LAS VEGAS — The young collective pieces of the Portland Trail Blazers may still be searching for cohesion this summer, but Joel Freeland has already found approval.
Following the Blazers’ first contest in the NBA Summer League on Saturday night, Freeland — whose consistent defensive presence has resulted in two blocked shots in each of the two games — scrolled through complimentary text messages from his head coach.
“That’s what he wanted from me,” Freeland said of Terry Stotts. “He wanted me to get into position quickly. Be able to change shots, challenge people at the rim and just focus, and he’s real happy with me.”
Freeland, the 6-foot-11 second-year forward from England, entered this Las Vegas excursion with the goals of a player who has accepted his responsibility, as modest as the role may seem.
While still not an offensive threat, Freeland has committed to becoming a dam on the post defense, mixing it up inside for every rebound and running from rim to rim, head up and hands ready for the pass that may or may not come.
To Freeland, embracing this job could create room for him in the crowded frontcourt rotation
that includes LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson.
“I’ve just been working on my game,” Freeland said, “defensively more than anything.
“Working on a lot of defensive coverages we’re going to be going through next year. Making sure I’m down with it and a step ahead of the game. Just being more comfortable on the court. Just stuff I really think that’s going to help me get onto the court.”
Freeland’s outlook appears to align with the target of the team.
As the rookie and sophomore Blazers gathered in the Tualatin practice facility for Summer League practices, the team emphasized defensive concepts more than committing Stotts’ offensive playbook to memory.
“It’s kind of a crash course in three days to be ready to play a game, trying to keep it simple but there’s still a lot of things to do,” Stotts said before the Vegas trip. “I want the guys who were here last year to show improvement in their play. How you measure that — I don’t want to measure that in stats. I want them to be productive.”
After Freeland’s rocky first year in the American professional game, just about any sign of improvement could be measured as production.
As a 25-year-old rookie, Freeland averaged 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. He only showed emotion after making a mistake — which happened often — and pined for more time on the court as he only appeared in 51 games. So, no wonder that immediately following the last regular season game, the first word Freeland used to describe his year was “tough.”
However, since his April exit interview, Freeland escaped to Spain for six restful weeks then returned to Portland for six weeks of workouts. This time when he landed in America, Freeland embraced becoming the janitor of the team — doing the unheralded dirty work.
Fans might not have been wowed by that Saturday night game, when Freeland played 23 minutes and finished with two blocked shots and six fouls that showed his aggressiveness. But he had impressed his coach.
Stotts sent Freeland a captured image of his vertically challenge to Phoenix Suns center Markieff Morris. The doorkeeper of the defense had earned his praise.
“That’s all I can ask for myself. That’s what they want for me,” Freeland said about his role. “That’s how I’m going to help the team next year.”