix on Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday.