As we watched Gary Trent and Anfernee Simons take turns making big shots for the Trail Blazers Thursday night, it struck me that they both, at least, appear to be solid NBA rotational players.
And it also occurred to me how difficult it was for them to get consistent playing time for the Trail Blazers. If not for injuries to teammates, I’m not sure we would be getting much of a glimpse of either of them, even now.
Under Terry Stotts, young players -- other than notable exception Damian Lillard -- have had a very difficult time breaking through.
And you can go all the way back to CJ McCollum, a first-round pick, who never started as a rookie and had only three starts in his second season -- after establishing himself as a very good shooter almost from the start.
Yes, McCollum, in his second year, was in line behind Wesley Matthews and when Matthews was hurt, Arron Afflalo. And it took injuries to both those players for him to sneak into the starting lineup.
Meyers Leonard never did win Stotts’ confidence and became a favorite target for many fans for his faults -- and a contract that paid him about $10 million a year. Even after a clutch playoff performance in his second season, he was mostly buried on the bench in Portland.
He departed for Miami last season and became a starter for the Eastern Conference champions and Erik Spoelstra, one of the most demanding coaches in the NBA -- until an injury derailed his season.
And Pat Riley gave him $10 million to return to Miami this season.
Trent played in only 15 games his rookie season, but his big break came late last season, when injuries left Stotts little choice but to play him.
McCollum and Rodney Hood were out of action when Trent, who did not score in the first nine games last season and got inconsistent playing time during the first half, got more consistent minutes.
The rest was history. He defended well, which earned him time in the beginning, and when his shot started falling, he was firmly in the rotation.
Simons showed positive signs in limited duty even in his rookie season, when he played only 20 games but scored 37 points in 48 minutes in Portland’s final game of the season.
Last year, his playing time was up and down and petered out as the season ended.
But now, due to all the early season injuries, Simons is getting consistent minutes and making them count.
But make no mistake, without those injuries he just might not have gotten the kind of consistent playing time to be able to find consistency in his game. It's valid to say that Trent and Simons were playing behind high-level guards in Lillard and McCollum, which, of course, is true. But the starters were often among the league leaders in minutes played, which may not have been necessary.
Stotts plays his veterans -- even the aging ones. And he has often played them long minutes, which cuts down on chances to play the reserves. Some coaches do it that way, others do not. The feeling among many coaches is that they want to play the youngsters enough to draw valid conclusions about their long-term viability with the team. Without that, there is often doubt for a few seasons about how good they are.
In the narrow loss at Houston Thursday, Carmelo Anthony was having an off-night. He made only 3 of 15 shots, but played 37:44 -- which is a lot for him.
Meanwhile, second-year forward Nassir Little played 4:01. Is Little ready to perform in a game like that? I have no idea, actually. I know he’s a very good athlete who seems to have made some improvement with his shot.
But until he gets consistent minutes, we won’t know what he’s capable of doing.
Or, in other unfortunate words, we may not know until somebody else gets injured.