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An up and coming team
by Marc Narducci / September 2, 2008

Brandon Roy - Icon Sports Media The first inclination is to dismiss the Portland Trail Blazers as being too young, but who wouldn’t want to have this team’s future?

And the future could be sooner than many expect. Last season without Greg Oden, the Blazers were expected to struggle mightily, a young team without its main anchor.

Instead, Portland was one of the most pleasant surprises, although the youth did finally catch up to the Blazers.

Portland ended 41-41, which would have placed the Trail Blazers tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference.

In the Western Conference, it left the Blazers as the 10th team, joining Golden State as the two best non playoff participants in the NBA.

Along the way, Portland had a 13-game winning streak that concluded on Dec. 31, but the momentum couldn’t be sustained. Portland lost seven of its final 10 games, but the poor ending aside, Portland should be optimistic about this season.

And even more optimistic about the future.

The Trail Blazers have the ability to be an NBA playoff team, but nothing is assured in the Western Conference.

So much hinges on Oden, who is expected to be ready after missing last season following microfracture surgery. Since his name has been in the news for so many years, it’s easy to forget that Oden is just 20-years-old.

Joining Oden up front will be LaMarcus Aldridge, among the most improved players last year in his second season. Aldridge averaged 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. He just turned 23 and has the look of a future all star.

Also in the frontcourt mix are Channing Frye and Joel Przybilla. Frye has great talent, but hasn’t always played up to his ability. Przybilla adds toughness and shot blocking ability. He was second on the team with 1.21 blocks per game. (Aldridge led Portland with 1.24 blocks per contest).

And of course there is 6-9 Travis Outlaw, who averaged a career-high 13.3 points and gives the Blazers a major perimeter threat off the bench. Outlaw will turn 24 later this month.

This doesn’t even take into consideration Ike Diogu, who was acquired from Indiana and gives the Trail Blazers another big body in the frontcourt.

And while Portland was hoping to add an experienced point guard, anybody would have to be encouraged with the performance this summer of first round draft choice Jerryd Bayless.

Known as a shoot-first point, Bayless lived up to the reputation after being named the MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League. Bayless averaged a league-best 29.8 points, but only averaged 1.3 assists.

There is always a caution not to get too excited about summer league statistics. Still, for somebody who just turned 20 in August and played just one year at the University of Arizona, his upside has the Blazers truly excited.

Portland has veteran Steve Blake at point, somebody who will remain as a steadying influence on this young team. And that is not to suggest that the 28-year-old Blake is ancient, but on this team, he truly qualifies as an old-timer.

Spanish guard Sergio Rodriguez, who averaged just 8.7 minutes per game, will attempt to push for more playing time, although it won’t be easy.

Portland’s true strength is in its wing players, led by Brandon Roy, an all-star in only his second season a year ago. Roy averaged 19.1 points and 5.8 assists. With the mature way he plays, this 24-year-old is looked on as one of the elder statesmen and leaders on this team.

Anybody watching the Olympic had to be impressed with the play of Rudy Fernandez, the 23-year-old 6-foot-5 shooting guard from silver medallist Spain.

Fernandez surely looked at home by scoring 22 points in Spain’s 118-107 loss to the U.S. in the gold medal game.

During the Olympics Fernandez showed that he isn’t afraid to take big shots and he made his share. In eight Olympic games, Fernandez averaged 13.1 points in 22 minutes per game, while shooting 16 for 40 (.400) from beyond the arc.

Besides Roy and Fernandez, Portland also has Martell Webster, who won’t turn 22 until December but is entering his fourth NBA season.

Webster is a talented, but inconsistent player and with the arrival of Fernandez, will really have to earn his minutes. Like Roy he can swing between shooting guard and small forward.

The biggest challenge that coach Nate McMillan will be to determine the minutes. There are bound to be some players who don’t get the playing time they think they deserve. If the players don’t worry about minutes and band together, this could be a truly exciting team.

For argument’s sake, a starting lineup of Blake and Webster in the backcourt with Roy, Oden and Aldridge in the frontcourt, would give Portland, power, speed, athleticism and a decent perimeter game.

A second unit of Bayless, Fernandez, Outlaw, Frye and Przybilla gives McMillan all sorts of options and depth.

And who knows if general manager Kevin Pritchard won’t be making more moves. He has done a masterful job in building this young team.

Of course so much depends on Oden. He is coming off a difficult injury and there will obviously be heightened expectations. Last season Portland proved it could be a .500 team without him.

With Oden, this is a unit that expects to earn a spot in the postseason. And if this is the case, while it would be a stretch to call Portland a Western Conference contender at this point, one thing’s for sure – nobody will relish playing this up and coming team in the postseason.

Marc Narducci s a frequent contributor to HoopsHype.com

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