TUALATIN, Ore. — Look no further than the lineup of players on Thursday as the best indication that the Portland Trail Blazers are indeed serious in their search for a true center.
In a pre-draft workout attended by team owner Paul Allen as well as Nicolas Batum, the Blazers matched the 7-foot-1 Frenchman Rudy Gobert with 7-footer Steven Adams, the New Zealander who played one college season at Pittsburgh.
“They both did pretty good today,” Batum said.
While four other players also showcased their skills, including 6-7 Arsalan Kazemi from Oregon, the Blazer VIPs were spotted focusing their attention on the half of the court where Gobert and Adams finished their shooting drills.
Absorbed by Adams’ athleticism and captivated by Gobert’s otherworldly 9-7 standing reach. Pardon the Blazers for being interested when rather large men cross their presence.
Since the conclusion of the regular season, both Allen and general manager Neil Olshey have stated that the No. 1 priority will be to solve the team’s man-in-the-middle dilemma.
Last season, the Blazers lacked size while trying to convert 6-foot-9 power forward J.J. Hickson into a center and the team ranked low in several defensive categories.
While Olshey has also proclaimed that Portland will select the best player remaining on the board for its 10th pick in the NBA Draft next Thursday — regardless of position or even if the player doesn’t solve the Blazers’ most obvious shortcomings — the team has now worked out or met with five 7-footers projected as lottery picks, including Alex Len, Cody Zeller, Kelly Olynyk and Mason Plumlee.
Enter Gobert as the sixth, but since he has played professionally in France for the past three seasons, he’s still somewhat of a mystery to the NBA and thus, his stock has fluctuated from lottery pick to late first-rounder. Even so, Gobert, who turns 21 the day before the Draft, has developed a reputation as a shot blocker (1.8 per game last season).
“He’s a giant,” Adams said about Gobert. “Oh my God! He’s a large human being, man.”
At 237 pounds, Gobert can stand to gain more weight and improve his offensive game (an 8.3 scoring-average largely off dunks) but he still displays the instinctual knack that could help boost the Blazers from their 26th NBA ranking in team block percentage.
“There (are) many 7-2 players that are good defensive players but they are not shot blockers,” Gobert said. “I can get better (still) but I think I’ve got good timing.”
After the regular-season exit interviews, Olshey traveled overseas to watch Gobert. Still, no one in Portland knows Gobert better than his countryman and the current starting small forward on the Blazers. So, Batum said the team asked him to come in and watch the workout.
“Yes, they asked some questions that’s why they wanted me to be here today,” said Batum, who even hosted Gobert the evening before his workout. “They know him, they’ve come to see him in France a couple times for the last two to three years, but … I’ve answered some questions about him. They want to know more.”
In any sort of interview session, it does not take long to learn more about Adams.
As natural as shot blocking comes to Gobert, Adams has just as much innate skill in charming a small audience.
“How’s my hair,” Adams asked the crowd of reporters before approaching the cameras, then straight away began his act filled with witty punch lines, cheeky grins and easy comebacks.
Adams on how he expects to match the physical nature of the NBA: “I don’t know, because I saw Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin. I don’t know about that — that was like some judo, some wrestling or something.”
On matching up with Gobert for the third time this month and which player comes out as the winner: “I ain’t going say!”
On his “unique” personality: “I’m just a New Zealander, bro. I’m just a Kiwi.”
Adams’ comedy in front of the cameras would make him a hit with any fan base, but the Blazers would want him more for his stand-up ability in the paint.
At Pitt, Adams — who outweighs Gobert by 18 pounds — averaged 7.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Although Adams anchored the Pitt defense that ranked eighth nationally in opponent points per game, he understands that he must still improve.
“It’s good enough against people my age at the college level, but no way it’s good enough to go in the NBA,” Adams said, showing his serious side while honestly assessing his defense. “I just want to make sure that I get it on lock down before anything else.”
On Thursday, forward Will Clyburn (Iowa State), forward Jamelle Hagins (Delaware) and guard Ricky Ledo, who left Providence after being ineligible through his entire freshman season, also worked out for the Blazers.
For Gobert, the stop in Portland was the last of his eight sessions. After this 10th workout, Adams still has “two to three” more visits. And the Blazers will conclude their pre-draft workouts on Saturday morning at the team’s practice facility.