Jason Quick

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.

Damian Lillard 'leading the troops' by establishing Trail Blazers' mindset

Damian Lillard 'leading the troops' by establishing Trail Blazers' mindset

LOS ANGELES –Turns out Sunday was more than just a preseason game for the Trail Blazers. It was also a refresher course in embracing the proper mental approach when the season starts in 10 days.

And it was no surprise who was leading the seminar: Damian Lillard.

The Blazers’ star point guard looked in All-Star form Sunday while scoring 35 points in 26 minutes as the Blazers continued a promising preseason with a 134-106 win over the LA Clippers at the Staples Center.

Most veterans, especially one with resumes like Lillard, treat the preseason with the enthusiasm of a teenager eating lima beans. But Lillard on Sunday said he is intent on establishing a sense of urgency to the start of this season in order to prevent a repeat of last year’s sputtering start.

“We want to get off to better starts in games, and a better start to the regular season, so our mentality has to be that this is a game … doesn’t matter if it’s preseason, doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go on our record … we have to be ready,’’ Lillard said. “Our mentality has to be, ‘We are going to handle our business.’ And that’s it. So when the season comes, it’s not like we have to tell ourselves, OK, this one counts.’’

The Blazers last season had a losing record from Dec. 10 through April 1, eventually using a late-season push and the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic to squeak into the playoffs with the eighth seed and a 41-41 record.

In retrospect, players and coaches say last year’s team lost its edge, and perhaps forgot how tough it was to stay persistent and on task throughout the grinding season.

Twelve players return this season, but Lillard is intent on making sure that familiarity doesn’t lull the team into contentment, even in the preseason.

So on Sunday, there was Lillard – stripping Milos Teodosic at halfcourt, making hard drives into traffic, and rolling on the court amid the antagonistic defense of Patrick Beverley.

“He knows its important for us to get off to a good start this season,’’ coach Terry Stotts said, “and he is kind of leading the troops.’’

All told, Lillard made 9-of-17 shots, all 13 of his free throws, and added three assists and two steals.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a practice or a preseason game, our mentality has to be like this,’’ Lillard said. “So regardless of the situation is, it’s always there and we don’t have to try to take it up a level or any of those things … we are  not good enough to do that. We are not the Golden State Warriors … the little things matter for us and it starts with our mentality.’’

Evan Turner said the team has made a point to focus on their start this season, and it helps when the captain is not only talking about it, but also showing it.

“Clearly, he’s our leader, and when he is doing it himself and practicing what he preaches, it definitely sets a tone and holds people accountable,’’ Turner said. “We are all aware of one, how good the West is; and two, how hard it was to battle back last season and make the playoffs; and three, making it easy on ourselves.’’

Sunday featured more than just Lillard’s excellence.

Turner played a heady game out of the post, amassing eight assists, many of them after the Clippers sent double teams at him.

Maurice Harkless continued his strong preseason by making all six of his shots, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds and three assists.

Nurkic was dominant for stretches, finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds before fouling out in 24 minutes.

There was also 12 points from Zach Collins; 10 rebounds in 11 minutes from Meyers Leonard; and CJ McCollum had 12 of his 20 points in the second half.

From a lineup standpoint, Stotts on Sunday looked heavily at rookie Caleb Swanigan as a starter. He began the game with Lillard, McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Swanigan and Nurkic, then started the second half with Harkless in place of Aminu.

Swanigan was “solid”  according to Stotts, and finished with five points and four rebounds in 14 minutes while mostly going against Clippers’ All-Star Blake Griffin, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.

On Monday, the Blazers play in Sacramento, and Stotts said he will play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes.

No matter how the minutes allotment turns out, rest assured Lillard and the rest of the Blazers will approach it like a regular season game.

“Hey, how you practice is how you play and how you approach the preseason is how you start the season,’’ McCollum said. “Obviously the wins and losses don’t matter but how you approach it mentally … it’s important you approach it like a real game, because the season is what nine, 10 days away? There’s no going back once it starts.’’

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts 'in formative process' of rotation

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts 'in formative process' of rotation

LOS ANGELES – Terry Stotts said his starting lineup and playing rotation is still under consideration as the Trail Blazers enter their third preseason game Sunday, but the coach did offer two factors into his thinking:

One, he is not opposed to starting rookies; and two, visualizing what the second unit and the player rotation patterns is to him as important of a factor as identifying the starting five.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,’’ Stotts said before the Blazers played the Clippers.

Stotts has named three of his five starters: Damian Lillard at point guard, CJ McCollum at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center.

In the first two preseason games, Stotts has paired the starting forward positions with Evan Turner and Ed Davis and then Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. Also, in the second half of the second preseason game, he started rookie Caleb Swanigan at power forward.

Stotts did not want to reveal his starting lineup for Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. game against the Clippers because he had yet to tell the team.

“There are a lot of different combinations and after two games, it has been productive, but I haven’t made a decision yet,’’ Stotts said. “I think it’s still in the formative process.’’

As Stotts mixes and matches his combinations, two early storylines have emerged: Swanigan, the rookie big man from Purdue, has played himself into consideration for a starting role; and the combination of Harkless and Aminu has once again proven to be an effective combination.

“I know everybody is curious about the forward position,’’ Stotts said. “But it’s not going to get resolved (immediately) … But I’m not opposed to starting rookies. I don’t know why I’ve gotten this reputation for not wanting to play young guys.’’

Stotts pointed to his history of starting Noah Vonleh the past two seasons and playing Lillard big minutes as a rookie.

The unit with Harkless and Aminu has excelled in the first two preseason games, going on a 9-2 run in the first game then starting the second preseason game with a 20-7 run. Stotts said he was recently given numbers that said the foursome of Lillard, McCollum, Harkless and Aminu over the last two seasons is a Top 10 unit in net rating.

“When you look at that foursome, you have to take that into consideration,’’ Stotts said.

If it all seems confusing and jumbled,  it is what preseason games are designed for: letting things play themselves out. But as Stotts reminds, it goes beyond identifying the best five players.

“I think people get caught up in the starting lineup,’’ Stotts said. “But it’s also about rotating players. There’s a lot that goes into it: starting familiarity, spacing, offense, defense, not only what happens with starting lineup but rotating players going in. I don’t think that gets enough consideration.’’

It will today when the Blazers reach the midway point of the preseason. 

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?


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.

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

Breakfast with the Blazers: The Turner experiment and Swanigan Sway

Breakfast with the Blazers: The Turner experiment and Swanigan Sway

Some takeaways from the Trail Blazers’ preseason opener Tuesday against Phoenix, where the Blazers’ main players built a 24-point lead before the Suns stormed back for a 114-112 win.

Initiating with ET

 It appears a point of emphasis in this preseason will be getting Evan Turner comfortable initiating the offense, which is probably an indication the team has visions of Turner starting at small forward.

When Turner was signed to a four-year, $70 million contract last summer, the move was largely sold as a way to help alleviate the offensive burden on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum by introducing another playmaker into the offense.

It never really worked out that way last season, in part because early in the season coach Terry Stotts rarely paired Turner with the dynamic backcourt, and then later, when Turner did start to gain some traction with the starting unit, he broke his hand and was never the same.

On Tuesday, Turner not only started at small forward, he began the game running the point and initiating the offense.

 Overall, it was mostly mixed results.

Turner had trouble at times with his ball handling, even when he wasn’t pressured, and he at times looked unsteady with his footing and his comfort level.

 But when smaller guards, like Eric Bledsoe, tried to guard him, Turner immediately took him to the post and made the Suns pay. Also, Lillard in particular flourished in the time Turner ran the point, a freedom Lillard hasn’t had in four years, when he would play off the ball while Mo Williams ran the point in the 2013-2014 season.

 If the goal is to have Turner start alongside Lillard and McCollum, Tuesday wasn’t the best case study. When Turner and Ed Davis left the game, the Blazers trailed 14-13. They were replaced by last year’s opening-night starters – Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu – and the team immediately took off, going on a 9-2 run.

Stotts admitted after the game that having Turner run the point with Lillard and McCollum is one of his preseason experiments.

“We’re trying to,’’ Stotts said. “I mean, one of the things is to take advantage of his ball handling and make it a little less taxing for Dame and CJ. That’s something we want to do better this year than we did last year.’’

His initial impression of the Turner experiment?

 “I thought it was OK,’’ Stotts said. “It was a little shaky at the beginning, but I thought it got better.’’

Turner, in his quirky, non-confrontational manner, dodged post-game interviews, shuffling through reporters while deflecting attention to rookie Isaiah Briscoe, whose locker sits next to his.

“Talk to my man Isaiah,’’ Turner said. “Do a write up on him.’’

 From what I know of Turner, his postgame ditch was him recoiling to what he anticipates as unnecessary backlash and examination of his game.

Turner finished 2-for-9 from the field, which included making one of his two three-point attempts, and he has long wished fans would stop equating his shooting percentage and points with his effectiveness. Yes, it would be beneficial to have him shoot a higher percentage (he made 42.6 percent last year) but when right, his value rests largely in intangibles – savvy passing, defending, taking pressure off the two guards, offering mismatches, etc.

Lillard, for one, sees value in having Turner play alongside he and McCollum.

“I enjoyed it. ET is really comfortable having that option, calling the game, having the ball in his hands, playmaking, being in attack mode,’’ Lillard said. “It also makes the game easier for me and CJ … playing off the ball, coming from behind the defense instead of having the ball and having 10 eye balls on you.’’

Perhaps in anticipation of the Blazers’ brain trust leaning toward utilizing Turner more this season, Lillard said he worked extensively this summer playing off the ball.

“It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time doing in the summer – cuts off the ball and shooting,’’ Lillard said. “And it’s something we’ve done a lot in camp … I haven’t played a lot off the ball since Mo Williams, so I’m familiar with it. Now, we are having ET doing what (Nic) Batum used to – having a wing that can handle and initiate the offense.’’

It’s only one preseason game, but the starting small forward will be an interesting storyline to follow. Harkless spaces the court better for Lillard and McCollum, but Turner allows the duo to play more off the ball.

Also, Turner can help cover the defensive deficiencies of the backcourt better than Harkless, but can probably be more effective offensively on the second unit, where he can be the featured playmaker. Also, the pairing of Harkless and Aminu is a proven defensive commodity.

Decisions like this is why they have preseason, and as Stotts likes to say, “things usually have a way of working themselves out.’’

The Swanigan Sway

 Not since Lillard crashed the scene in 2012 has a Blazers’ rookie attracted such a stir as big man Caleb Swanigan.

 On Tuesday, it was easy to see why the Blazers veterans have been so effusive in their praise. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound rookie from Purdue, who was taken with the 26th overall pick, finished with 18 points and six rebounds. He scored inside, and outside, hitting both of his three-point attempts, while showing a fearless and rugged style.

The Blazers veterans have been singing his praises all training camp, and after Tuesday’s solid showing, it looks like Swanigan not only break the opening day rotation, but will be a candidate to start at power forward.

 After the game, I asked Lillard if it’s safe to say Swanigan will be in the opening day rotation. The team caption didn’t hesitate.

 “I mean, that’s the way it looks to me,’’ Lillard said. “He’s very confident – him and Zach (Collins) both. They rebound the ball well on both sides and both guys really aggressive, not scared at all. They are picking things up … it will be interesting.’’

 The New Nurk

 Lost in the second-half collapse while the top players rested was the early play of Jusuf Nurkic, who was brilliant.

 The Bosnian center showed off his slimmer physique with a series of agile and slick moves, which included a driving dunk and a nifty spin move in the post.

 “I’m too quick,’’ Nurkic quipped after the game.

 He also showed a nice shooting touch from 18 feet and some stout interior defense. All told, Nurkic hit 8-of-13 shots and had three rebounds and one block … all while playing with what he called an uncomfortable protective mask.

 He is wearing the mask after having dental work performed over the summer, which was needed after he had a tooth knocked out in Toronto on Feb. 26. He said he expects to wear the mask throughout preseason, after which he hopes to discard it.

Mask or no mask, Nurkic looks like he will be even better than last season. He’s lost 34 pounds since arriving in Portland last February, and he says he is in the best shape of his life. At the same time, he reminds people that he is still 275 pounds and a load inside.

 His teammates agree.

 “I think he is still dominant, he’s just able to move a little bit more, and he might be a little more quicker, more agile,’’ CJ McCollum said. “He still looks pretty explosive around the basket and from a defensive standpoint having less weight on him will be good for his joints.’’

 Added Lillard: “It was good to see him light on his feet, moving well.’’

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.