Has Meyers Leonard improved? Blazers teammates say 'yes'

Has Meyers Leonard improved? Blazers teammates say 'yes'

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

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

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

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

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

His teammates agree.

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

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

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

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

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

It was just one game, Blazer fans -- but what a game it was

It was just one game, Blazer fans -- but what a game it was

OK, Blazer fans, you know the drill.

Keep repeating this to yourself: "It's just one game. It's just one game. It's just one game"

And there are 81 yet to play. But I must admit, that 48-point win on opening night on the road was very impressive. And I don't care how bad the Suns are, it was quite a game for the Trail Blazers.

Let's talk about it:

  • The defense was obviously very solid. The Suns are a guard-oriented offensive team and the Blazers took those guards -- Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe -- out of the game, holding them to 11-for-35 shooting from the field and Phoenix had nothing left. And shortly after intermission, the overmatched Suns pretty much quit.
  • You can give several individual players their due for the defense, but what I liked best was the cohesion by the entire team at the defensive end. Pick-and-roll defense was improved and so was the interior stuff. Jusuf Nurkic makes a difference in the paint with his ability to leave his own man and intimidate drivers. Mostly, I saw a new alertness and aggression at the defensive end -- and that was special.
  • Pat Connaughton showed what he's capable of doing and it was plenty. Maybe it was just because this game was in Phoenix but he reminded me a lot of Dan Majerle, except he's a better three-point shooter than the ex-Sun.
  • Damian Lillard was, well, Damian Lillard. That leadership he provides is as important as his talent. He's a rare one, folks. A special player.
  • This was another illustration of Portland's overall talent level. Coach Terry Stotts played everybody and they all can play. This isn't a season when the Blazers will have two or three players at the end of the bench who are "projects" or merely players happy to be there. These guys all belong on an NBA court.
  • It's on to Indiana for a matchup against the Pacers, who amassed 140 points in their opening win over Brooklyn, so it should be a better test for the Portland defense. And remember, it's just the second of 82 games.

Blazers' Maurice Harkless starts his own All-Defense campaign

Blazers' Maurice Harkless starts his own All-Defense campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Harkless.

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

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

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

Today's Blazers' links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat Connaughton makes the most of his opening night opportunity

Pat Connaughton makes the most of his opening night opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blazers lay the smackdown in Phoenix, beat Suns, 124-76

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Blazers lay the smackdown in Phoenix, beat Suns, 124-76

The Blazers layed the smackdown on the Suns, making every aspect of the game look easy. The offense was clicking and the defense was on lock. Big blocks and big steals were followed by big buckets. Even with CJ McCollum on the sideline the Blazers didn't skip a beat. Pat Connaughton had a career night scoring 24 points, and the Blazers left little doubt. Not a bad way to start the season. 

Final Score: Portland 124 - Phoenix 76

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other news and notes about the opener:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The under-the-radar Trail Blazers could win 50 games in the tough West

The under-the-radar Trail Blazers could win 50 games in the tough West

Ready or not, here they come. The Portland Trail Blazers will unpack those new Nike uniforms and open the regular season tonight in Phoenix.

And I must admit, I expect big things. I think the Trail Blazers are flying under the radar a little bit this season. They didn't add a big-name free agent, make a blockbuster trade or get a top-five draft choice, but they've improved a lot. How does that happen? Well, this team has been one of the youngest in the league for the past three seasons and it's growing up and growing together. Experience matters and so does player development -- and not many teams do that as well as the Trail Blazers.

This roster is improved from top to bottom. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are all-star level players but we know by now they do not sit around all summer doing nothing. You will see they've gotten better. I expect Pat Connaughton to have a breakout season, earning playing time with an all-around game that's better than what was lost with the trade of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn. The rookies, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins, will improve as the season progresses and I expect that somewhere along the line each will play a part in winning games.

Yes, the defense is still a question mark. It looked better in the exhibition season but to be fair, the preseason games didn't include any of the NBA's premier offensive teams. We shall see. And it goes without saying, too, that Jusuf Nurkic must stay healthy.

But I expect this team to have a shot at 50 wins and contend for a spot in the upper half of the West playoff bracket. It's going to be a dogfight but this group is ready to take it to another level and show its potential as a future West contender.

And it all starts tonight -- on NBC Sports Northwest, where you will always find Rip City Live before the game and Talkin' Ball after the game,

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

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

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

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

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

How successful?

How about 12-4?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today's Blazers' links:

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

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

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

Watch Blazers vs. Suns now on NBC Sports Northwest

Watch Blazers vs. Suns now on NBC Sports Northwest

If you already get NBCS Northwest on your TV at home, but you are not able to be home during a Trail Blazers game, now you can stream the game live at the NBC Sports App.  You can download the NBC Sports App at www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile.  And, if you can’t stream it on the NBC Sports App you can stream the game online at our live stream page, NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream.

After two preseason meetings, the Trail Blazers and Suns find themselves squaring off once again but this time both teams are tipping of the 2017-18 NBA campaign.  Portland and Phoenix will tip-off at 7:00pm on Wednesday night on NBC Sports Northwest. 

During the exhibition season, the Trail Blazers went 5-1 and took one of the two meetings against the Suns in preseason action. Portland had opened the preseason with a close one at home against Phoenix, losing 114-112.  The Trail Blazers then beat the Suns 113-104 on October 11th down in Phoenix.

The Blazers will face the Suns without starting shooting guard CJ McCollum after the NBA suspended McCollum for one game for leaving the bench during an altercation between Blazers rookie Caleb Swanigan and Suns big man Alex Len in that October 11th game.

Phoenix finished its exhibition season going 2-3. 

As for Wednesday’s contest, the unofficial starters in the game notes for the Blazers are Damian Lillard, Evan Turner (in place of the suspended McCollum), along with Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic.

The Trail Blazers only have Noah Vonleh (right shoulder) listed on the injury report.  Vonleh will be OUT for Wednesday game. The Suns on the other hand, are dealing with a few more injuries.  Jared Dudley (left foot surgery) and Alex Len (left ankle sprain) are both listed as questionable and Brandon Knight (left ACL tear), as well as Alan Williams (right meniscus repair) and Davon Reed (left meniscus repair) are all out vs. the Blazers.

Talking Stick Resort Arena has not been kind to Portland in recent years.  The Suns all-time home record in the last 12 seasons against the Trail Blazers is 19-5.

Our Dan Sheldon, Dwight Jaynes, and Orlando Williams will help set the stage for the Blazers season opener with a special hour-long Rip City Live on NBC Sports Northwest starting at 5:30pm.

And if you can’t get to a TV, you can check out our pregame coverage with The Scoop Pregame Show streaming live on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer at 6:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest.

Quick Links:
Evan Turner and his lofty defensive goal
Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener
Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Video:  McCollum: “They made a choice, they didn’t have to suspend me”
Video:  It’s “easy to pick apart” Lillard’s defense
Video:  Jason Quick: It’s pretty clear who Stotts’ Top 9 guys are
Video:  So good to see you again, #RipCity tweets

Game Details:
Where:  Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix AZ  

Tip-off: 7:00pm

Television: NBCS Northwest

CSN Programming:  Hour-long Rip City Live (5:30pm), Talkin' Ball  (Immediately after the Blazers postgame show)

Live streaming of the game: Watch the game on your phone on the NBC Sports App.  Download the  app at http://www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile .  Or check out NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream online.

Live streaming of NBCS programing: The Scoop Pregame Show streams at 6:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. 

Radio: Rip City Radio 620

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.