Pat Connaughton

Caleb Swanigan leads Trail Blazers' opening win with double-double

Caleb Swanigan leads Trail Blazers' opening win with double-double

LAS VEGAS – It didn’t take long for the Trail Blazers rookies to make an impact Saturday in the Blazers’  72-63 win over Utah in both team's Las Vegas Summer League opener.

Caleb Swanigan, the No. 26 overall pick in last month’s draft, scored the first basket of the game on what figures to be his signature play – an offensive-rebound putback in traffic.

One offensive possession later, Zach Collins – the No. 10 overall pick – threaded a nice backdoor bounce pass to Jake Layman, who dunked. Collins, a 19-year-old 7-footer, followed up the pass with a polished turnaround jumper from the baseline on the next possession.

By the end of the game, it was Swanigan who made the biggest impression as the 6-foot-9 power forward finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds and several hustle plays that ended up with him on the court or saving balls from going out of bounds. Half of his points came from the free throw line as he punished Utah inside, even as he struggled through 4-of-12 shooting, which included one three pointer. 

Collins, meanwhile, had a sputtering debut as he went 3-for-13 from the field and had five turnovers. Most of his turnovers came as he struggled to secure the ball in traffic, resulting in him being stripped or losing control. Collins finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

Pat Connaughton, the Blazers player with the most at stake at Summer League, struggled with his shot – missing all five, including three three-pointers – but he finished with a game-high six assists. Connaughton needs a solid showing in Las Vegas in order for the Blazers to guarantee his $1.4 million contract before the July 25 deadline.

Jake Layman, who started at small forward, had 13 points and five rebounds while making 4-of-8 from the field, including 2-of-6 from three-point range.

Utah was led by guard Donovan Mitchell, the No. 13 overall pick, who had 19 points.

Next up: Blazers vs. Boston, Sunday 5:30 p.m. (CSN, ESPN2)

Trail Blazers' Summer League primer

Trail Blazers' Summer League primer

LAS VEGAS – Before the Trail Blazers begin Summer League play on Saturday here’s a quick primer on some subplots and storylines heading into the first game:

Biggest stakes:  Nobody has more riding on this Summer League than third-year guard Pat Connaughton, who needs a solid outing to have his contract picked up by the team. The Blazers have until July 25 – or a little more than a week after Summer League ends – to decide whether to guarantee Connaughton’s $1.47 million contract for next season.

Connaughton will start at shooting guard and head coach Terry Stotts on Friday said he will be one of the players to push the ball upcourt and initiate offense. Connaughton said one of his goals is to show he is more than a catch-and-shoot player, a trait that he feels he showed last season when he had 19-points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds in the regular season finale.

The team hopes he has a Summer League breakthrough similar to that of Allen Crabbe in 2015, and certainly part of that breakthrough will be shooting the ball better than he did last year in Las Vegas, when he made 34 percent of his shots from the field and 27 percent from 3-point range.

Right now, Connaughton is holding down the 15th and final roster spot, but if he is less-than impressive, it’s conceivable the Blazers will explore using their tax-payer mid-level exception ($5.192 million) for the final roster spot.

The Main Attraction: Most eyes will be on first-round picks Zach Collins (No. 10 overall) and Caleb Swanigan (No. 26 overall) to see how they fare against bigger and better competition.

Collins, the 7-footer from Gonzaga, is being likened to the next Kevin McHale, while Swanigan – a 6-foot-9, 250-pound bruiser – is reminding some people of Zach Randolph.

The book on Collins is that he is tough, competitive and very skilled. He might be a little slight in build, but he is only 19 and figures to fill out. And I can tell you this: the kid has a confident air about him that he belongs.

First impressions of Swanigan: the Blazers veterans are going to love him. He’s all about hard work, and letting his actions do his talking. I think he is going to be relentless in pursuit of rebounds, and I’m interested in seeing how he defends.

Who is starting? The only question mark is who will start at point guard, but the bet here is it will be RJ Hunter, the former first-round pick of the Boston Celtics.

Hunter is more of a two guard, but the Blazers like his basketball intelligence and ball handling. The other starters are locked in stone: Connaughton at shooting guard, Jake Layman at small forward, Caleb Swanigan at power forward and Zach Collins at center.

How can you watch?  If you are unable to make it to Las Vegas, you can still watch the games on television. CSN will broadcast Saturday’s 3 p.m. opener with Utah and Sunday’s 5:30 p.m. game against Boston. Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd will call the games from Portland.

Tuesday’s 1 p.m. game against San Antonio will be on ESPNU.

Keep an eye out for … : Jake Layman playing some power forward, or “Stretch 4.” Layman in his rookie season played exclusively at small forward, but Connaughton this week revealed that the team has been experimenting with Layman as a Stretch.

With the Blazers’ abandoning their experiment with Meyers Leonard as a four, there is some opportunity for the 6-foot-9 Layman to carve out a niche if he is able to guard opposing power forwards.

NBA experience on Blazers’ roster:  Aside from the Blazers’ holdovers on the roster, the Blazers have brought in five players who have NBA experience.

Jordan Adams, a 6-5 guard, played 32 games with Memphis over two seasons, and guard Markel Brown (6-3) played in 109 games, including 35 starts, in two seasons with Brooklyn.

Jorge Gutierrez, a 6-3 guard, played 47 games over four seasons with Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Charlotte and Nick Johnson, a 6-3 guard, played 28 games with Houston three seasons ago.

The biggest name, however, might be RJ Hunter, the 2015 first-round pick (28th overall) of the Boston Celtics. Hunter, who  is a 6-5 guard who played in 39 games over two season with Boston and Chicago. He famously hit a three-pointer in the NCAA Tournament to help Georgia State upset Baylor.

Who is the coach? Assistant Jim Moran will serve as acting head coach, which he says is the first time he has ever served in that role. He joked that his biggest worry – of which he warned Pat Connaughton – is being left hanging if he offers a high-five to a player.

Odds and Ends: The most points by a Blazers player in Summer League is Jerryd Bayless, who had 36 against Phoenix in 2008. The most rebounds is 18 by Thomas Robinson in 2013 and the most assists is 10 by Sebastian Telfair (2005) and Kevin Pinkney (2006).

And Remember … : Good or bad, don’t put too much stock into what happens in Summer League. I can remember watching Nicolas Batum as a rookie have trouble bringing the ball upcourt and wondering if he would ever make it. By the first week of the regular season he was a starter.

Also, Summer League is often dominated by guards, simply because it’s generally an up-and-down pace where the guards control the ball.

Pat Connaughton and his 'important' Summer League: Nobody has more at stake

Pat Connaughton and his 'important' Summer League: Nobody has more at stake

Nobody on the Blazers has more at stake at the Las Vegas Summer League than third year guard Pat Connaughton.

The Blazers have until July 25 to decide between keeping Connaughton at $1.47 million next season, or let him pursue his NBA and Major League baseball dreams elsewhere.

How Connaughton does in Las Vegas will go a long way in that decision for the Blazers, as a source inside the team said Summer League will be “important” for Connaughton.

Internally, the Blazers are hoping Connaughton has an emergence similar to that of Allen Crabbe in 2015, when Crabbe in Las Vegas averaged 15.5 points in four games, which included a 9-of-12, 24-point game against Dallas.

At the time, Crabbe was in a similar position as Connaughton – playing for a guaranteed contract – and Connaughton took note how Crabbe handled himself.

“I’ll take a similar approach to the way A.C. did my rookie year,’’ Connaughton said. “He didn’t really come out and try to score 35 points a game. He just made sure he played his game. He showed the things he had gotten better at … and he put himself in position to play well during the regular season.’’

Crabbe, of course, was picked up that season for just under a million dollars, then after a breakout NBA season he signed a four-year, $75 million contract last summer.

Connaughton will start at shooting guard for the Summer League Blazers when they open play Saturday against Utah (3 p.m., CSN), but he said he will be under little pressure to prove anything.

“I wouldn’t say anything is at stake. For me, it’s more about playing well and building upon the things I’ve worked on for the last two years, building upon the end of last season,’’ Connaughton said.

Connaughton says he is confident that all he is missing is an opportunity, a feeling based in part off his showing in two spot-starts at the end of last season and in part off his off-season workouts.

Last season, after the Blazers clinched a playoff spot, Connaughton started the final two games against San Antonio and New Orleans. He had 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting against the Spurs and against the Pelicans he had 19 points, seven assists and seven rebounds while making 7-of-13 shots.

He says he wants to show that he is more than a catch-and-shoot guard – and presented that seven assist, seven-rebound performance against New Orleans as proof . Ultimately, though, he knows his defining trait is shooting, a facet he struggled with at last year’s Summer League, when he made 34 percent from the field and 27 percent from 3-point range.

“I was a little disappointed in the way I shot the ball, particularly from three,’’ Connaughton said. “With that being said, I think I was able to make an impact in a lot of the games and go up and, not just hold my own, but have some success against touted rookies and second year guys that were in summer league last year. I’m trying to build upon that. ‘’

Whether Connaughton indeed builds on that could have an impact on how the Blazers’ roster looks come October. Portland is carrying the league-maximum 15 players right now, but if Connaughton doesn’t impress enough to guarantee him, the Blazers could explore using their mid-level exception ($5.192 million) in the free agent market.

Assistant Jim Moran, who will coach the Blazers’ Summer League team, said Connaughton has been one of the hardest workers this offseason and that has translated to him playing confidently.

“The stuff he has been working on all summer … we want to see it translate,’’ Moran said. “His confidence is very high. I’m really hoping he plays well because he has put in time and developed his game and work ethic.’’

The Fourth was no holiday for Trail Blazers' summer-league team

The Fourth was no holiday for Trail Blazers' summer-league team

TUALATIN -- It was a holiday, but not for the aspiring basketball players on the Portland Trail Blazers' summer-league roster.

Tuesday was the first day of practice for the team, which opens play in the Las Vegas Summer League Saturday at 1 p.m. against the Utah Jazz in Cox Pavilion.

The team went through a two-hour session at the team's practice facility and all eyes were on recent draftees Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan.

"They're good," said two-year Trail Blazer veteran Pat Connaughton, who will spend his third summer playing in the league. "They're big bodies and they work hard and that's about all you can ask of young guys that come in. It will be fun to work with them and play with them and watch them grow throughout summer league and hopefully, throughout the season."

Connaughton was asked to break down what he saw from each player during Tuesday's practice.

On Collins, the seven-footer out of Gonzaga, he said, "He's a hard worker, he's big and he's skilled. Obviously I've only been with each of the rookies for a day and I'll be able to tell you more at the end of summer league but from the standpoint of his ability to play basketball, he's got a knowledge for it, he's got a feel for it and wben he's able to build his size even more from a strength standpoint -- he's 19 years old -- that will be huge for him. He's the got the skills and the tools to be a phenomenal NBA player."

And Swanigan, the 6-9 forward from Purdue: "The kid works hard ... He's a guy who is going to find a way to make his way in this league just off sheer ability to defend, rebound, put back -- and he can make a jumper. He can shoot, better than I thought -- but I hadn't watched a ton of his games -- and that's always an important thing, especially in today's NBA."

Beginning Saturday in a game telecast on CSN -- Portland fans will get their first look.

Trail Blazers finish regular season with loss to New Orleans, turn focus to Sunday's Game 1

Trail Blazers finish regular season with loss to New Orleans, turn focus to Sunday's Game 1

This time, there was no dramatic finish for the Trail Blazers.

The Blazers finished the regular season with a 103-100 loss to New Orleans after it couldn't recreate the late-game magic from its last game. One game after Noah Vonleh beat the Spurs with a last-second layin, the Blazers twice had a chance to go ahead in the final minute but Meyers Leonard he missed a hook shot with 37 seconds then lost the ball out of bounds with 10.6 seconds left and Portland trailing 101-100.

The loss ended an eight-game home winning streak for Portland, which finished 41-41 and as the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Blazers will play at Golden State in Game 1 on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on ABC. The first playoff home game with be April 22 at 7:30 p.m. for Game 3.

With several key players resting -- including Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum -- the Blazers had as much as an 11-point lead behind the shooting of Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. The loss prevented a winning season but didn't put a damper on the Blazers' strong close to the season, which included an 18-6 run through March and April.  

The Blazers started Napier, rookie Jake Layman, Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard as coach Terry Stotts elected to rest starters  Lillard and McCollum as well as key reserves Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe. New Orleans (34-48) played without stars Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins and finished the season on a six-game losing streak.

Napier, who started and scored a career-high 32 in Monday's win over San Antonio, finished with 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting while Connaughton added a career-high 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting as well as a career-high seven assists. Layman, in his first career start, added 10 points and Vonleh had 12 points and a career high 19 rebounds for his fifth career double-double. 

Maurice Harkless, who vowed not to take a three-pointer in order to secure a $500,000 bonus, finished with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting - all two-point attempts -- in 22 minutes. 

The Blazers now turn their attention to Golden State in a best-of-seven series in the first-round of the NBA playoffs. Game 1 is Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Golden State. 

On Wednesday, the teams were tied at 53 at halftime before Portland pushed to an 85-78 lead behind Napier, Layman and rookie Tim Quarterman. New Orleans however went on a 15-0 run to take a 99-93 lead in the fourth.

Notes: Allen Crabbe, who has missed the last three games with a sore left foot said he will "for sure" be ready for Sunday's Game 1 at Golden State. "I'm not in as much pain in the mornings, so that's a good sign,'' Crabbe said before Wednesday's game. 

Up next: Blazers at Golden State, Game 1 best-of-seven series, Sunday 12:30 p.m. (ABC).  Full Schedule Here

Podcast: Special edition which includes Terry Stotts' entire time on Talkin' Ball from tonight

Blazers' win vs. Spurs reflects talent, hard work by players and coaches

Blazers' win vs. Spurs reflects talent, hard work by players and coaches

It was quite a night in Moda Center Monday. Given the expectation level,  it was a shocking evening.

With the San Antonio Spurs committed to using their starting lineup at least a part of the game and the Trail Blazers saying they weren't going to use Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe, there was every reason to expect a night of little emotion without high drama.

But sports are funny that way. You never quite know what you're going to find with your next ticket. Portland's 99-98 win over the Spurs was exciting and even featured a surprise ending, as Noah Vonleh found a gift directly under the basket and dropped in a layup to win the game a whisper before the final horn.

A few things I wanted to point out about this game before we move on to all the playoff fuss:

  1. I say this over and over but a lot of people don't seem to understand it. Men on NBA benches are very good basketball players. In many cases, they just don't have the opportunity to show it. When you watch Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Jake Layman play, you're seeing people with terrific athletic ability and good basketball instincts. They can play this game -- but they are in line behind more experienced or talented players. It's all the more reason I just laugh when people tell me some of the great college teams could beat an NBA team. They wouldn't come close. These days it takes a heck of a talented player just to make a roster in the league.
  2. I can't emphasize enough what a terrific job the Trail Blazer assistant coaches do in keeping their entire squad ready for duty and on solid improvement curves. Portland's bench played the normal San Antonio starting lineup on an even basis whenever it was matched up that way. That kind of thing doesn't happen by accident. Yes, the fourth quarter was a bench game, but prior to that the Blazer reserves didn't blink against Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and the rest of that roster. Kawhi Leonard, by the way, managed no rebounds or assists in his 20 minutes of duty. Those guys wearing Trail Blazer jerseys Monday night competed hard and smart.
  3. A lot of times a team will run a lineup consisting of bench players out for a late-season game and chaos ensues. These guys played together and with purpose -- and just nine turnovers. It was an impressive display of unity, talent and confidence. And after decades of covering the NBA, I can tell you that kind of game doesn't happen without countless hours of work by the coaching staff and the individual players.

Games like that one Monday are good for a team. They build pride in the franchise and confidence within all involved. It was a very impressive night.

And fun, too.

With starters out, Blazers keep rolling as Noah Vonleh beats buzzer and Spurs

With starters out, Blazers keep rolling as Noah Vonleh beats buzzer and Spurs

With one eye on the upcoming playoffs, the Trail Blazers on Monday rested their stars, but that didn’t stop Portland's late-season momentum.

Noah Vonleh picked up a loose ball and scored the game-winning layin before the buzzer on a busted play, leading the Blazers to a stunning 99-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, giving the Blazers a chance at securing a winning season with a victory in their season finale on Wednesday. 

Behind a Damian Lillard-like performance from point guard Shabazz Napier, the shooting of center Meyers Leonard and the passing of Evan Turner, the Blazers beat one of the West's top teams without stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Napier had a career-high 32 points, Vonleh 12 points and 11 rebounds and Pat Connaughton had a career-high 15 for Portland (41-40) while Leonard hit his first five shots on the way to 13 points. Turner had 16 points and seven assists. 

The Blazers' final shot came after the Spurs threw away an inbounds pass with 6.0 seconds left. 

The Blazers rested stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as starter Maurice Harkless and had Allen Crabbe (foot), Jusuf Nurkic (leg) and Ed Davis (shoulder) sidelined with injuries.

It was the season’s penultimate game and the first since the Blazers clinched the eighth and final playoff spot in the West on Sunday.

“It was the time and the opportunity to do it,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said before the game of resting players.

Stotts started Napier at point guard, Pat Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Vonleh at power forward and Leonard at center while the Spurs started their regulars -  Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dewyane Dedmon. 

The biggest benefit of the night was supposed to be resting Lillard and McCollum. Lillard entered the game averaging 35.9 minutes (9th in the NBA) while McCollum averages 34.9 minutes (16th). But now, the victory has given the Blazers the chance to secure a winning season with a victory over New Orleans on Wednesday. 

Stotts and the team’s health and performance staff met with the starting backcourt in the morning to tell them they would like each to sit in order to rest for the upcoming playoffs.

Lillard said he intended on playing in the Blazers regular-season finale on Wednesday against New Orleans.

McCollum, who had played in every game leading up to Monday, said it wasn’t his choice to sit, but he said he understood after listening to the reasoning.

“It’s a chance to refresh, recharge,’’ McCollum said. “It works for the Spurs, so we might as well follow their blueprint.’’

McCollum and Lillard both engaged in a hard workout before the game, going against each other in pick-and-rolls and 1-on-1 scenarios, while also taking part in extended three-point shooting drills.

Lillard, who scored a franchise-record 59 points on Saturday, said he planned on playing Monday against the Spurs.

 “I was prepared for an encore,” Lillard said.

Lillard has always been a proponent of playing whenever he is able, but he knew what was coming when he was called in for a meeting and told to take a seat.

“They knew they would have to sit me down,’’ Lillard said with a smile. “But after hearing them, I know they are coming from a good place.’’

Without the big names, the Blazers got a look at some of their youngsters, and for the most part, they played well against the Spurs’ accomplished lineups.

The Blazers led 31-28 after the first quarter, thanks largely to Meyers Leonard’s 5-of-5 shooting, and 47-43 at halftime after both teams survived a dreadful second quarter. Both the Spurs and Blazers started the second quarter by missing their first 10 shots. 

The Spurs (61-20) have the West’s No. 2 seed locked up and have been resting players during April, but after their last game, coach Gregg Popovich was unhappy with their physicality and effort and declared that no players would rest for the remainder of the season.

Popovich played his starters for the first three quarters, which is how long they needed to establish a lead. Portland led from the early moments of the game until midway through the third, when Kawhi Leonard scored nine of his 18 points and Tony Parker had six of his 12 points.

Next up:  New Orleans at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (KGW/ESPN)

Podcast:

Blazer summer-league performances were sub-par

Blazer summer-league performances were sub-par

Time to put a big bag over the Trail Blazers' summer league and place it on a shelf someplace where it can be forgotten.

Summing it all up as kindly as I can, I'd say performances by Portland's regular-season roster players did not live up to expectations.

Exhibit A is forward Noah Vonleh. Yes, you're going to hear that he's still only 20 years old. True, but the fact is there are teenagers in summer league these days, players 18 and 19 years old. And Vonleh was actually playing in his third summer league, and as one NBA executive told me, "It's a bit of a red flag when you're here for the third time and still can't dominate."

Vonleh started four games, averaged 31 and a half minutes, 12 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 2.75 turnovers and 3.25 fouls per game. He shot 46.3 percent from the floor, 23.1 percent from three and 70 percent from the foul line. Interestingly, he got more attempts from three than the foul line.

Pat Connaughton had all kinds of problems with his shooting. The 6-5 guard averaged 32.2 minutes in five starts, shot only 34.8 percent from the field, 27 percent from three, 3.4 rebounds per game, 1.2 assists and two turnovers per game. He made a couple of big shots along the way and still continues to look like an NBA-level athlete. But shooting guards need to be good shooters.

Luis Montero still looks like a player who needs at least a year in the D-League -- promising, but still not savvy or experienced enough to play meaningful NBA minutes. He played five games, started only two, averaged 27.2 minutes, shot 36.4 percent from the field, 25 percent from three, had 1.8 assists and 2.4 turnovers per game.

Rookie forward Jake Layman was surprising. He seemed to get more comfortable on the floor with each game and showed enough athleticism to belong in the league. Still, as with his teammates, shooting was a problem. He hit 35 percent of his field goals, 18.2 percent of his threes and just 57.1 percent of his free throws. He averaged 8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.

All in all, not pretty numbers and not a very promising summer for those young players.