Trail Blazers vs Nuggets Thursday, 12/20/12 AT 07:00PM

Luke Babbitt's Readiness To Adapt Helps Trail Blazers

12/19/12
  1. Written by: erikgundersen  / avg. rating: 5.0

    BY ERIK GUNDERSEN

    "I'm just a young player trying to get better, man. That's all."

    When the conversation about Luke Babbitt begins, it's easy to forget how young he is. Jokes have been made about him the past two seasons (unfairly) but Babbitt's increased playing time and production has been seriously needed by a Trail Blazers squad hit by the injury bug and in need of an extra scoring punch. Babbitt has stepped up and seems to be finding a groove offensively (and finding more comfort defensively) as he has scored in double-digits (shooting 52 percent) off the bench the last two games.

    "As Coach has been trusting me to make some plays out there, so I'm just trying to make the most of it," Babbitt said. "Trying to help my team defensively and shooting the ball."

    In the Trail Blazers crazy 18-point comeback in Charlotte against the Bobcats, playing Babbitt at  power forward with Aldridge at center helped trigger a comeback with five minutes left in the game. He hit big shots but he also played great pick and roll defense and crashed the boards helping the Trail Blazers blitz the speedy point guards of the Bobcats. Stotts called the Charlotte game a "turning point" for Babbitt.

    "He made some big plays and his presence on the court changes the game," Stotts said. "It wasn't necessarily a question of having more or less confidence in him. When I got the job, I knew how Luke could change a game. He's had those opportunities and he's taking advantage of them."

    After the turning point in Charlotte, Babbitt has averaged 22 minutes per game after not recording double-digit minutes in a game until the last game in November.

    Babbitt has had to be versatile by necessity for the Trail Blazers.  Offensively, match-ups are in his favor as a power forward or "stretch four," where he is often quicker than his defenders and he is able to draw them out to respect his outside shots. With the injuries to Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews, Babbitt has also gotten minutes at small forward where defensively things shift as he is often guarding players who are quicker. Babbitt has shown he doesn't lack the athleticism to be at least a good team defender.

    "A lot of young players come in and make adjustments defensively. You know, trying to guard two different positions, the four and the three. Trying to get better next time I go out there," Babbitt said.

    Despite, what our Casey Holdahl called "the generalities" thrown around about Babbitt in different corners of the internet, he's starting starting to show that his game isn't so simple. After getting the head coaching job, Stotts said he knew that Babbitt could "change a game." Towards the end of last year, Babbitt got a lot of playing time and was shooting the three-ball well and NBA defenses acted accordingly, trying to close out and run him off the three-point line. Babbitt has been trying to mix it up and the last two games have resulted in double-digit performances off the Trail Blazers' bench, a unit that has been maligned too many times to count.

    "Defense is closing out hard on me so you know if I'm in their scouting report as a three-point shooter you have to do other things," Babbitt said. "Put the ball on the floor a little bit, go right, go left and make pull-up jumpers."

    "Like anybody, the more time you get on the floor you get more confident," Stotts said.

    When Stotts came to Portland, he was surprised by Babbitt's athleticism.

    "I noticed that when I first came here in September and watched how athletic he was and I was surprised. When he took one or two dribbles into his jump shot and see how high he elevates. So, he's much more athletic."

    So moments like Babbitt's memorable dunk over Ed Davis aren't a surprise for Stotts anymore.

    "The other night when he dunked on the baseline that apparently surprised everybody here but I wasn't surprised. I've seen what he can do."

    After the Toronto game, Stotts suggested that the perception about Babbitt not being athletic may come from his choice to shoot set shots rather than jumpers when he is open for three.

    The numbers for Babbitt have been as encouraging as what we've seen on the floor. Although his three-point percentage is sitting at 34 percent, he is actually shooting a better percentage from the field and a much higher effective field goal percentage of his long-twos (53 percent from 17 percent last season). The difference in his three-point percentage right now and his percentage from last year is one of almost nine percentage points but his effective field goal percentage (a statistic that takes into account the value of the three-point shot) has only dropped 0.8 percentage points, an encouraging sign as one would expect his three-point numbers to climb back up. Babbitt has also cut his turnover rate by more than half and has more than doubled his assist-to-turnover ratio. He isn't dropping dimes every night but the fact his turnover rate has gone down so sharply while using roughly the same amount of plays may be an indication that Babbitt is figuring things out. Babbitt has also improved his rebound rate, mostly on the defensive end but that is something he must continue to improve on if Stotts is going to play him at power forward as the season carries on. Also, Babbitt is creating for himself more than he did last season as 59.3 percent of his field goals have been assisted compared to 66 percent last season.

    Babbitt's versatility with his size and ability are an asset to the Trail Blazers. With Matthews' impending return, the Trail Blazers are going to face a minutes crunch for the first time as the injuries have forced players like Babbitt to step-up their play. Babbitt must continue to adjust, adapt for whenever and wherever Stotts needs him.

    "To excel in that (playing the three and the four), he has to change his mind and understand what's required of him with those match-ups."

    "Whether it's a guy like LaMarcus where we are trying to get him space to operate; if I'm at the four and Damian's in there it's more of an opportunity for him to penetrate. I'm just trying do whatever I can to help."

    Whether it's a three to send a game to overtime after an epic comeback or setting a screen to free a teammate for a game-winning shot, Babbitt has already contributed to big moments in the Trail Blazers season. If Aldridge (questionable with left ankle sprain) is out against Denver, they'll need him and his versatility more than at any point this season.

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