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3 most encouraging takeaways from Trail Blazers training camp and open scrimmage

Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic, CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr., Chauncey Billups, Nassir Little, Damian Lillard

The Chauncey Billups era has officially begun, and the Portland Trail Blazers seem reinvigorated as a result. But it’s easy to find confidence in the afterglow of Media Day, especially for a veteran team like Portland that clearly grew tired of hearing Terry Stotts’ voice during his ninth and final season in Rip City.

Hope springs eternal on an annual basis league-wide during training camp and even exhibition play before rigors of the regular season render most of it moot. But just because the Blazers, like every team in basketball, are due an inevitable adjustment period once the real games tip-off in two weeks hardly means all of their early-days optimism is bound to dissipate.

These are the most encouraging takeaways from last week’s training camp and Saturday’s open practice as Portland’s preseason debut against the Golden State Warriors dawns.

The Blazers’ Depth Is Real

Neil Olshey insisted at Media Day that this Blazers roster is the deepest of the Damian Lillard era, a superlative he’s used on the same occasion multiple times in the past. Watching Saturday’s open scrimmage, though, even more casual fans at Moda Center knew the vast majority of names on the floor despite Lillard and Tony Snell sitting out.

Notoriety doesn’t guarantee quality depth. Portland’s bench was one of the worst in the league last season with a future Hall-of-Famer and former top-five pick playing regular minutes. But the additions of Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller, plus the development of Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little, give the Blazers a rock-solid top nine, with several former rotation players competing for not just minutes, but a spot on the roster at all.

The bet here is that Snell normally gets the first call from Billups, but Ben McLemore is clearly a part of Portland’s plans, too. Though Quinn Cook may have a leg up on Dennis Smith Jr., Marquese Chriss and Patrick Patterson for the Blazers’ 14th and final roster spot—Olshey has already indicated he’s leaving one slot open—it’s a testament to Billups’ presence and the Blazers’ ability to pitch free agents that each of those guys jumped at the chance to win a competition in training camp. Rookie Greg Brown III flashed in the scrimmage, too, slicing in from the perimeter with 45-degree cuts for rim-rocking finishes and going out of his area to collect a handful of defensive rebounds.

To reach its peak, a team like Portland’s whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. Quality depth, even if it’s unspectacular, could go a long way toward the Blazers scraping that ceiling over the 82-game grind.

Ball Movement Is More Than A Talking Point

Billups talked all summer about the benefits of tweaking an offense that ranked second in the league last season. He believes Portland needs a more modern, variable attack to combat defenses specifically geared to stop it in the playoffs, and he’s not wrong. The challenge was always going to be getting Lillard, C.J. McCollum and company to buy into that altered approach despite the Blazers’ core firmly establishing itself as an elite offense in recent years.

Everything could change come the regular season, but there’s nothing to suggest Portland has been hesitant to embrace the offensive system and identity being implemented by Billups. The Blazers backed up collective excitement for the new offense conveyed at Media Day throughout training camp and in the open scrimmage, limiting dribbles, pinging the ball from side to side and making a concerted to crease the paint. They routinely pushed the ball up the floor, too, seeking to create transition opportunities through speed and aggression as the ball changed ends.

Some of Portland’s early-clock action offensively goes directly to accomplishing Billups’ goals of movement and downhill attacking. Expect the Blazers to begin many possessions this season with an angled, off-ball screen for a guard at the top of the key that allows him to catch with a steam of momentum toward the rim. Powell, in particular, could be extra dangerous off that pet action.

There will inevitably be times when Portland devolves into high ball screens for Lillard or side pick-and-rolls for McCollum, particularly late in the shot clock. But if their early commitment to Billups’ offense proves a harbinger, the Blazers will be much more difficult for the opposition to scheme against during the regular season and postseason—not to mention more fun to watch for fans who grew tired of watching Lillard and McCollum dribble the air out of the ball for the last half decade.

Nassir Little’s Time Is Now

Little loomed as a potential X-factor for Portland in 2021-22 even before training camp tipped off. Initially on the Blazers’ Summer League roster, he evidently showed enough at practice for the team to pull him from proceedings in Las Vegas. Little might have been poised for a breakout even before glowing reports of his offseason performance surfaced; he took major strides as a sophomore even if they didn’t always result in rotation minutes.

After training camp, though, there’s no room left on the Little bandwagon. Multiple teammates singled him out early in camp for improvements offensively, and Billups suggested on Friday he hopes the 21-year-old cements himself as the Blazers’ designated defensive stopper of superstar wings.

“I wanna be able to have the confidence to throw Nas in there and put him on KDs, LeBrons and all these top guys for three or four minutes,” Billups said of Little. “Let him just kind of harass them, use that [athletic] gift that you have.”

Anyone expecting Little to thrive in that role without setbacks is fooling themselves. He indeed has the length, burgeoning strength and overall dexterity to sometimes make life hard on the league’s true cream of the crop, but guys like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic are who they are for a reason. There isn’t one defender who can consistently stop them.

But if Little shows the initial quickness to keep up with them off the bounce while staying out of foul trouble, it would be a significant boon for Portland, especially considering how much better a fit he is for Billups’ offensive approach than Stotts’. Little is the type of scorer at his best with a built-in advantage, and the Blazers’ new offense strives to create them by keeping defenses scrambling. If his training camp performance extends to the regular season, Little should make a consistent impact catching off away screens to ambush the paint, driving close-outs from the perimeter and forcing action in the open floor. His jumper, much-improved last season, is supposedly tighter, too.

Every team in the league could use more forwards who affect the game on both sides of the ball. Portland has two established ones in Nance and Robert Covington. Little emerging as its third could be what takes this team from playoff also-ran to a tough postseason out.