10) Portland Trail Blazers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Georgia
Basic Stats: 18.5 PPG, 7.1 REB, 1.8 AST, 2.0 STL
The Portland Trail Blazers had a fairly odd season with all things considered. In the offseason, they were able to lock up prized restricted free agent Nicolas Batum to an expensive, but worthwhile contract. They drafted Damian Lillard, a four-year starter from Weber State to come in and become the floor general from day one. While critics questioned his previous level of competition, he just casually went on to win NBA Rookie of the Year in a landslide victory (and land a major endorsement deal with Adidas, rocking the Crazy Quick line of shoes with our very own, John Wall).
LaMarcus Aldridge, their under-appreciated power forward, locked up his second consecutive All-Star appearance. Portland’s front office also made a savvy move at the trade deadline, picking up a useful backup point guard, Eric Maynor, from Oklahoma City for just a 2nd round pick. All of these signs would point to a probable positive season for Portland in 2012-13. And even as of late March, the Blazers sat just 3 games under .500 and within striking distance of a playoff spot. But a nasty losing streak of 13 games to end the season put them at 33-49 and headed directly back to where fans had hoped the team was done with; a seat at the NBA Draft Lottery (you can’t blame the Rose City faithful for expecting any different. Since 1982-83, the Blazers had only missed the playoffs 7 total times, including 2011-12. Offer that record to a Wizards fan and he might wonder if the team would have to request a transfer to the WNBA).
So what went wrong for a fairly talented team?
For one, the Western Conference proved to be as brutal as ever. As everyone in America must be aware of, the Lakers had 4 future Hall-of-Famers, and still needed a last-day-of-the-season loss by Utah to secure a playoff spot. Secondly, the lack of depth caused Aldridge, Lillard, and Batum to be at or near the top of the league in minutes played per game (they all were between 37.7 and 38.6 mpg). Even journeyman J.J. Hickson logged nearly 30 mpg, and Sasha Pavlovic and Victor Claver were key pieces off the bench (no that is not a joke – even I’m not that funny). Finally, the Blazers were supremely uninterested in playing defense of any variety. They ranked 26th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, 28th in steals per game, and 26th in blocks per game. Portland was ‘led’ on the defensive end by Lillard, who comes from the new age school of all-O, no-D guards (other members include Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Stephen Curry). For as brilliant as he was offensively, his defensive rating of 112 actually shatters most statistical databases (just kidding – I stole that joke from Zach Lowe anyway).
So with all these issues in hand, who is the right play for Portland with the 11th selection in next week’s draft? They could go a number of directions, with so many holes on the roster. It’s doubtful that management is completely sold on Meyers Leonard and could go with Meyers Leonard 2.0 (aka Cody Zeller from Indiana). They could also look for more scoring punch with Shabazz Muhammad, Tim Hardaway Jr. or C.J. McCollum. In my opinion, the Blazers biggest hole remains at shooting guard, where Wesley Matthews is serviceable but does not provide enough of a spark to lighten the load on Lillard. Moving him to the bench would give that unit enough of a scoring punch and keep the starters fresh. The Blazers need a shooting guard who is willing to play 2-way ball and can create his own shot off the dribble. Look no further than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the wingman from Georgia.
Aside from clinching this year’s best name award as soon as he submitted his early entry papers, KCP has the type of talent that can really make a difference on the next level. For one, he played on a very poor UGA team that had no other scoring options, but still managed to average over 18 ppg. and lead the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage. His 7.1 rpg. was one of the highest in the country for a guard, a 29% usage shows off his ability to get involved in the offense in a variety of ways. As mentioned above, defense was clearly an area of concern last season for the Blazers. No worries; Caldwell-Pope sported a defensive rating of 90.8 and averaged two steals per game. Caldwell-Pope has a great ability to work as a pick-and-roll ball handler, a skill that fits perfectly with a power forward with range. He can also take his man off the dribble, and excels in isolation play. He still needs to improve his efficiency at the basket, as he shot just under 54% at the rim, but as he adds muscle to his 205 lb. frame, he will be able to absorb more contact and complete plays with better results.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is an underrated player in this year’s draft. Fanfare and attention did not come his way as his team’s lack of success failed to put him on the national map. But he can score and defend (two areas of need for Portland) and has interviewed well with teams this week. If he slips past a team like Minnesota at No.9, look for the Blazers to strike quick and land the league’s next promising back court.