Draft Just One Step in the Process
It isn't very often you see a draft go as planned more than what we saw on Thursday night, at least as far as the Trail Blazers were concerned. I've told you for weeks the players Portland would be selecting with their two lottery picks would be Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard. That's not to suggest I had any bulletproof inside information, but instead illustrates how smoothly things went for the Trail Blazers.
If you were after surprises and shocking developments, like we've seen at times in the past, this draft wasn't for you. It was more about substance and less about symbolism. That's just what the Blazers were after. More ho-hum and less bang, if you will. And that's not to imply the players Portland selected won't make plenty of noise, but as far as planning goes, this step in the process was knocked down with quiet comfort.
In the days leading up to the draft, I disagreed with those who were implying this was a make-or-break day for the Blazers. It was certainly important, but no more important than signing the right free agents, or hiring the right coach. The fact that the Blazers owned two lottery picks for the first time in franchise history didn't change the task at hand- simply acquiring the right players.
In fact, things went so well early in the first round, the Blazers probably had options they didn't think they'd have both at the sixth spot and the 11th spot. What we heard after the draft ended was that they didn't bite on the temptation to change the plan, and instead stayed the course. Their exhaustive research, results of testing, and information from pre-draft workouts had led them to two players on the early wish list and that's where they stayed.
I know that we always want to immediately grade drafts, and put the teams in columns of winners and losers, but that's such a difficult thing to do. It's probably easier when a team maneuvers to acquire additional picks, or trades up or down. That you can grade, but simply taking the guys you had on your radar won't be able to be accurately measured for some time.
There was so much talk leading up to the draft about the old debate, do you take the best available player at a particular spot, or do you draft based on need? It doesn't happen very often that you accomplish both, but I believe Portland did that.
I also heard some talk leading up to the draft urging the Blazers to "take a chance" and not simply go the safe route. Again, you could argue they accomplished a bit of both. Lillard's stock has been on the rise since the college season ended and he found his spot on the national map growing in size, but in a draft every pick is a bit of a gamble. Playing at Weber State, he stayed below the national radar to some extent, and his numbers have been called "inflated" due to the fact that he didn't play in the Big East or the ACC.
There was also the matter of learning Lillard away from the court. That is a huge part of analyzing potential draft picks. When you're dealing with an investment like this you had better make sure he fits your culture. Both Lillard and Leonard passed this part of the process with flying colors.
In one of Portland's early pre-draft workouts, I got to watch Leonard perform in Tualatin and go up against North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, who, at the time, was projected to go well ahead of Leonard. As many have mentioned, Zeller might be a bit more able to contribute right away, but it was pretty clear Leonard had the greater potential. Leonard is 7'1 and has an impressive frame. To me, at least physically, he resembles Brook Lopez when he came out of Stanford. But, he runs the floor better than Lopez, and is probably a better defender than Lopez was at the same time. I know that's a lofty comparison, but that's who instantly came to my mind. Leonard is also a very likable kid who has a great story that you'll be hearing more about.
It should also be mentioned that Portland may have grabbed a bit of a sleeper in the second round, in Will Barton out of Memphis. He was projected in many mock drafts to go in the 20s in the first round, but slipped to Portland's spot in the second round. Barton was the Conference USA Player of the Year last season as a sophomore, and appears to have a pretty high ceiling. Damon Stoudamire, who is an assistant at Memphis, is a huge fan of Barton's and certainly feels like the Blazers got a steal.
The draft lottery, the hiring of a GM, the NBA Draft, things we had lined up like dominos, are all in the books. Now, it's on to the next thing, and that happens to be free agency. As Neil Olshey reminded us Thursday night, it's not like the Blazers have only
been preparing for the draft. They've also got a plan for this next phase.
We can only hope it goes as smoothly as the draft.