By Torey Jones
Contributor, 750 The Game
The 2023-2024 season for the Portland Trail Blazers was always going to be a rebuild year. With the team moving on from Damian Lillard and pivoting to a younger roster, wins were going to be hard to come by as the organization focused on development. The flashes that come with young talent have been zapped due to numerous injuries, but with the roster getting healthier, there’s a lot to look forward to. Given the brutal start to the year, is there anything that can be learned from the first 15 games of the season? Here are some of my takeaways.
The injury bug strikes again
This team can’t avoid the injury bug. While bringing in injury-prone players such as Robert Williams III was a risk, his season-ending injury less than 10 games into the season was a major blow. Fluky plays are responsible for Anfernee Simons missing a ton of time due to thumb surgery and Scoot Henderson spraining his ankle. However, Malcolm Brogdon’s pulled hamstring was different, as it occurred after he played 44 and 39 minutes in the two games prior. Chauncey Billups hasn’t been shy about playing his guys heavy minutes as exemplified by a six-game stretch where Shaedon Sharpe averaged over 42 minutes per game. Given the Blazers injury issues in previous years, I wonder if there’s anything they could be doing better as an organization to prevent some of these issues.
Shaedon Sharpe is ahead of schedule
Shaedon Sharpe has progressed a ton in the past calendar year, and it’s easy to forget that he was initially drafted as more of a long-term project. Even my most optimistic expectations didn’t have Sharpe showing these kinds of flashes at 20 years old after coming into the league straight out of high school as he’s averaging 17.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3 assists per game on the season. He’s improved his ability to read the floor and find teammates, he’s having an easier time attacking off the dribble and getting into the paint, and he’s had some impressive defensive moments.
While his efficiency and turnovers have a lot of room for improvement, Sharpe has been a victim of circumstance. He’s supposedly playing through a thumb issue that seems to have affected his shot, he’s played extremely heavy minutes, and has been thrust into point guard duties on a team that has the lowest offensive rating and worst three-point percentage in the league. With Portland getting healthier at the guard spots, Sharpe should have some of the burden lifted from him and will be able to play a more natural role. The building blocks of a star player are there, and Sharpe has all the time in the world to fulfill his immense potential.
Toumani Camara is here to stay
Toumani Camara looked like a throw-in when he was involved in the Ayton-Lillard trade, but I loved this pickup for the Blazers. Camara had an impressive Summer League while playing for the Phoenix Suns, and has continued that play for the Blazers. While his shot has struggled, Chauncey Billups has had a hard time keeping him off the floor because of everything else Camara brings. Defensively, he’s the most well-rounded and versatile defender the Blazers have had since Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, being able to guard out on the perimeter, battle with bigs, and have an impact as an on-ball and off-ball defender. I’ve noticed Camara recognizing his helpside responsibilities faster than anyone else on the roster, and with his length and athleticism, he looks like a serious disruptor on that end of the floor. While the offense needs to improve, Camara has done a good job not forcing the issue and making the right play. If Camara can figure things out behind the arc, he immediately becomes one of the better 3-and-D forwards in the league. Until then, he’s provided value to a Blazers team thirsting for versatile defenders.
DeAndre Ayton needs to do more
While DeAndre Ayton hasn’t been bad this season, I think the Blazers envisioned more when trading for him. Ayton has three years left on a max contract that the Blazers willingly traded for when they sent Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson to the Phoenix Suns. Going forward, the calculus is about opportunity cost: is DeAndre Ayton’s impact on the floor greater than what the Blazers could get if they didn’t have his contract on the books?
While that’s an ambiguous question without a tangible answer, Ayton is making nearly twice the amount as Jusuf Nurkic this year and his numbers aren’t any better than Nurkic’s final season as a Blazer.
DeAndre Ayton’s 2023-2024 Season – 19.9 points, 16.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists per 100 possessions, 58.2 true shooting percentage
Jusuf Nurkic’s 2023-2024 Season – 24.3 points, 16.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists per 100 possessions, 58.9 true shooting percentage
Yes, Ayton didn’t get the privilege of playing next to Damian Lillard, but he’s also been a part of an offense desperate for someone to step up and score the ball. Instead, Ayton’s numbers are down from his time in Phoenix and he’s still playing a finesse style of basketball that has led to him only shooting a paltry nine free throw attempts in his 14 games. Ayton has yet to attempt a three this year and hasn’t flashed any creation ability. The Blazers have failed to extract anything new out of Ayton’s game to justify paying him an average of $34 million a year the next three seasons. To Ayton’s credit, his attitude since arriving in Portland has been good and he’s had some impressive offensive performances as of late. He’s in a great situation to work on expanding his game and has the skill and physical gifts to do so. Hopefully he’ll start to show some progress on the offensive end to justify his price tag.
There’s a ton of things to watch going forward, including how Scoot Henderson and Anfernee Simons look after coming back from injury, some of looming roster decisions, how DeAndre Ayton and Shaedon Sharpe progress as the season goes along, and much more.