The Portland Trail Blazers are Summer League champions once again. While not the banner Portland fans were dreaming of, the title was nevertheless a celebration and an interesting look at the progress of some of the team’s youth.
While drawing definitive conclusions from Summer League is almost certainly a foolish exercise, the purpose of the Las Vegas showcase is never entirely fruitless, if you’re keeping your expectations tempered.
Last week, I hinted at a likely rotation with nine players making up 97.5 percent of the rotation. So any real minutes leftover will only be available through injury or form slumps suffered by established players. But this roster is clearly thin at small forward and center — an imbalance General Manager Joe Cronin will have to address over the next 12 months.
So any young players capable of spending time at either position is definitely going to draw attention.
Looking forward, seven Summer League champions are set to represent the big club next season — Trendon Watford, Brandon Williams, Shaedon Sharpe, Keon Johnson Didi Louzada, Jabari Walker and Greg Brown.
For the purposes of this piece, we will overlook Watford and Sharpe as they’re going to get minutes, regardless of what other might think. (We discuss this further below).
Brandon Williams, PG
The 22-year-old was as expected in Vegas, a slightly more experienced guard, knowing who and what he was. As such, the 6’2 floor general was able to competently run this team against efficiently teenage/non-NBA talent.
The franchise’s only current two-way contract excelled in the Summer League finale, sharing the spotlight with event MVP Watford. But unfortunately, for Williams, the regularly rostered Blazers aren’t short on short guards with Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart and Gary Payton II already in place.
For this reason, we’re unlikely to see either Williams or Keon Johnson get too much time this year due to that perimeter logjam. Don’t get me wrong, Williams is a perfectly adequate third string point guard and I’m glad the Blazers brought him back after his initial stint last Christmas. But hopefully, his job this season will be limited to waving towels and clapping.
Summer League — 5 games, 13.4 points, 17.4% 3P shooting, 4.4 assists, 3.2 boards, 1 steal
Keon Johnson, SG
Johnson is still so young. At 20, he wasn’t legally able to celebrate the Summer League championship with a beer. For all those US youngsters, drinking age is actually 18 in Australia, sorry to rub it in.
Over the past eight months, the former first round pick has increasingly shown that he belongs in this league, with jaw-dropping athleticism and a range of real NBA skills. In Nevada, he was able to excel on both sides of the ball, scoring in a variety of ways while using those athletic gifts to lock down opposing players.
One caveat is that the former Tennessee product can only really play the shooting guard position, which is fine but will ultimately limit his path to playing time, given it’s probably the most crowded position on the roster. Realistically, it’s likely we see Johnson — who was dealt to the Blazers from the Clippers in February — moved again closer to the next year’s trade deadline in order to bring back a player at a position of need.
Summer League — 5 games, 14.2 points, 33.3 3P shooting, 3.9 boards, 2 assists, 1.8 steals
Didi Louzada, SG
Unfortunately, the Brazilian has the least chance of the quintet to see the court this season. Since arriving in Portland as part of the haul gained in the CJ McCollum trade, Louzada hasn’t really been able to exhibit a real NBA skill.
He didn’t help his cause in Vegas either with dismal showing in an arena that should have allowed him to show something. The 23-year-old is either waived or traded by the deadline but at least he has a Summer League ring to carry around with him.
Summer League — 4 games, 0.3 points, 1.3 boards, 1 assist.
Jabari Walker, F
The man of the moment. Picked 57th last month, Walker has turned heads with his mature play on both sides of the ball. Doing a little bit of everything, some Portland fans are projecting Walker to join Maurice Lucas as Portland’s two only champion-winning starting power forward. Slow down guys.
Let’s establish some key points. Walker is already a steal with countless deep second round picks never actually sniffing an NBA court. He has the size, the savvy and the skill to play both sought-after forward positions. In Vegas he showed glimpses of real basketball IQ, the ability to rebound, shoot, defend and facilitate, all while standing 6’8. Eureka.
The 19-year-old will play real basketball this season, maybe not on opening night, perhaps not until after Christmas, but he will play. He offers too many skills the Blazers a yearning for.
He’s green, and he’ll make mistakes, but like fellow draftee Sharpe, Walker will likely be a mainstay in the Blazers rotation for years to come. And as such, will be given every chance to gain experience this season.
Summer League — 5 games, 12.4 points, 42.9% 3P shooting, 9 boards, 1.4 assists, 1 steal
Greg Brown III, F
How can anyone not love bouncing Greg Brown III? While not starring like we’d hoped in Vegas, Brown is still very clearly an intriguing work in progress.
In his increased role last season, Brown showed the ability to shoot from long range. If he’s able to continue improving from beyond the arc, he’ll be a threat for this team, both for his shooting and ability to get to the rim. Just don’t expect to see too much of it this next season.
Summer League – 4 games, 7 points, 4.5 boards, 0.8 assists, 1 steal, 1.3 blocks
Why are we not including Watford and Sharpe?
Trendon Watford is going to play this season. He’s in the rotation, if only for the fact that there is nobody taller than 6’9 behind Jusuf Nurkic in the depth chart. The Summer League Final MVP’s skill set allows the Blazers to push the pace while retaining some semblance of rebounding capability.
During Summer League we saw more composition and maturity from Watford with the ball in his hands, which we can probably thank for the extra opportunity granted by Coach Chauncey Billups last season. Watford will play around 15 minutes a night, potentially more if Jusuf Nurkic is encumbered or in foul trouble.
As for Sharpe, we had relieving news on Wednesday, confirming the 19-year-old enigma would not need shoulder surgery after playing only six Summer League minutes. On the night Sharpe was taken seventh by the Blazers, Cronin openly professed that the Canadian wing was ready to contribute straight away.
Let’s see what happens in camp and through the preseason, but given the value of the asset used to bring him to Portland, don’t be surprised if Sharpe gets more minutes than most Portland rookies traditionally get.
The Blazers have another piece of hardware to show off. But what happens to the players who earned it? I’d be keen to see more of Keon Johnson but I just can’t imagine any real way he gets on the court on this guard-heavy roster.
Of the five, it’s obvious that Jabari Walker is the most likely to get minutes for two pretty obvious reasons. One, he plays a position of need for the Blazers. Yes, he’s more a power forward but I can’t see anything stopping him getting time at the three, one of this roster’s thinnest positions. Two, he actually owns skills that can help this team and an exuberance to do the little things that matter. Summer League was huge but let’s see what he can do on a real NBA court.