Blazers Preview: Rookies learning the ropes, trying to crack lineup

Young players have to make the most of few minutes they get

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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Quick brain teaser: What do you call a first-team All-American who averaged more than 20 points per game last year for one of the most prestigious basketball programs in the country?

Easy — a rookie.

Six months ago, the Trail Blazers raised some eyebrows when they selected Duke point guard Nolan Smith with the 21st pick of the draft. Now, the front office waits to see if it had a vision, or if it was simply blind.

photoBlazers rookie Nolan Smith

So far, it appears that Coach Nate McMillan has been impressed with the 23-year-old, leapfrogging him over sophomore point guard Armon Johnson in the rotation and playing him with the second unit.

But whether he will earn serious playing time remains to be seen. After all, in Portland’s last preseason game, Smith logged just six minutes and scored zero points. Nevertheless, like a rookie quarterback waiting his turn behind the starter, Smith is focused on absorbing as much information as possible.

“Everything is faster here (in the NBA),” Smith said. “The decision-making has to be way quicker. Guys are faster, guys have longer arms, if you think for a half-second, you could lose the ball. You have to make the read right away.”

Smith may be the only Trail Blazer on the roster to be drafted last year, but he is not the only rookie.

Elliot Williams missed the entire 2010-11

season due to a knee injury, but anybody who’s watched him leap can tell that the joint is feeling just fine these days.

The University of Memphis product has the been the subject of rave reviews from McMillan throughout training camp, and while Williams’ 48-inch vertical is well-documented, there other aspects of his game that are earning him attention.

photoBlazers rookie Elliot Williams

In the preseason opener, Williams didn’t step on the court until the second half. However, in those 12 minutes, the 22-year-old posted 13 points while making all three of his 3-point attempts.

Stick around after practice at Portland’s practice facility, and you’ll often see Williams working with assistant coach Dan Dickau while the rest of the Blazers have left the court.

One prime area of focus? His outside touch.

“That was one of the things that people said was a weakness of mine when I was drafted,” Williams said. “I’ve been putting a lot of time in trying to get better.”

Upon first glance, it would appear that Williams and Smith are directly competing for playing time. All 12 of Smith’s minutes came in the first half in the preseason opener, while all of Williams’ came in the second. Meanwhile, Smith played six minutes in the second preseason game while Williams played four.

But McMillan refuses to acknowledge that the pair is engaged in a one-on-one battle for court-time.

As he said bluntly, “They all want minutes.”