Pendergraph just crazy enough for Blazers

Rookie made in impact against Nuggets on Christmas

By Brian T. Smith, Columbian Sports Writer

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TUALATIN, Ore. — Jeff Pendergraph did not deny it.

In fact, the Portland Trail Blazers rookie forward embraced the notion.

Yes, Pendergraph said, when he is on the court, he is definitely a little crazy.

And that’s just the way Pendergraph — and the Blazers — want it.

“I think that’s definitely a thing I bring. I bring a little extra,” said Pendergraph, following a Sunday morning workout at the team’s practice facility. “Everybody’s tough; there’s no soft guys on this team. But I just have an abundant amount of craziness.”

photoJeff Pendergraph

Jeff Pendergraph

Position: Power forward

Year: Rookie

Vitals: 6-foot-9, 240 pounds

Number: 31

Stats: 2.7 points, 3.3 rebounds

College: Arizona State

Pendergraph’s self-avowed crazy streak has been the perfect antidote for a Blazers season that has mixed the surreal with the macabre, as Portland has been forced to fight through a never-ending run of injuries and setbacks.

Pendergraph traced his tough-as-nails mentality back to his childhood, when he recalled being picked on by other kids.

Now, the 22-year-old native of Ontario, Calif., is dealing out blows rather than stomaching them.

“I don’t let anybody punk me. I don’t stand for that,” Pendergraph said. “There’s respect issues. I’m not just going to start talking crazy, unless you start talking crazy to me. And then I’m going to let you know that I’m not that guy; you can’t just talk to me like that, regardless of how long I’ve played in the NBA. You can’t do that. So, I’ll fight back.”

Pendergraph’s willingness to man up and battle has quickly caught the eye of Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan.

A sign of just how much McMillan believes in the thick-armed rookie was seen last Friday. Despite only having three NBA games under his belt, Pendergraph’s name was the first McMillan called off the bench during Portland’s 107-96 home victory over the Denver Nuggets.

McMillan said Pendergraph’s hustle, hard play and toughness are exactly what an injury-depleted Blazers (20-12) team requires.

“We need what he brings at this time,” McMillan said.

The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Pendergraph was acquired by the Blazers during the 2009 NBA Draft. Originally selected by the Sacramento Kings with the 31st overall pick during the second round, Portland traded Sergio Rodriguez, the draft rights to Jon Brockman (Washington) and cash considerations to Sacramento for Pendergraph on June 25.

Pendergraph played four years at Arizona State. He led the nation in field-goal percentage (66.0) his senior season, and helped carry the Sun Devils to the 2009 NCAA Tournament for just the second time in 14 years.

Notes

• Blazers forward Nicolas Batum engaged in shooting drills Sunday. Batum, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, is expected to be out until about the NBA All-Star break.

• McMillan said he is pleased with how the team’s starting unit has performed in recent games. McMillan stated that his main concern right now is finding a consistent finishing rotation. Lately, Portland’s coach has determined which players will finish a game based off who is hot and which combinations are working. McMillan said he has been particularly pleased by the tandem of point guards Steve Blake and Jerryd Bayless.

• McMillan stated that his team has played freer and more unified during its four-game winning streak. “Everybody knows that they’re going to get minutes,” McMillan said.

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As a senior, Pendergraph averaged 14.5 points and 8.2 rebounds, while earning first team All-Pac 10 status. He also set school records in games played (126) and starts (120), and led the Sun Devils in rebounding four consecutive seasons.

Pendergraph’s early run through the NBA was promising. He topped the Blazers’ Summer League entry with 7.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, while adding 10.8 points in five starts.

But the former Sun Devils forward’s fast start came to a hard stop when he underwent surgery Sept. 9 to correct a left hip impingement. He proceeded to miss Portland’s entire training camp and the first 29 games of the regular season.

The fearless rookie was soon known more for a pair of crutches and his sly grin rather than his gutsy play.

But Pendergraph fought hard to return to the court. He worked with assistant coach Monty Williams to build up his strength and endurance. And the sight of a winded, sweat-covered Pendergraph at the team’s practice facility was a common occurrence throughout November.

Still, the rookie forward was not supposed to be cleared for action until early 2010. But when center Joel Przybilla went down Dec. 22 with a season-ending knee injury, Pendergraph was activated.

He has averaged 2.7 points and 3.3 rebounds since joining the Blazers’ lineup. And his best outing came Friday, when Pendergraph recorded season highs in minutes (20) and rebounds (5) during Portland’s win over the Nuggets.

“I’m just having fun,” Pendergraph said. “It’s not really, like, ‘Yeah, I knew I could do this.’ Or ‘I told you so.’ It ain’t nothing like that. It’s, like, ‘Yeah. This is what I do.’ I’m not surprised or nothing. This is what I’m supposed to do.”

But what Pendergraph is not exactly supposed to do is be able to take on — and get inside the head of — Nuggets star forward Carmelo Anthony. However, that is just what the rookie did Friday.

On Sunday, Pendergraph ran through a vivid playback of his recent run in with Anthony.

First, Anthony cautioned him: “ ‘Watch those elbows, young fella.’ ”

Pendergraph responded: “Whatever, man. I don’t care. Just get out of my way, then.”

The next trip down the court, Pendergraph ran up, planted his feet and set a screen. But he soon saw Anthony barreling his way. The Nuggets’ all-star forward had turned into a bulldozer, revving up and attempting to uproot Pendergraph.

However, the rookie braced himself, tightened his muscles and barely moved. And when a frustrated Anthony drew a moving foul, Pendergraph screamed out in victory.

“I’m, like, ‘Yeah. Go ahead and get mad; hit me. Cause now you got another foul, fool.’ ” Pendergraph said.

It was exactly the type of bare-bones, slightly-mad playing style that McMillan had avidly requested from his team since the season began.

And it symbolized the new, tough mindset of a Portland squad that sits just one game behind the Nuggets in the Northwest Division, despite playing without a healthy center and missing six players due to injuries.

Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said Pendergraph’s no-nonsense, all-out approach presents Portland with assets the team desperately needs now that centers Przybilla and Greg Oden are lost for the season.

“He’s coming and being physical. Really energetic; crashing the boards and giving us second and third opportunities,” Aldridge said. “I think that’s what we need right now, is a change of pace.”

Meanwhile, McMillan stated that some NBA players are more concerned with their image and how they look on television rather than their actual performance.

But that is not the case with Pendergraph, McMillan said. Portland’s coach said the idea of an on-the-court screen test for Pendergraph has likely never entered the rookie’s head.

“Cuteness, he’s not concerned about,” McMillan said.

McMillan added that Pendergraph’s toughness starts in practice. Despite having only recently been cleared for full contact, Pendergraph’s gritty playing style has already made it so that some of his teammates prefer not to man up against him.

“He just goes hard. He’ll give up his body. He’ll get on the floor. He’ll take a charge,” McMillan said. “He’ll stick his head in there, and there’s not even a second thought about it. If it needs to be done, it’s going to be done.”