Portland Trail Blazers

Blazers' top stories: The maturation of Lillard and McCollum and Swanigan's emergence

Portland Trail Blazers

Observations, notes and top stories from the Trail Blazers’ media day on Monday:

The maturation of Lillard and McCollum

One of the most encouraging things I heard throughout Monday’s media day came from the team’s two stars, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

There are often phases that an NBA player goes through during their career, one that former Blazers coach Nate McMillan first brought to my attention years ago. It usually evolves something like this: young player wants to make a name for himself; then he wants to make money, buy fancy cars, soak in the fame. But eventually, some players find they have enough fame and enough money. That’s when winning becomes paramount in their careers.

Some never come to that realization. For others it comes late in their careers.

On Monday, after listening to Lillard and McCollum, the concept of winning-above-all has already resonated with the Blazers’ two stars.

When asked by The Oregonian’s Jen Beyrle what would be a successful season for him, Lillard gave an answer that spoke beyond his 27 years.

“For me, it’s how much can I impact everybody else?’’ Lillard said. “I don’t think stats will tell the story, I don’t think making an All-Star Game will tell the story. I just think how much I can impact everybody else and lift everybody else up to make us a stronger team overall. How can I empower everybody else to where we are a winning team? That’s the next thing for me – how can I make this team go, how can I help us win games?’’

 

Later, after McCollum talked about being more concerned with winning games than his stats, I asked him about that evolution in his thinking. He said once he fought to show he could play, then secured a long-term contract, it was easier to get to the core of what it is all about: winning.

“There comes a time when you mature and understand that for one, you make a lot of money … so I have a comfort there, and a confidence because I worked hard, but now it’s about winning,’’ McCollum said. “I’ve proven myself. And I’ve said before, I will be a better player this year and the numbers may show it, they may not. But the complete package – from leadership to doing the right things off the court to making the extra pass, to defending, to boxing out – whatever it takes I just want to win. Because as you’ve seen in the past – people forget about certain things but they don’t about winning. Winning lasts forever.’’

Lillard, I believe, has long held winning above all else. This isn’t a revelation to him. But I still cringed at times when he rattled off his offensive stats in defense of his defense, or became consumed with his resume of All-Star appearances and the like. To hear him prioritize making players around him better, and concerning himself with figuring out ways to elevate those around him? It’s another sign that he is headed for greatness.

For McCollum, who will be playing in the first year of his $106 million deal, it is another indication of how he values his place and his legacy. Perhaps more so than any other Blazer, McCollum seems to have a career plan carefully mapped out, right down to his retirement portfolio. That plan is centered around leaving a legacy, as he likes to say, both on and off the court. Just 26, McCollum knows that the foundation of a legacy is better rooted in wins than stats.

Can’t ask to hear better stuff from your team’s stars.

Nurkic and the Blazers’ ‘trash’ defense

One of the more entertaining – but meaningful -- exchanges on Monday involved Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic who tried to suggest these Blazers take on the tough guy persona of the Bad Boys era in Detroit.

But aside from his questionable grasp of history (he likened the Bad Boys not to Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, etc. but instead to Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace), his point was spot on: The Blazers need to be tougher and play better defense.

“We need to play defense, number one,’’ Nurkic said. “Our defense was trash, to be honest, before … and we are going to be better. We are going to prove that. It’s simple: if you want to win, you have to play defense.’’

We’ve heard September talk by the Blazers about the importance of defense before, without great follow through until a mid-to-late-season breakthrough. The Blazers’ late-season defensive improvement last season coincided with Nurkic’s February arrival and the improved health of Al-Farouq Aminu, but it will be interesting to see if this team can establish a defensive identity early.

 

Do Blazers have a Biggie surprise?

Perhaps nothing raised the eyebrows more than hearing Blazers’ veterans heap effusive and widespread praise upon rookie big man Caleb Swanigan.

From the sounds of it, the No. 26 overall pick has the stuff to crack the rotation.

After Lillard said Swanigan had caught his attention over the last month during pickup games at the team’s practice facility, I asked Lillard if what he was seeing from Swanigan was good enough to play right away in the NBA.

“Yeah,’’ Lillard said confidently. “He’s definitely good enough to play right now.’’

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Swanigan, who averaged 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds for Purdue last season, appears to have a blend of Jerome Kersey hustle and Zach Randolph savvy around the basket.

“Very impressive,’’ Lillard said. “Just his confidence, how physical he was, and he has a knack for finding the ball … He’s just very sure of himself, and you don’t see that in rookies all the time.’’

Maurice Harkless said Swanigan “definitely” surprised him during pickup games.

“In my opinion, he’s been great so far,’’ Harkless said, adding that he too thinks Swanigan can play right away.

Portland fans can get their first views of Swanigan -- who goes by the  nickname "Biggie" -- on Sunday at the team’s Fan Fest (1 p.m.) or the team’s first exhibition on Oct. 3 against Phoenix.

What will they see?

“Constant effort,’’ Swanigan said.

Ed Davis back, and with a goal

Probably the most direct goal on Monday came from veteran Ed Davis, who says he wants to win the team’s vacant starting power forward spot.

Davis, a key element to the Blazers’ 44-win team two years ago, said he was cleared Monday by doctors to compete in 5-on-5 action after having his left shoulder surgically repaired last spring.

Last season, the Blazers first started Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward then transitioned to Noah Vonleh after Aminu struggled with injuries. Entering Tuesday’s first practice, Vonleh is out for at least a month because of an injured right shoulder and coach Terry Stotts said he envisions playing Aminu this season at both forward positions.

“My goal is I want to start,’’ Davis said. “I feel like that four position is open.’’

Davis, who is entering the final year of his contract, said he doesn’t need much to motivate him.

“I’m self motivated. I don’t need to go on Twitter or Instagram to get extra motivation … but it is a good thing as a player when you know there’s a chance you can start and play big minutes.’’

Harkless goal: Improve free throws

 

One of the biggest complaints from fans I hear over the years is why more NBA players don’t prioritize improving at the free throw line.

So it was refreshing to hear Monday that Harkless spent part of his summer working on his free throw stroke. Last season, Harkless shot 62.1 percent from the line, which raised his career percentage to 59.6 percent.

Harkless said he has set a goal for what he wants to shoot at the line, but declined to reveal it.

“My goal, my business,’’ he said.

The key to becoming  better at the line, Harkless said, is focus.

“A lot of it is just being able to focus more, block out everything else going on,’’ Harkless said. “I’ve always been a good shooter in practice and when I’m by myself. But over the course of a game a lot of things go in and out of your head when you are at the free throw line … I just have to be able to block out everything else.’’