The Portland Trail Blazers are dreaming big coming off a surprise appearance in the Western Conference Finals. But to live up to new expectations of realistic title contentions, a team that has long relied on continuity will have to coalesce into a whole greater than the sum of its parts despite three new starters and a completely overhauled bench.
Here are three players poised to break out in Portland during the 2019-20 season.
3. Mario Hezonja
Any hopes of Hezonja developing into the star that accompanied his status as the No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 draft are long gone. But after slowly realizing his destiny over the past two seasons as a playmaking forward with the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks, Hezonja seems better situated than ever to become a viable rotation player.
For now, where he fits into Portland’s plans is still uncertain. The Blazers are clearly high on the attributes Hezonja brings to the table offensively, and they seem optimistic that his defensive deficiencies will be masked by one of the longest, most intimidating frontcourts in basketball.
Hezonja won’t start, nor be Portland’s first wing off the bench. If he goes through stretches of struggling from beyond the arc, there’s even a chance Anthony Tolliver briefly usurps him in Terry Stotts’ rotation. But the Blazers clearly have a plan for Hezonja, and it’s one meant to maximize his gifts as an oversized ball handler with natural playmaking instincts and a flair for the spectacular.
Don’t be surprised if this is the best season of Hezonja’s career – by far.
2. Zach Collins
Say what you will about him being best-suited for center over the long haul. Even Blazers general manager Neil Olshey admits that Collins’ ultimate ceiling is highest as a shot-blocking, floor-stretching, switchable 5-man. But the 21-year-old will in all likelihood start at power forward for the Blazers this season regardless, and he could cement himself as one of the most promising two-way big men in basketball.
Collins’ success will come down to 3-point shooting more than anything else. Portland parted ways with Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless over the summer in part due to their inability to make defenses pay when left open away from the ball, and there’s little in Collins’ career thus far to indicate he’ll be more dangerous in those circumstances. He worked on his perimeter skills throughout the offseason, though, and has a smooth, repeatable stroke that has always suggested he’d eventually be a legitimate threat from beyond the arc. The question, of course, is whether that distinction applies to him now.
If so, the Blazers could very well be better on both ends of the floor this season. That’s a lot to put on Collins’ ever-broadening shoulders, but as the rare 7-footer who possesses the raw attributes to make a positive impact at the rim and on the perimeter both offensively and defensively, it’s nevertheless one for which he seems equipped.
1. Anfernee Simons
Simons might be the most exciting unknown in basketball. He almost single-handedly tilted the trajectory of Portland and the league at large by pouring in 37 points in last year’s regular-season finale, leading his short-handed team to a victory that jumbled matchups in the Western Conference playoffs. Entering 2019-20, though, Simons is much more than the largely anonymous conduit for a postseason that has left the West with a handful of legitimate title contenders.
For the Blazers to live up to that status, Simons will have to live up to the hype. Olshey routinely calls him the most gifted player he has ever drafted, and it’s easy to see why given Simons’ explosive all-around athleticism, effortless pull-up shooting stroke, and the general calm with which he plays. Portland believes he’s a star, and Simons will have ample opportunity to prove his team right as the first guard off the bench behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Clearly, he has many questions to answer before emerging as one of the best young guards in basketball. Odds are that Simons will struggle and frustrate as much as succeeds and excites. But experience is the best tool of development, and should he cement himself as a true cog of the Blazers’ rotation come spring, Simons could be the biggest difference between Portland going home early and playing deep into the postseason.