Evan Turner

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: Evan Turner and his lofty defensive goal

Breakfast with the Blazers: Evan Turner and his lofty defensive goal

This summer, during a conversation with one of Evan Turner’s closest friends, my eyebrows were raised.

Jelani Floyd, who is one of Turner’s childhood friends from Chicago, had just returned with Turner from a 12-day, nine-city shoe tour in China. Floyd was telling me about their trip, and Turner’s workouts, and how he had witnessed a spark ignite in Turner.

Turner had started doing pilates, was working on his outside shot, and had set a lofty goal that caused me to pause and raise my brow.

Turner, Floyd told me, had set his sights on becoming named All-NBA Defense this season.

I bring that conversation up because Turner and his defense suddenly figures to be a central storyline in the Trail Blazers’ season opener on Wednesday in Phoenix, when Turner will likely spend much of his night defending Suns’ rising star Devin Booker.

On Saturday, the Blazers were hit with a bombshell that CJ McCollum will be suspended for the opener after he left the bench last week during a preseason altercation between Caleb Swanigan and Alex Len.

With McCollum out, coach Terry Stotts essentially has two options for a starter at shooting guard -- Pat Connaughton or Turner – and although I have no idea which way Stotts is leaning, I would imagine either way, Turner will be checking Booker extensively on Wednesday.

And hey, if there was ever a way to kick off an All-Defense campaign, putting the clamps on a gifted scorer like Booker – who at age 20 last season scored 70 points at Boston – is a heckuva start.

Booker in four games last season against Portland averaged 24.3 points while shooting 44 percent from the field and 3-of-12 from three-point range. For the season, the 6-foot-6 guard averaged 22.1 points. 

Turner’s first assignment comes on the heels of what was an encouraging preseason for him. He had the NBA’s best defensive rating (74.2) in the preseason, which came while he guarding literally every position on the floor, while also showing heady passing and unstoppable moves in the post.

Last season, among players who played 20 or more games, Turner ranked 14th among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, a couple tiers below the top group of Kyle Anderson (San Antonio), Andre Roberson (Oklahoma City), Tony Allen (then Memphis), Danny Green (San Antonio) and Victor Oladipo (then Oklahoma City).

The defensive real plus-minus metric is influenced by which teammates you play with, and Turner this season figures to have a better figures playing more with Jusuf Nurkic, and less with the traded Allen Crabbe, whose defensive numbers last season were below average. 

Either way, Turner’s All-Defense goal is more of a novelty than the actual point: Turner is entering this season with a reinforced and perhaps even sharpened defensive mindset. Any time a player not only buys into defense, but embraces it … it usually bodes well for the team.

So no CJ for the opener? Total bummer.

But let’s watch Evan Turner and his defense against Booker and the Suns. It just might raise your eyebrows.

Today's Blazers links:

After being suspended for opener,  CJ McCollum tells NBC Sports Northwest "Lesson learned."

The Oregonian's Mike Richman details Jusuf Nurkic's summer workouts, and notes the big man wants to stay in Portland

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

What has been a productive and borderline impressive preseason for the Trail Blazers comes to a close tonight with an exhibition against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

Since much of the regulars will rest or play limited minutes, here is a look at what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know after this Trail Blazers’ preseason.

WHAT WE KNOW

Rookie Caleb Swanigan is going to play: The No. 26 overall pick looks and acts like he belongs and has brought an edge and toughness on both offense and defense. He is averaging 7.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in 16 minutes and has shown an ability to score inside and outside. Twice he has stood up for himself and held his ground – once against Toronto veteran Serge Ibaka, and Wednesday against Phoenix center Alex Len – both times drawing technicals. He was ejected for his altercation with Len.

“I think if we haven’t already, (we know that) Caleb is not backing down for anybody,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said after the Phoenix game. “And I think we will expect that.’’

Evan Turner is comfortable: There is a tendency to write that Turner is better this season, but it’s not like his skills have improved. He is just more comfortable with the playbook and his teammates and what is expected out of him than he was during his first season in Portland. As a result, Turner has been an incredibly effective weapon for the Blazers this preseason. He has been a beast on the block, posting up opposing guards and either scoring over them or drawing a double team and picking apart the defense with a pass.

He has also been excellent defensively, guarding every position during the preseason. Turner’s defensive rating (74.2) is No. 1 in the NBA during the preseason.

“I think he is just a lot more comfortable now,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He knows his spots and how to be effective in certain situations. It takes time sometimes, for a guy coming into a new situation, especially a guy coming in who is used to having the ball so much then coming here and not having the ball as much. But I think he’s done a tremendous job adjusting and I think he is only going to get better.’’

Turner this preseason is averaging 8.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 23 minutes while shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range (3-of-6).

But the stats don’t show everything. Just by the way he is dribbling, the way he is attacking, the passes he is making, you can tell he is playing free rather than thinking and worrying whether he is doing the right thing.

“He’s just been assertive,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He has been more comfortable having the ball and being in attack mode … He has played really well.’’

Pat Connaughton has earned rotation spot: In August, there was a question whether the Blazers would pick up Connaughton’s $1.4 million option. Two months later, the guard has won a rotation spot with a diverse and effective preseason.

If you still think Connaughton is just a spot-up three-point shooter, you haven’t been watching closely. He has shown the ability to create off the dribble and make mid-range pull ups, he has been an athletic defender who regularly contests shots.

A nice snapshot of Connaughton this preseason was in Los Angeles, during a hotly contested game against the Clippers. He blocked a driving attempt by Lou Williams, then came down and drilled a deep, 27-foot three-pointer with a hand in his face.  

“I’ve always thought very highly of Pat, so I’m happy to see him actually get out there and do it in the flow of action,’’ Lillard said. “He’s always done what he is doing, it just looks better now, look more comfortable. He’s getting things done … making shots, attacking the basketball, getting his hands on the ball. It’s good to see Pat stretch himself, and I guess be a little more impactful on the floor.’’

The Blazers’ defense is much, much better: This might be the biggest development of the preseason, but everyone from writers to coaches to players have been wary of overhyping the Blazers’ defense because, well, it’s preseason.

Still, what the Blazers have shown has been impressive. Very impressive.

The last four opponents have shot below 41 percent, and overall in the preseason, opponents are shooting 40.6 percent. Overall, the Blazers have the 10th best defensive rating in the preseason, and the fourth best net rating in the NBA, behind Houston, Utah and Boston.

After last year’s disaster on the defensive end, the Blazers talked a lot about defense in training camp, and they have backed it up in the preseason.

“I think we have more focus and better communication,’’ Ed Davis said. “I feel if we are a top 15, top 10 defensive team we are going to be well off once the regular season starts, because we know are going to be a top 10 offensive team. On a bad day we are a top 10 team offensively. So as long as we lock in on the defensive end, that’s where we are going to win games.’’

Ed Davis will be backup center: Stotts said before Wednesday’s game in Phoenix that he is viewing Davis as a center, more or less ending any thoughts that Davis would be the opening-night starter at power forward.

Davis has been very effective this preseason and is the clear-cut backup to Jusuf Nurkic at center.

Davis famously set a goal to win the open power forward spot during Media Day, but he said that was more or less something to psyche himself up.

“When I said that, I wasn’t trying to make it a big deal … it was just something I said, so it’s not something I’m disappointed about, or feeling some sort of way, like hurt or anything,’’ Davis said. “It is what it is. The main thing is winning and coach is going to do what is best for the team. There’s going to be all different kinds of lineups on the floor. I just have to be ready each time my number is called.’’

The Big 3 are ready:  The biggest thing we know from preseason – the Big 3 of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are ready.

McCollum hasn’t shot the ball as well as he would have liked (35.4 percent from the field) but he has made 11-of-26 three-pointers (42.3 percent) and constantly looks like he is toying with the defense.

Nurkic has been dominant at times and Lillard looks as good as ever.

WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

This section is the gray area between what our eyes are telling us and what Stotts won’t confirm or reveal.

Starting lineup: I think it has been clear that Stotts will open the season with Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic as his starting lineup, but he has yet to confirm it.

This group knows each other and it shows on the court. Offensively, this unit flows. There is great ball movement, nice spacing and an overall familiarity that is invaluable in today’s NBA.

Defensively, the pairing of Harkless and Aminu is well documented. The two can switch on pick-and-rolls and both are among the Blazers’ better defensive players. Harkless in particular has been very “handsy” -- getting his hands on a lot of deflections, steals and blocks.

Second unit: Part of the equation in deciding a starting lineup is plotting the second unit and how the substitution patterns play out. If Stotts indeed goes with the above starting lineup, that leaves his second unit with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Swanigan at power forward and Davis at center.

There are a couple of intriguing aspects to this second unit. Offensively, it allows Turner to have the ball in his hands more often, which is when he is most effective. If he is paired with Lillard and McCollum – both of whom command the ball – it takes away much of Turner’s playmaking strengths while forcing him to uncomfortable spots on the floor as a spacer.

And defensively, this is a tough and solid unit. Davis and Turner are plus defenders and Swanigan has shown he can rebound. Connaughton has great hops and is smart, and McCollum has sneaky defensive moments where he will block a shot or anticipate and disrupt passing lanes.

It also reminded me of what Turner said this preseason when I asked him what is important in deciding lineups. I was expecting him to say something like spacing, or balance, but he said he found the best teams had a second unit that had an identity. It could be offense, defense, toughness, run-and-gun … but an identity.

I think this unit could have a physical, rough-and-tough defensive identity while still remaining dangerous offensively with McCollum’s brilliance and Turner’s playmaking/post game.

Anthony Morrow will win 15th spot: If there is one thing left to decide in tonight’s game against Maccabi Haifa, it’s probably the final roster spot, although I think Anthony Morrow won it last week against Toronto, when he made four three pointers in eight minutes.

The competition is between Morrow, Archie Goodwin and Isaiah Briscoe.

Goodwin’s chances probably evaporated Wednesday in Phoenix when he didn’t hustle for a loose ball, which the Suns scooped up and took in for an uncontested layin. It wasn’t an egregious lack of effort by the former first-round pick, but it lacked the intensity and wherewithal you want to see from a guy trying to win an NBA roster spot.

Briscoe, a rookie point guard from Kentucky, has actually been good during mop up time throughout the preseason, but there’s no way the Blazers keep a fourth point guard.

That leaves Morrow, the sharp-shooting 32-year-old, who also appears to be a good locker room guy.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

What happens when Noah Vonleh returns? Vonleh on Wednesday said he is on schedule with his rehabilitation of a right shoulder strain, and is three weeks away from returning.

Vonleh has started at power forward for parts of the past two seasons and is valued by Stotts for his rebounding and defense. What happens when Vonleh returns?

I’m guessing Vonleh plays right away, and it will likely be at the expense of some of Swanigan’s minutes.

How much does Zach Collins play? This might be at the top of my curiosities entering the season. I can’t get a feel of how the team views Collins right now.

Make no mistake, they are encouraged and pleased with the No. 10 overall pick, and think he is going to be a star down the road. But I don’t know how they view him in the immediate. I could see him sitting the bench and getting spot minutes, but I could also see him playing during meaningful games.

With Collins, I think fans are going to have to look deeper than his points and rebounds. He is exceptional at protecting the rim. Absolutely fearless. Perhaps, even, the best on the team at protecting the rim. He is also very good at moving his feet and being in the right spots defensively. These two factors could get him on the court.

That being said, he gets pushed around very easily, which is why Stotts said the team mostly views Collins right now as a power forward, because he has trouble holding his ground against bigger centers.

But I’m interested in seeing how Collins is used out of the gate.

Where does Shabazz Napier fit in? One of the few letdowns of the preseason has been the unavailability of point guard Shabazz Napier, who hurt his left hamstring on the second day of training camp. Neil Olshey gushed about Napier at Media Day, and there was some intrigue of what the point guard who scored 32 and 25 points as a late-season starter last year would bring.

It sounds like Napier has a chance at playing tonight against Haifa, as his status has been upgraded to questionable. It may take some time for him to get up to game-time speed, but I’m imagining Stotts using Connaughton and Napier interchangeably depending on opposing lineups.

In case you haven’t noticed, Stotts is in for a heckuva juggling job this season. He has an obvious nine-man rotation (Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic, Turner, Davis, Connaughton, Swanigan) and I’m guessing he will extend his rotation early in the season to 10 and maybe 11 to work in Vonleh and Napier. If Collins is in that equation, that makes 12. And what if Meyers Leonard keeps playing like he did Wednesday in Phoenix, when he had 17 points and 8 rebounds?

Lot of questions ahead, but they are mostly good questions. This has been an exceptional preseason for the Blazers, one that has offered a lot of encouraging signs, and one that keeps leading me back to one thought:

This team is going to be better than people think.

Today's Blazers links:

Blazers' radio voice Brian Wheeler is taking a leave of absence.

A preview of tonight's preseason finale.

On the road, Evan Turner taught room service a lesson.

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

SACRAMENTO -- Terry Stotts said he has yet to decide on his opening night starting lineup or his playing rotation, even after he coached what appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season on Monday night in Sacramento.

Stotts started both halves with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic and played them all about 29 minutes. Through the first three quarters, he only played four reserves – Evan Turner, Ed Davis, Caleb Swanigan and Pat Connaughton.

Nobody inside the Blazers locker room said they have a clue how Stotts will approach the season opener, which is now just eight days away, but several intimated that it wouldn’t shock them if Monday’s game against the Kings is how the Blazers approach the Oct. 18 opener at Phoenix.

“I think obviously, everybody knows who the horses are,’’ Turner said. “And the rest of us have to stay prepared and stay ready for whatever the situation is. I think the biggest thing in the rotation situation is defensively … are we getting better defensively?’’

The only debate is how Stotts handles the forward position, and it seems the leading candidates from the start of camp have been Harkless and Aminu, who have developed a familiarity and defensive chemistry over the past two seasons. The other options are having Swanigan in place of Aminu, or perhaps Turner instead of Harkless.

But for a team whose offense is well defined with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, it seems the defensive cohesion between Harkless and Aminu – they are able to switch easily on pick-and-rolls – has long been attractive to Stotts.

“The continuity – we finished out the year like that for the most part and I think we are all comfortable with that group out there,’’ Harkless said. “I don’t know if that’s going to the be group we start with on opening night, but whether it is or isn’t, I think that group we have out there is good offensively or defensively.’’

Stotts usually likes to play nine or 10 players, and his biggest decision will likely come in early November, when Noah Vonleh returns from a shoulder strain. Vonleh has been a part-time starter over the past two seasons and figures to command playing time because of his rebounding and defensive play. Also, point guard Shabazz Napier – who has been unable to play in preseason because of a hamstring injury -- figures to be considered alongside Connaughton at guard, depending on matchups.

“We have a lot of lineups out there, but it will ultimately be coach’s decision,’’ Lillard said.

Stotts also typically likes to have one preseason game when he plays it similar to a regular season game, and it appeared Monday against the Kings was that night. The Blazers’ two remaining preseason games figure to be exercises in caution and the final auditions for the 15th roster spot.

Portland plays Wednesday at Phoenix, and Stotts has previously said he is leery to show much of his regular-season package against the Suns considering the Blazers open the season in Phoenix on the 18th. And Stotts has already said in the preseason finale – Friday at home against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa –he plans to rest many of his main players.

After what appeared to be a dry run during Monday’s 97-83 win at the Kings, Turner said there doesn’t appear to be much left to decide in this preseason.

“I guess who is going to be on the team,’’ Turner said, laughing. “But other than that, we have to figure out rotations so guys know their roles,  and I think we are getting closer and closer to it.’’

Here’s a look at Stotts’ substitution pattern/lineups and how they fared in the first three quarters Monday:

Starters: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 6:11, Kings 16-15.

1st sub: 5:49 -- Connaughton for McCollum. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 2:40, Blazers 11-2.

2nd sub: 3:09 -- Davis for Nurkic; Swanigan for Aminu. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 27 seconds, no scoring.

3rd sub: 2:42 – McCollum for Lillard; Turner for Harkless. Lineup: McCollum, Connaughton, Turner, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 7:22, Kings 12-11.

SECOND QUARTER (Blazers lead 29-24)

4th sub: 7:20 -- Lillard for McCollum; Harkless for Connaughton. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis.  Time played together: 18 seconds. Blazers 1-0.

5th sub:  7:02 -- Nurkic for Davis. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:47. Kings 3-0.

6th sub: 5:15 -- Aminu for Swanigan. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:46. Blazers 7-0.

7th sub: 3:29 -- McCollum for Turner. Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 3:29. Kings 10-9.

HALFTIME: Blazers lead 54-43

THIRD QUARTER

Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 12 minutes. Kings 22-17.

Today's Blazers Links:

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, Dwight Jaynes says he thinks Pat Connaughton is in for breakout year.

ESPN's Zach Lowe weighs in on the Blazers

Matt Moore at CBS Sports previews the Blazers' season.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers says not much was decided in Sacramento.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Halfway through preseason, defense 'solid'

Breakfast with the Blazers: Halfway through preseason, defense 'solid'

SACRAMENTO – The Trail Blazers are halfway through their preseason schedule and are nine days away from the season opener at Phoenix.

Here is a primer to catch you up on the top developments and storylines:

An improved defense?

The Blazers will go only as far as their defense takes them this season, and like always, it was a preseason goal to improve.

After three games: So far, so good.

The Clippers – playing without starters Austin Rivers and Danilo Gallinari – shot 40.2 percent and Toronto, which played without DeMar DeRozan, shot 40 percent from the field. And in the first game against Phoenix, the Suns shot 40.7 percent through the first three quarters before recording a 41-point fourth quarter during which they made 15-of-22 shots against the end of the Blazers’ bench.

Now, it’s preseason and there were key offensive players resting and different lineups being used, so you have to take the statistics with a grain of salt. But there were a couple of developments that coach Terry Stotts liked.

Against Toronto, there were moments when Stotts deviated from his conservative approach by having the big “show”  (make an effort to impede the ball handler) on pick-and-roll, while also showing traps on All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry. It flustered Lowry into five turnovers, and the Raptors overall into 20.

Then on Sunday at the Clippers, Stotts called a first-quarter timeout with the Blazers trailing 15-3. If the Clippers weren’t lobbing for dunks, they were hitting wide-open threes as the Blazers scrambled to close out. He pointed out to the team that the bigs were playing too high, allowing DeAndre Jordan to run behind for lobs, and the weakside wasn’t tight enough to contest kickout passes to the three-point line.

After the timeout, the Clippers still got two more lob dunks by Willie Reed, but overall the wide open three’s became contested and the interior was better protected.

“The weakside defense got over a lot better,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We made an adjustment and pretty much cut (the lobs and dunks) out for the rest of the game.’’

Stotts described the Blazers’ preseason defense as “solid.”

“The first game, our transition defense was poor, but we have gotten better at that,’’ Stotts said. “We’ve improved each game … on the whole it has been pretty solid.’’

ET at ease

Evan Turner looks much more comfortable and dangerous offensively this season, which was probably best on display Sunday against the Clippers when he had eight assists.

Turner spent much of last season playing in fits and starts, and it just looked like everything was a struggle as he tried to understand the offense and his new teammates. This season, he looks like he is just playing, and that freedom is revealing his vision and smarts.

Through the first three games, Stotts has been able to get Turner into lineups that expose the defense by forcing them to place a smaller guard on Turner. That allows Turner – at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds – to post up and go to work, either shooting over the guard or forcing teams to double him, where he then finds an open teammate.

Against Phoenix, he bullied and scored on Eric Bledsoe inside, then against Toronto he shot over Kyle Lowry. On Sunday at the Clippers, whenever he backed down Lou Williams or guard Juwan Evans, Turner surveyed the court and found the right man. Twice he found Ed Davis for dunks, and he located Harkless on the perimeter for a three-pointer while also passing out to Jusuf Nurkic for open mid-range jumpers.

“Evan sees the floor tremendously well, always,’’ Harkless said. “And being able to get him in the post, especially against smaller guys, they have to double team and that opens up everything else. He’s constantly looking for people. His IQ is really high.’’

Turner shrugs off the notion that he is more comfortable, I think mostly because he doesn’t like the idea that he was uncomfortable last season.

“I think my comfort level comes from calling plays, seeing things,’’ Turner said. “It’s just natural reads, natural basketball. It’s the way I grew up playing the game.’’

If Turner can’t see a change in his comfort level, his teammates do. His shot selection, his patience in finding the open man, his aggressive ball-handling … it all adds up to a valuable asset.

“It’s really important, really important because it shows his comfort level,’’ Lillard said. “He was patient as guys cut on weakside … he made them pay for it. It’s another option for us when things aren’t going well.”

Lillard on alert

Nobody on the Blazers sets a tone like Lillard, and it has been clear this preseason that the team captain is not going to be tolerating another slow start this season.

Lillard has been aggressive on both sides of the ball, and was scorching on Sunday on his way to 35 points in 26 minutes.

“Honestly man, I didn’t know how bad it was until the end of the third quarter and I looked up and I was like, 35?’’ Harkless said. “That shows you how easy it comes for him.’’

 Tonight, the Blazers play in Sacramento on the back end of a back-to-back and Stotts said he plans to play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes. McCollum said he is welcoming a format where he plays longer minutes with more set lineups.

“I think (Monday) we will treat it more like a regular season game,’’ McCollum said.

Today's Blazers links:

I wrote about Lillard wanting to set the proper tone in preseason.

Ian Karmel stopped by for some hijinks after the Clippers game.

I talked about Caleb Swanigan and answered questions in this podcast.

Casey Holdahl of the Blazers recaps Sunday's game.

Breakfast with the Blazers: McCollum nearing shoe deal with Li-Ning?

Breakfast with the Blazers: McCollum nearing shoe deal with Li-Ning?

Ripples are being sent through the shoe industry with word that Trail Blazers star CJ McCollum is on the verge of leaving Nike to sign a deal with the Chinese company Li-Ning.

McCollum, who wore a pair of Li-Ning shoes in the Blazers’ preseason game against Phoenix on Tuesday, was asked after the game if he was switching sponsorships.

“In negotiations,’’ McCollum said with a big smile as he left the locker room.

One person who helped McCollum with those negotiations? Teammate Evan Turner, who has been a Li-Ning client since 2010.

Turner this summer spent 12 days in China on a Li-Ning shoe tour, during which he often had Face Time chats with McCollum.

“I told (Li-Ning) if you want to talk to him, I wouldn’t come to him with a BS offer the first time around and close his ears off,’’ Turner said on Wednesday.

Hearing Turner talk, it appears a deal has been reached.

“I guess they got the situation right, the money right, and I think CJ will be a great person for the brand,’’ Turner said Wednesday. “He’s a talented individual on and off the court, so I think he will help the brand a lot.’’

On Thursday morning, however, McCollum said no deal has been reached.

"There is mutual interest,'' McCollum said. "Still in negotiations ... but my contract with Nike is up.''

McCollum would be among the higher profile athletes to sign with the Beijing company, which is founded by legendary Chinese gymnast Li-Ning.

In 2012, megastar Dwyane Wade signed with the company, which came after Shaquille O’Neal inked a deal in 2006. Other NBA players who wear Li-Ning include Turner, Jose Calderon and Glenn Robinson III.

“It’s getting better every single year,’’ Turner said of Li-Ning. “It has a big presence in the Chinese market, which is huge for a player and your own personal branding because you can multiply that more so than in America. With a kid like CJ, and the talent he has, he will be able to do that worldwide.’’

McCollum, who is the first year of a four-year, $106 million contract with the Blazers, is coming off a career-year in which he averaged 23.0 points, 3.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds while shooting 42.1 percent from three-point range and an NBA-best 91.2 percent from the free-throw line. 

Today's Blazers' links:

Jamie Hudson of NBC Sports Northwest reminds us that Damian Lillard has some big off the court news on Friday. 

Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest writes that Terry Stotts has some tough decsions ahead.

Mike Richman writes about Evan Turner and his surprise at initiating offense on Tuesday.

Casey Holdahl of trailblazers.com writes about Jusuf Nurkic's weight loss

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: Shabazz Napier and his quest for playing time

Breakfast with the Blazers: Shabazz Napier and his quest for playing time

EDITOR'S NOTE: Every morning, check in here for Breakfast with the Blazers, which will be your spot to catch up on what happened last night, or look ahead to what is pertinent today with the Blazers.

**

This morning, my "Inside the Blazers Podcast" debuts, which will include an interview with Blazers’ point guard Shabazz Napier.

I hope you give it a listen because it gives insight into the mental toughness and determination required for an NBA reserve. It takes a true professional to stick to his process and work ethic, even when minutes are not guaranteed. Also, it is an illuminating peek at Napier’s upbringing and morals, which have shaped him into the competitor he is today.

Napier, remember, started the season’s final two games, recording 32 points, six rebounds and five assists against San Antonio and 25 points against New Orleans. He also hailed by teammates as the MVP of a crucial game at Orlando coming out of the All-Star Break, when he led a comeback with 10 points, six assists and seven rebounds while providing critical defense.

Napier will be one of the subplots to follow this preseason, in part because his finish last season and in part because the work he put in this summer – which was enough to lead Neil Olshey to single him out during media day. Those factors raise the question whether he could command more playing time as the team’s backup point guard.

Napier, who is beginning his fourth NBA season and second with the Blazers, knows he is in a tricky situation on the Blazers: Starter Damian Lillard averaged 36 minutes last season and the 12 minutes Lillard rested,  CJ McCollum – or sometimes Evan Turner -- amply filled in.

“I’m stuck in this situation where they play a lot of minutes, and I can quit but that’s not who I am,’’ Napier said. “I understand that at any given time your number can be called – so I’m going to continue work my butt off.’’

Coach Terry Stotts on Wednesday said he still likely considers McCollum the backup point guard, and that he doesn’t know what Napier could do to earn more time.

“Bazz had a good summer, and he had some good runs last year when Dame was out,’’ Stotts said. “The question is defensively – how does that work? But certainly he is going to have an opportunity. I haven’t made a decision one way or the other on the rotation. It will just play itself out.’’

Lillard, who often goes against Napier in practices, said he could foresee the two-time former NCAA champion seeing the court more.

“Last year, I was surprised to see him not play as much,’’ Lillard said. “But this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he played more.’’

McCollum, who not only played the ninth most minutes in the NBA last season, but who has also logged the most miles run on the court in the NBA the past two seasons, said he doesn’t feel like he needs a breather.

“I’m ok with whatever, honestly,’’ McCollum said. “However Coach thinks I can help the team, that’s what I will do. I feel like I’m in good enough shape to do whatever is necessary. I’ve led the league in miles the last two years, a lot of it is on offense and how we move on offense – lot of cuts, lot of flair screens – so I will be ready to do whatever.

“But I think Shabazz is very capable of playing backup point guard,’’ McCollum said. “There’s a lot of different lineups we will use this year to where a lot of us will be out there at once and it will be handle by committee, and that includes ET as well.’’

How to handle the point guard minutes is probably not the most pressing among Stotts’ preseason decisions – figuring out the starting forwards figures to take precedence – but how Napier plays will certainly be something worth watching next week when the Blazers open preseason play Tuesday at home against Phoenix and Thursday at home against Toronto.

All Napier wants is a chance.

“I’ve always thought the more you can be on court the better you can be as a player, because that experience is second to nothing else,’’ Napier said.

Here’s to rooting to see what he can do with a chance.

Today's Blazers' Links: 

CSNNW's Dwight Jaynes asks whether Pat Connaughton can step into Allen Crabbe's role?

CSNNW shows that there is a Bad Boys 3 in the making.

CSNNW's Peter Socotch has the video of Evan Turner explaining he will never go vegan

Socotch with more video of Jusuf Nurkic explaining why he is wearing a protective mask at practice.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes about a slimmer Jusuf Nurkic.

The Oregonian reports that former Blazers' guard Bonzi Wells recently suffered a heart attack

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian writes that it's important for the Blazers to get off to a good start.