The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2023-34 season with low expectations. The mission is to develop the young guys, build cohesion, and probably lose a lot of games.

The team has already made progress on the first two and, though they currently sit only one game below .500, probably will still struggle to close out wins.

But there have been several pleasant surprises for Blazers fans early in the 2023-24 NBA season; improved defense out of the center position, Second-round pick Toumari Camara forcing his way into the rotation with his hustle and grit, and pulling off a thrilling, come-from-behind win over the Grizzlies in the NBA in-season-tournament.

But the Blazers most pleasant surprise has to be the rapid development of guard Shaedon Sharpe. With Anfernee Simons out 4-6 weeks with a torn thumb ligament, Sharpe has been thrown on the court to play substantial minutes; averaging nearly 41 minutes per game since Simons went down.

Ahead of schedule

Sharpe has excelled in his increased role. Since Simons was injured in the first game of the season, he has put up 21 points per game on 45 percent shooting.

Most surprising, Sharpe has shown a giant leap in his willingness and ability to get buckets in crunch time. Where last season he mostly shot 3-pointers or would drive and try to dunk as an outlet valve, this year he's a more focal part of the offense, especially down the stretch. Sharpe is initiating the offense more frequently and working in more creative ways. His percentage of midrange shots is up, and he's more than tripled his free throw rate. Perhaps most importantly, Sharpe is much more able to create his own shot instead of relying on teammates to find him in position.

Areas to work on

There are still areas of opportunity, according to Blazers coach Chauncey Billups. Speaking on Sharpe failing to exploit Desmond Bane's foul trouble after Friday's win against the Grizzlies, he explained, “These young guys, sometimes they don't recognize the moment. You know, why we ran this and did this switch. Bane's in foul trouble, he's got four fouls, and I'm like ‘this is why we're running that', you know?”

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Sharpe has significantly improved his defense compared to his rookie year. But Billups also says he still needs to show improvement on that end as well, “You know, I thought Shae was good. He had some lapses defensively. I think he could've been a ton better…ton better defensively tonight.”

What it means

But all in all, this is a huge development for the Blazers' future. Once the team moved on from Damian Lillard, they were all-in on the 20-year-old Sharpe and 19-year-old Scoot Henderson. Anytime a franchise starts a backcourt where neither player is old enough to legally buy alcohol, there are bound to be growing pains. But Sharpe's performance so far this season has exceeded all but the most optimistic Blazers fans expectations.

This year is all about building a foundation. Wins and losses don't matter so much in the grand scheme of things, as long as progress is being made month-to-month, or even week-to-week. But Shaedon Sharpe has shown that he's well ahead of schedule, and the future is bright for the Blazers' young shooting guard. Should he keep up this level of play, expect Sharpe to be among the final candidates for 2024 NBA Most Improved Player.