Blazers begin building with draft

First-round draft picks bring Lillard at point guard, Leonard at center

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

Published:

 
photoNBA Commissioner David Stern, left, poses with the No. 6 overall draft pick Damian Lillard, of Weber State, who was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday.

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photoNBA Commissioner David Stern, left, poses with Meyers Leonard, of Illinois, the No. 11 overall draft pick by the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday.

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photoWill Barton from Memphis was the Blazers second-round pick.

TUALATIN, Ore. — Black pants, black tie, white shirt, and a red handkerchief. That was Damian Lillard's getup on draft night from Newark, N.J.

He insists that his shades matching that of the Trail Blazers uniforms was purely coincidental, but that's questionable. After all, when Lillard worked out with the team earlier in the month, he passed with flying colors.

Portland selected the 22-year-old point guard with the No. 6 pick Thursday night, and took 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard at No. 11. The team's front office emphasized the importance of securing a point guard and adding size throughout the offseason, and seems to have taken steps toward shoring up those holes.

"We had a really good night tonight," Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said. "I think the goal is to get the best available player with each pick, but the goal is also to see if talent and need would meet."

Lillard, the first player to be drafted out of Weber State since 1972, was No. 6 on most mock draft boards and had the Blazers confident that he would be available at that slot.

That said, most draft boards also had North Carolina's Harrison Barnes going somewhere in the top 5, but despite this deviation from expectations, Olshey said there was really no debate when it came to picking Lillard.

This stems, in part, from the fact that Olshey called Lillard one of the best pick-and-roll point guards to come out in recent memory, and that he envisions him as the starting point guard whose skill set serves as an ideal complement to LaMarcus Aldridge. And while Lillard himself did not specify what kind of offense would best befit his ability (the Blazers still don't have a head coach in place), he did say that he can disprove those who say he lacks the capacity to distribute the ball.

"I can play half court, I can run the ball, I think I can adjust to whatever situation they need from me," said Lillard, who averaged 24.5 points per game for the Wildcats last year but dished out just 4.0 assists. "I'll be able to show that I can make plays because I won't have as much of a responsibility to score."

Leonard won't be asked to carry much of the offensive load, either. In fact, in his first year or two, he might not be expected to make any serious contributions.

Olshey confessed Thursday that the Illinois product may not be as NBA ready as others selected near him in the draft, but that his having "the highest ceiling" ultimately dictated the selection.

Despite Leonard averaging 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds with the Illini last year, he is still considered a raw talent in need of molding. But Olshey said that he is confident that the 20-year-old will tap his potential, and is worth the risk no matter what.

"A guy who's 7-foot-1 with that athleticism and quickness, those guys are unique. You don't just find them at (pick number) 11," Olshey said. "The value of a big man in this league ... it's just really hard to pass on those guys."

Regardless of the talent-level or back story, being drafted by an NBA team often triggers a wave of emotion that prompts a physical reaction. But the thoughts swirling through Leonard's mind went beyond the mere fulfillment of a dream.

He lost his father at the age of 6, and has a mother whose chronic back pain has prevented her from working and, in turn, from being able to afford surgery. So Leonard hugging her first upon being selected was a foregone conclusion.

"I had a big feeling of happiness when I heard my name being called, just the ability to take care of her after all she's been through," Leonard said. "She's always given everything to me, so now it's time for me to give back."

In the second round, the Blazers selected 6-6 shooting guard Will Barton of Memphis with the 40th pick. The former McDonalds All-American averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds as a sophomore at Memphis last year, yet still sat through two-thirds of the draft before hearing his name.

Barton did not work out with the Blazers, and Olshey said Thursday that he was surprised to see him fall so low. He added that Barton's production in college jumped out at Portland's analytics manager Ben Falk, and that the team felt compelled to draft him.

The Blazers traded away their 41st pick, Tyshawn Taylor of Kansas, to the Nets, reportedly for cash.

From here, Portland turns its attention toward free agency and finding a coach, the former of which begins Saturday. Olshey did not want to disclose his free-agency strategy, but did say that bringing in a veteran point guard to help mold the younger ones was a distinct possibility.

As for his closing thoughts on the draft?

"This is the first step. This is a process," he said. "Thirty-six hours from now (when free agency begins), we're going to be really aggressive."