Al-Farouq Aminu and his 'monster' start propelling Blazers

Al-Farouq Aminu and his 'monster' start propelling Blazers

INDIANAPOLIS – As Al-Farouq Aminu dressed quietly, and away from the cameras and microphones that surrounded his more high-profile teammates Friday, his name was being attached to several adjectives around the Trail Blazers locker room.

Maurice Harkless called him a “monster.”

Coach Terry Stotts called Aminu an “unsung” player.

And CJ McCollum called him the “glue” that keeps the Blazers together.

Pick any of those descriptions, and Aminu has been that and more in the first two games of this Blazers season.

On Friday, he was a steady force in helping the Blazers dispatch Indiana 114-96, amassing 16 points and 16 rebounds while playing his usual steady defense.  That came on the heels of a five-point, 12-rebound performance in the season-opening win at Phoenix.

“If we get him to play like that all season,’’ McCollum mused, “we will be special.’’

Aminu has long been one of the more under-appreciated players on the Blazers, in part because he is a quiet sort, and in part because often his contributions are not adequately measured by statistics.

He is one of, if not the best, defenders on the Blazers. He is able to switch liberally from guards to forwards and he offers probably the best help defense on the team. 

So far this season, the 6-foot-9 Aminu has also been an elite rebounder. His 14 rebound average through two games is sixth best in the NBA, but he is the only rebounder in the top 10 who is shorter than 6-foot-10.

So how does a 6-foot-9 player dominate the boards?

According to Aminu, much of it mental.

“You have to think every shot is going to be off,’’ he said. “Then go after everything.’’

Another aspect, Aminu says, is to go into a game with a defensive approach, something he has adopted since he signed a four-year, $30 million free agent deal in 2015.

“If I go into a game thinking I’m going to score 100 points, then that’s all that’s on my mind, ‘’ Aminu said. “But if I go in thinking I’m going to hold my guy to zero points, then that’s what is on my mind. You have to challenge yourself defensively; that’s half the battle.’’

And it was a battle on Friday that Aminu won more often than not. His 16 rebounds were the most he has recorded in his two-plus seasons as a Blazer and four off his career high.

“It seemed like every time I looked up, he was grabbing a rebound,’’ Damian Lillard said.

His final stat line didn’t go unnoticed around the locker room.

“That was crazy. Crazy,’’ Evan Turner said. “He is balling out. His energy is at a high level and we need it. Most of those are defensive rebounds, and if we don’t get those, we are in big trouble. You give any NBA team more than one possession and it will be along night.’’

It’s not like Aminu’s value is a revelation. Last season, when he missed 19 games with calf and back injuries, the Blazers’ defense nose-dived to the worst in the league. While much of the Blazers’ late-season turnaround was credited to the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic, a nuanced reason was also Aminu rounding back into shape to shore up the defense.

“He’s the glue. He is awesome,’’ McCollum said. “He does a lot of the dirty work and doesn’t get a lot of credit. Gets a lot of rebounds. Plays defense. Switches … makes threes for us. He’s big.’’

He will have to be big Saturday night for the Blazers in Milwaukee. Aminu figures to be one of the Blazers’ wings who will be charged with slowing down the Bucks’ do-it-all star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is leading the NBA in scoring at 35.5 points a game to go along with 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists.

Today's Blazers' links:

The Talkin' Ball panel discusses Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler being dropped from the Top 50 list. 

Casey Holdahl of the Trail Blazers' writes about the post game of Evan Turner

The Indianapolis Star writes about Caleb Swanigan being a steal in the draft.

Bleacher Report takes a look at whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the game. 

 

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.

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. 

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: Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener

Breakfast with the Blazers: Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener

Perhaps the most pressing subplot to the Trail Blazers season opener is the health of injured point guard Shabazz Napier.

With CJ McCollum suspended for Wednesday’s opener in Phoenix, the Blazers are not only losing their starting shooting guard and a player who averaged 23.0 points a game last season, they are also losing their backup point guard.

That’s why the progress of Napier is something worth monitoring over the next two days.

“Probably more than anything will be the minutes when Dame (Lillard) is out of the game,’’ coach Terry Stotts said Sunday in addressing the complications created by McCollum’s suspension for leaving the bench during a preseason altercation on the court. “That’s the obvious (question), is how will we manage those minutes?’’

Normally, Stotts would just turn to Napier, the fourth-year point guard who came on strong at the end of last season. But Napier has been sidelined with a left hamstring injury since Sept. 27, the team’s second day of training camp.

Napier on Sunday practiced for the first time since suffering the injury, but his participation was limited by the medical staff, who wants to ease him back into action.

“They say each day I will get to do five or 10 minutes longer, ‘’ Napier said. “But supposedly, I’m going to be ready for the start of the season, so I’m excited about that.’’

Stotts says he will be in a wait-and-see mode during the next two practices before penciling Napier into the opening night rotation. After all, Stotts said the plan was to have Napier play last week during the Blazers’ three-game preseason trip, but Napier was never cleared by the medical staff.

If Napier is not cleared for Wednesday, Stotts will most likely have to use Evan Turner, and possibly Pat Connaughton at point guard in the 8-to-12 minutes Lillard figures to rest.

Napier hopes Stotts isn’t left with that dilemma.

Napier said he can explode off his left leg and that he doesn’t feel any limitations when he plays. He said the team is taking a “preventative” approach to make sure the hamstring doesn’t become a nagging, season-long injury.  But in his mind, he is ready, and he is treating the Monday and Tuesday practices as if it were the regular season.

“I just have to make sure when I’m out there in practice that I take those reps as game reps, offensively and defensively,’’ Napier said.

Napier said missing the entire preseason, while not ideal, doesn’t worry him.

“It will be different, because preseason is a way to get your legs back, and show what you can do to help the team, but at the end of the day, it’s still basketball, and I’ve been doing that all my life,’’ Napier said.

Napier last season averaged nearly 10 minutes while appearing in 53 games, including starts in the final two games, when he had 32 points against San Antonio and 25 points against New Orleans. For the season, he averaged 4.1 points and 1.3 assists.

Today's Blazers' links:

Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune recaps CJ McCollum's thoughts on his suspension

KATU has a nice tidbit on the Blazers brightening the day of a teen recovering from an accident.

Maurice Harkless was behind the camera lens Sunday, taking photos of the Timbers. 

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: Has Lillard turned corner on defense?

Breakfast with the Blazers: Has Lillard turned corner on defense?

It was in Phoenix on Wednesday night when coach Terry Stotts bolted off the bench and shouted what could be considered music to the ears of Trail Blazers’ fans.

“Good defense, Damian!” Stotts barked, hands clapping. “Way to anticipate!’’

Damian, of course, is Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers’ star. The compliment, of course, was not only rare, but welcomed to a franchise that is trying to regain its defensive footing this season.

Of all the good things that came out of the Trail Blazers’ preseason – and there were many – the team’s improved defense was at the top of the list. On Friday, Stotts noted that the team’s preseason data showed a promising number of deflections, a good percentage of shots contested, and a high rate of possession after chasing loose balls.

At the center of those numbers has been Lillard. For a team that spent much of last season as the NBA’s worst defense, Lillard was often considered its worst defender.

But starting with the first practices of the season – which were heavily focused on defense – Lillard has been noticeable. In the season’s second practice, during a five-minute window opened to the media, Lillard blocked a shot and later denied an entry pass,  chasing down the deflection before it went out of bounds.

And during the team’s impressive 5-1 preseason, Lillard sized up the Clippers’ European rookie sensation Milos Teodosic and stripped him at halfcourt and took it in for a layin. Later, in that Wednesday game at Phoenix, he applied steady pressure on ball handlers and was part of the Blazers’ high-deflection rate, leading to more unprompted praise postgame from Stotts.

“I thought Damian got his hands on a lot of balls, and that was good to see,’’ Stotts said in Phoenix. “He was really getting into the ball.’’

All told, Lillard tied CJ McCollum for the team lead with eight steals in the preseason. In addition, Lillard was among the team leaders in floor burns after diving for balls.

After the Phoenix game, I asked him if he felt he has made strides defensively.

“It’s the one thing about my game that is easy to pick apart,’’ Lillard said. “I play the game really well offensively, so I can’t complain when people say things about me defensively, because I have my issues on that end. I always say part of it is because my responsibility on offense: sometimes I’m tired and I give into fatigue and I get hit by a screen and somebody cuts behind me and I lose sight. So my focus has to be better in that way, but I think also each year you learn more. I’m more familiar with what guys like to do. I’m more familiar with what plays teams like to run, like tonight, they called plays and I could position myself to where I don’t have to work as hard, I could anticipate what’s coming …

“I think I have made strides on the defensive end, partially because of that,’’ Lillard said.

The key will be how long Lillard can keep his defensive intensity and attention. As he noted Wednesday, fatigue is a huge factor in playing and maintaining defense. It was at the center of his response to me about his defense after that Sept. 27 practice when he made the block and steal after denying an entry pass.

“I don’t think I’m a bad defender, first of all,’’ Lillard said on Sept. 27. “Effort has never been the issue. It’s just a matter of having a lot of responsibility … sometimes getting tired, sometimes giving in to that fatigue, or that fatigue having an impact on my judgment.

“It’s always this way at the beginning of the season – you are fresh, you are excited, you are sharp,’’ Lillard said. “It’s just a matter of me being able to sustain that and me doing a better job taking care of my body, I guess.’’

Lillard is playing about eight pounds lighter than last season, and has adopted a vegan diet. He hopes his lighter playing weight will help with his explosiveness and with his recovery between games.

But I think the physical aspect is only a fraction of what makes a good defender. It’s the mental aspect – both wanting to defend and studying to defend – that elevates players.

And judging from this preseason, and that Wednesday game in Phoenix in particular, it appears Lillard is making headway on the mental approach to his defense.

“It’s trying to stay ahead of the curve, watching film, continuing to understand what the other team are trying to do so I can stay a step ahead and know what’s coming,’’ Lillard said in September. “That’s what better defenders do in the league – they are very familiar with what to expect and what’s to come.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

The Blazers on Friday waived three players to trim roster to 14.

The Ringer does its season preview of the Blazers

Yahoo!'s Shams Charania reports on Blazers not offering Jusuf Nurkic an extension.  

 

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: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

PHOENIX – Meyers Leonard knows it was only one game, and he knows it was only preseason, so he wasn’t ready Wednesday to proclaim his arrival back into Trail Blazers’ relevance.

But after his encouraging 17-point, 8-rebound effort in the Blazers’ 113-104 win over at Phoenix, the embattled Blazers’ big man could confidently say he took another step in his development.

“I knew coming into the year it was going to take some time, that there would be ups and downs,’’ Leonard said. “It’s day-by-day … but tonight felt good.’’

Leonard hit his first five three-pointers and was an aggressive rebounder in compiling his most complete preseason performance to date. Through five preseason games, the 7-foot-1 center is averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds in 15.5 minutes, during which he has made 8-of-12 three pointers.

Leonard’s performance Wednesday tickled his teammates, who know what a lightening rod Leonard has become with the fan base, who feel as a sixth-year pro has not lived up to expectations as a former lottery pick and recipient of a $41 million contract. The players have long said that Leonard has shown the talent in practices, but for whatever reason hasn’t been able to transfer it to the games consistently.

“It’s exciting; you have to be happy for him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He’s doing what everybody knows he can do. For him, it’s just a confidence thing, and having a game like tonight, it just builds that confidence. We need that from him going into the season.’’

When the season opens for real on Oct. 18 at Phoenix, Leonard doesn’t figure to be in coach Terry Stotts’ rotation judging from his preseason playing time. Jusuf Nurkic will start at center and Ed Davis appears to have locked down the backup role. Also, rookie Caleb Swanigan appears to have played his way into the rotation, and rookie Zach Collins is improving with each week.

That leaves the question of  where that leaves Leonard?

“I don’t know. I don’t have a clear answer for you,’’ Leonard said. “I am really trying to take it day-by-day. I knew coming in that it would be an uphill battle, and I’m OK with that. I have to play well in order to gain that trust. And I think tonight was definitely a step in the right direction.’’

Leonard this summer moved to Los Angeles and worked out with renowned basketball trainer Drew Hanlen, who tweaked his shot, worked on his mobility and added to his offensive repertoire. Teammates say Leonard in training camp has looked as good as he has since he arrived in Portland as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft.

On Wednesday, people outside of the Blazers’ practice gym got to see the improvement.

“He’s played like that in camp this entire time,’’ Damian Lillard said. “In September, he was making shots and pushing Nurk on the defensive end. It seemed like he was making every shot in camp. But it’s really good to see him get out there in action and him not hesitating … that’s what you want to see from him.’’

His shot isn’t the only thing that has improved. He has been a much more aggressive and confident rebounder – he grabbed 11 rebounds in 11 minutes on Sunday against the Clippers – and he is fouling less and moving his feet more on defense.

“I was really glad to see him hit some shots,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after Wednesday’s game. “I’m always the first to say that your game isn’t determined by whether you make or miss shots, but he had a good rhythm. And he certainly had an impact on the game.’’

The next step, of course, is to do it again. Leonard said he will attack his Thursday workout with the same enthusiasm and same consistency, then look to take another step forward in the preseason finale on Friday against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

“It’s a long season, and I know I have made big strides,’’ Leonard said. “And I know I can impact the game on both sides of the ball. I’m going to keep doing my best to be ready when my number is called.’’

Today's Blazers' Links:

A look at what got Caleb Swanigan ejected against the Suns.

An inbounds play paid dividends again for the Blazers on Wednesday.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers writes how three's and defense led Wednesday's win.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Harkless impressing with defense, approach

Breakfast with the Blazers: Harkless impressing with defense, approach

PHOENIX – On a team that figures to only go as far as its defense allows, Maurice Harkless knows he is a key component to this season’s Trail Blazers.

In what is unfolding as a promising preseason for the Blazers, Harkless has been one of the constants in an improved defense, showing what he says is a maturity in his game.

In years past, Harkless says, much of his defensive attention and effectiveness was determined by how well he was playing that night offensively.

But after securing a long-term deal before last season, and watching first-hand how poor defense can derail a team’s season, Harkless this season has both a more secure and grounded perspective.

“I know that I have to one of our guys who are one of our leaders defensively,’’ Harkless said. “So just leading by example by getting out and getting deflections, steals … just do what I can do on that side of the ball to get other guys going. When you get steals, it gets everyone else excited to play defense.’’

His play in the first four preseason games has caught the attention of his teammates. When asked who has impressed him the most in this preseason, star Damian Lillard said Harkless and Pat Connaughton.

“I just think Moe is playing with good confidence,’’ Lillard said. “Makes or misses, his attitude hasn’t changed. He’s constantly looking for mismatches on the block, and he’s playing physical – contesting passes, contesting shots. He has got his hands on a lot of balls on the defensive end.’’

The key, Lillard noted, is that Harkless has been provided the disruptive defense whether he goes 6-for-6 like he did Sunday at the Clippers or 3-for-7 against Toronto.

“That just shows that he is doing it whether he is getting touches or not, or when he making shots or not,’’ Lillard said. “And that’s impressive … that’s the kind of effort we need.’’

Harkless, who is entering his sixth NBA season, says he didn’t always have that defensive discipline, noting that if his shot was off, often times his defense was, too.

“That’s just been part of my maturity, my growth – not letting (offense) effect the other end,’’ Harkless said. “Every night is not going to be (the 6-for-6) night. There are going to be nights when I don’t make a shot, so I just have to stay focused and be that anchor defensively every night.’’

The Blazers know they are going to be one of the NBA’s top offensive teams. The goal, coach Terry Stotts says, is to finish the season ranked in the Top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Through four preseason games – and yes, it’s only preseason, but still – the Blazers rank ninth in defense (93.5 points per 100 possessions) and fifth in offense (108.5).

Along the way, the Blazers have held Sacramento to 39 percent shooting from the field; the Clippers to 40.2 percent, the Raptors to 40 percent and Phoenix to 40.7 percent through three quarters before the end of the bench allowed the Suns to make 15-of-22 shots in the fourth.

So while Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are poised to be the offensive stars, Harkless figures he can be that defensive constant, which in the end might be the most valuable component to this season.

So far, Lillard likes what he sees. He said so far, the improved defense has been the Blazers’ biggest preseason accomplishment.

“We’ve been consistent on the defensive end – getting deflections, our activity has been much better than it has in the past, this early,’’ Lillard said. “Guys have been focused on it. We don’t have to scream at each other … we’ve formed a habit of it. Now we just have to continue it through the regular season.’’

And for Harkless, that means playing defense whether he is making shots or not.