What should we expect from the Blazers' young bigs without Jusuf Nurkic? originally appeared on nbcsportsnorthwest.com
Next season won't start out with much clarity for the Portland Trail Blazers. We don't know when Jusuf Nurkic will return to the court, as his broken leg carries a wide array of potential recovery times. It's been posited that Nurkic might not return until the All-Star break in 2020.
That means the Blazers will have to make do with the big man rotation they have on hand. We don't know whether Enes Kanter will return to Rip City, although his strong play throughout his time in Oregon suggests he will be too expensive.
That leaves the Blazers with both Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard under contract and presumably opening the season in Multnomah county, barring any trades.
Last season was the best value over replacement player year in Leonard's career, and he saw little upticks that increased his effectiveness. Leonard had a monster year from 3-point range, shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc. He got to the free-throw line more, and had his best-ever assist percentage. Leonard's increased production came with a decreased usage rate, meaning he got better despite touching the ball less. If you've paid attention to his career, you know that's a leap for the big man from Illinois.
Leonard is in the 99th percentile in terms of 3-point shooting for big men, but it's not all come from behind the arc. Leonard also shot 76 percent at the rim this season according to Cleaning the Glass, putting him in the 92nd percentile. His eFG% was through the roof, and his assist percentage was excellent for his position.
The complaint Blazers fans may have at this point is Leonard's defense. But Leonard doesn't defend the rim all that often based on where he's at on the floor. In fact, for bench players over 6-foot-10 who logged at least 55 games, Leonard defended the rim the third-least according to NBA.com. He was only behind Jonas Jerebko and Davis Bertans, which is an example of how and where he's used on the basketball court. It's just not that important for Leonard to be a shot-blocking rim stopper despite the conventional attachment to that role given his size.
Most importantly, Leonard was a shooter at the forward position when Portland needed it. Leonard's 3-point acumen was a cup of water in a desert, particularly in the playoffs. Terry Stotts' rotation shortened, and wing minutes concentrated between Moe Harkless, Evan Turner, and Al-Farouq Aminu. All three had poor shooting postseasons, and Leonard's ability to stretch the floor helped the Blazers.
So where does that slot him next season?
Leonard has remained with Portland because Neil Olshey has made a specific gamble on value in terms of shooting. The Blazers can't easily add a two-way wing player who can shoot the basketball. Make no bones about it - they are definitely looking - but Portland has been searching for that player for several years. In the meantime, it seems the front office has decided the most available option is to continue to round Leonard into shape. It makes sense: he's already on the roster, and his contract isn't in question.
Collins has supercharged his already accelerated schedule. He played heavy minutes in his first year, then intermittently over the course of last season. He saw more action after Nurkic's injury in March, and was particularly useful as Kanter's shoulder bothered him during the playoffs.
Although a thumb injury bothered him and started to affect his shooting in the postseason, Collins was one of the best defenders for his size and role. The second-year big man had an excellent block percentage, and performed well as a bench player over 6-foot-10 in defending the rim. He had the sixth-best defensive field goal percentage inside of six feet this season. That was critical as Collins was one of the NBA's most-used bench bigs in defending the painted area this season.
As was expected for a player of his age and at his position, Collins struggled with both turnovers and fouling at various points over the year. His foul rate was poor, and he ranked in the 18th percentile in turnover percentage for players at his position.
In opposition to Leonard, the biggest problem for Collins was his offense. His monthly splits fluctuated, in one month shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and another 20%. He didn't make a single 3-pointer in 82 minutes played in the month of February. Collins' confidence seemed to leave him from week-to-week, and his 3-point attempt rate was indicative of that. He shot 39% of his attempts as threes last season, but that dipped to 30 percent this year.
When Collins was given steady playing time in the playoffs, he looked like a more confident shooter. He hit about the same rate of long buckets (probably because of his thumb) but his gravity shifted opposing defenses and allowed the Blazers more chances to roam.
Both Collins and Leonard represent different challenges for Stotts' rotation next season. Leonard is a more rounded out player, but is less impactful depending on the defensive matchup. Still, we don't know who will return to the Blazers next season and whether the team will be able to fix their fatal flaw in wing 3-point shooting. As long as that remains, Leonard has a place on this team.
Collins is on a normal arc for an NBA big man. He has struggled... looked lost… and dominated in ways that have surprised fans in Rip City.
Earlier in the year, I did a video on Collins' sudden drop in defensive usefulness. My conclusion, oddly, was that there was a shift in the benefit NBA referees were giving him on defense. As players become more established in this league, they often get called for fewer fouls if they are known as defensive stoppers. That seems like the path that Collins is heading down, so I expect to see him be even more effective next year.
The Blazers will have a hard time filling the role of Jusuf Nurkic. He's an excellent defender, and his position as a passer in the high post was a real treat to watch last season. It opened up Portland's offense, which has grown slightly stale. Both Leonard and Collins can add more shooting to this Blazers roster, but they won't be able to make up for everything Nurkic provides.
It's easy to get lost in the fact that Portland still needs help on the wing. But the Blazers big men are coming along, and this season's effort should mean some guarantee of production in 2019-20.