Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are a known commodity, one of the best backcourts in basketball. Even Jusuf Nurkic, an underrated player for sure, has a following.
But Gary Trent Jr.? Where has he come from?
And why was the most Bubblicious player during the NBA restart so far, not taken until the second round of the 2019 NBA draft?
Trail Blazer President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, the man who engineered a trade to grab Trent with the seventh pick in the second round of that draft, tried to explain it Friday.
“People forget, he was one of the top 10 players in America in his class coming out of high school, which was an elite class,” Olshey said. “He’s a guy that for systemic reasons, where people catch inertia -- either positive or negative -- around the draft, slipped way beyond what people would have thought his draft status would have been, given the hype and reputation and body of work that he entered Duke with.
“If you look at the Duke team, they were loaded. They came into the season with five guys projected to go in the first round. I think Gary had been on the radar for so long and such a high profile guy, that even though he was only a freshman, so much was expected of him, and I think he had a really good year -- i think he averaged 15 a game and shot 40 from three -- but i think he underwhelmed relative to expectations.”
It happens frequently. And it’s because there are so many metrics out there now with which to judge players. So many ways to judge them, that it's almost easier to find reasons not to draft someone as to draft him.
“So many things that factor in,” Olshey said. “Height, weight, measurements that have nothing to do with playing basketball. The combine isn’t reflective of NBA basketball. Workouts down to 2-on-2 or 3-on-3. Guys lose sight of what they liked about a player when they were actually watching him play five-on-five, real competitive basketball. And they start using inconsequential data points. It’s paralysis by analysis.”
Olshey wanted to take Anfernee Simons in the first round because he knew there were several teams behind the Blazers who would snatch him up. But then there was a chance Trent would last into the second round.
“With Gary there was this kind of reverse heat, Olshey said. “There was an overcorrection accruing on Gary. We felt if we could get back into the 30s, we would have a chance to get him.
“And with the exception of Will Barton, a lot of our second-round picks have been guys we bought into or traded to get. Allen Crabbe, Pat Connaughton, Jake Layman.
“We weren’t looking to get into the second round, but once he started falling, we got very aggressive. And you know (late owner) Paul Allen on draft night -- more is always better. Two future seconds and cash to get him (from Sacramento). We valued him as a first-round pick. We signed him to a full, three-year contract right out of the gate. We immediately gave him what we thought the value of a first-round pick would be.”
So Trent arrived in Portland as the guy who was selected after Anfernee Simons, who got most of the attention from the media as a kid who didn’t even attend college. Trent had a ways to go, just to get on the floor.
“What he needed to do is find his identity,” Olshey said. “He was a lot stronger than guys in high school and he was able to bully his way to the rim. What it resulted in for us was a lot of inefficiency. He was taking a lot of long twos. He was getting himself in trouble with a lot of over-penetrating into the lane and i think what he’s done is listen to all of us and he’s simplified his style of play to fit into what we need out on the court. Which is defensive energy, toughness, three-point shooting, moving without the ball, getting to the rim with opportunity for free throws.
“The scope of his game has narrowed and it has simplified things for him to where he can really just excel at what we need him to do to balance the floor when he’s out there with either Dame and CJ or in place of one of them.”
But did the Trail Blazers envision Trent turning into a shooter of this magnitude? Especially this quickly?
“You know what I saw,” Olshey said. “Right now, he’s on fire and I hope it continues. But I knew he was a really good shooter. What I had confidence in, was that he was a really good game shooter.
“You put him in a gym and there are four or five guys on our team who will outshoot him on the shooting gun. He’s a gamer. That’s the one thing Gary always did when we tracked him from high school. I saw him play seven times at Duke, he played great in the combine had a great workout with us and the one thing about Gary is, when the lights come on, he’s fearless.
“A lot of it has to do with his pedigree and the success he’s had at those different levels. But what I knew he could do is make game shots.
“So what’s interesting with him is, he needed an opportunity to get on the court. Because when you watch him just in drills and at practice, he’s not as dynamic a shooter as he is, once he gets into the flow of the game. All those psychological intangibles start coming into play when you get into that make-or-miss kind of format.”
And defense, which a general manager from a team that passed on Trent told me is what made teams hesitate about drafting him. "We didn't see a commitment there," the GM said,
Trent said this week that "100 percent" his defense is what got him on the floor for this team.
"First and foremost, it was his commitment to getting better defensively," Coach Terry Stotts said. "He didn't get to play much his rookie season but he really committed to being a better defender and getting a few minutes on the court that way. He's always been a scorer, but defensively, finding out what you can get away with, learning NBA defense, learning NBA personnel, locking in on game plans, learning from the guys who are playing, in a year that you don't play, you really have to utilize that time to get better, knowing the NBA game. I think he's improved in all those areas."
And up above, you have to believe Paul Allen is smiling.
“It was very hard for Paul to get excited about the obvious,” Olshey said. “He literally created the tech sector. He was always about discovering something nobody else saw. He loved the narrative around Nurk. He loved the surprises. He loved the unknowns. He loved young players and seeing them grow.”
And he would have loved the Gary Trent Jr. Story.