Trail Blazers vs Mavericks Sunday, 04/07/13 AT 06:00PM

As Season Winds Down, Rookies Continue To Gear Up

04/05/13
  1. Written by: erikgundersen  / avg. rating: 5.0

    At the start of Training Camp, the Trail Blazers opened their doors with media and fans sifting through a mix of unproven parts. Of the vast majority of those unproven parts were rookies, five in total.

    Damian Lillard, Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver, Joel Freeland and Will Barton all helped the Trail Blazers usher in a completely new era. An era that had to define itself as they went along.

    Even though Dame has a chance to lead the NBA in minutes as a rookie, he, like his teammates, wonder where their first season has gone.

    "It has gone by fast," Dame said. "It's funny because there's a lot of games I don't even remember. It's been a long season but it happened so fast. It's unbelievable how fast the season goes by."

    In their first season, each Trail Blazers rookie has had their moments of brilliance along with learning moments, but they've all had to learn how to keep moving on.

    "There is something in the NBA and it's that the games are very continuous. So, losing a game has meaning until the game is over," Claver said. "And when it's over and you've lost, you have to start thinking about the next one."

    There are only seven games left in the season, but with Portland's young guys getting more playing time due to injuries and the Trail Blazers being on the outside of the playoff race, it gives Portland's young players more live reps, all against teams against whom they will be fighting for playoff spots next year.  

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    Damian Lillard:  Even though he started historically great for a rookie (23-point, 11-assist opening night against the Lakers), his offense continued to improve, especially in the month of March. However, Dame highlighted defense, something Portland has struggled with, as something he wants to improve.

    "Seeing different situations when we double-team pick-and-roll situations (Portland's bigs are taught to blitz ball-handlers). A lot of times when I make mistakes just try to see those things while I'm on the floor instead of waiting until after the game." Dame also talked about his desire to be "one of the better defenders" on the team and hopes to improve by working with one of the greatest defensive point guards of all time in Gary Payton. Payton and Lillard both share the same agent and Payton has been a mentor to others such as Jared Cunningham of the Mavs (who played his college ball at Oregon State) and DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors, both friends of Lillard.  

    Lillard clearly respects Payton and sees a lot of him in himself.

    "I mean, he's from the real Oakland, I'm from the real Oakland. So, we got a lot in common. We think the same in a lot of ways when it comes to the game of basketball. I think our approach is similar. So there's no reason why I can't take his advice and listen to what he has to say because I think he is a hall of fame point guard."

    Victor Claver: Despite the fact that all of the Trail Blazers rookies came in with the tools to do certain things, Claver came into the league already having found his niche as a player. Kevin Pelton now of ESPN.com Insider dubbed him as a "professional role player" in Basketball Prospectus and that assessment couldn't have been more accurate. Claver is a great facilitator and makes the right plays. He has shown three-point range in the second half of the season and if he can get it going from the corners, where he has been 0-for-5 over the last 4 games since returning from injury per NBA.com, he will only add value to his already great complimentary game. He said the mental adjustment from Spain was the toughest thing in coming over, but that he can improve his overall game.

    Meyers Leonard: Meyers came into the league as what many would deem as "a project big man." Coming from what he says was "never really having to guard anybody, just standing the paint," in college to now "guarding All-Star bigs one-on-one on the block and having to show high on ball screens," the adjustment has been harder on defense.

    Over the last five games, Meyers has scored in double-figures including going for 22 points and 10 rebounds against Golden State. He's finding his groove on offense but he wants to improve on his "one-on-one defense in the post and blocking shots," in these final seven games.

    Joel Freeland: Freeland, much like Claver, came into the league with a pretty solid skill set. A player with post moves and range out to 18 feet, but he couldn't hit anything to start the year saying he was trying to be "in front of the game." The biggest lesson he's learned after 75 games has been a simple one, "just being patient. Slowing down and being patient. That's what I've done the last two or three games and it's worked." He scored 7 points and grabbed three rebounds in 17 minutes on Wednesday.

    Will Barton:
    For Barton, a player who has shown both tough shot making ability and flashes of good court vision, the biggest thing is finding his groove and his rhythm. He said that he uses every time he goes out on the court, to get his "feet wet." Adding, "I feel like, nobody can play without rhythm. I just take those little minutes and get a better feel."

    With the season winding down, there is no doubt that Barton will get more opportunities to accomplish his goals for the end of the season of "winning, playing and producing," in any way he can. However, "The Thrill" developing his three-point range, especially from the corners (the highest-value shot in basketball) would be a great asset for Portland moving forward.

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    After Wednesday night's game, one reporter asked Will Barton about rap lyrics he tweeted from the rapper "Future." It was about reaching a low point and wondering if everything has been worth it. But it moved and reminded him that the work that he, like that of the other rookies, have been doing has been for a reason.

    The time of waiting to see the fruits of that labor has passed for these rookies now and the future is here. The floor will be theirs and for the last seven games, everybody in Rip City will be taking notice.



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