Backup Freeland earns respect, minutes

A scorer in Europe, he now embraces grunt work in NBA

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

Published:

 
photoJoel Freeland

Joel Freeland never wished he could go back.

Back to where the shots were plenty, the role was big, the warm Andalucian sun shined and the beach was close by.

He was just looking to find his place among the best.

"It was really more mental than anything else," he said about his preparations coming into the season.

"I want to be here and that's one thing I realized," he said. "If I want to be on a team where I am taking 20 shots a game and scoring then I can go back to Europe and do that."

The Blazers are looking to win now and no longer sacrificing having a competitive team for the sake of developing talent.

Throughout training camp, Freeland has stood out for his commitment to dirty work, which has been recognized his teammates.

"He puts his body on the line," said Terry Stotts, explaining how Freeland earned the minutes at backup center. "I think he's been consistently doing the dirty work and he's gained the respect of his teammates."

LaMarcus Aldridge has already praised him to the media and behind closed doors in front of the team during their trip to Boise, Idaho. Nicolas Batum said Freeland was his Training Camp MVP. The team gave us hints and Stotts giving Freeland the minutes in the final tune-up confirmed that Freeland had earned a spot in the rotation.

Freeland, who came over to the Blazers after seven years of playing in Europe, struggled mightily in his first year in the NBA. He has rededicated himself the grunt work and found himself rewarded with minutes and the praise of his teammates.

"I took care of my body, I worked on my legs a lot," he said about his offseason workouts. "I got stronger in general and realized my role on the team is going to be a dirty player, getting rebounds, hustling and just being an all out energy player. That's what I worked on."

Before he came over to the NBA from Spain, Freeland was regarded as one of the best big men in Europe.

He was preoccupied with scoring last season and thought it was the only way for him to stay on the court. He made one of his first 16 shots.

Beginning in the summer, Freeland realized he was focusing on the wrong things. The shots can fall or they won't and you can't control that every night.

But you can control your effort on defense, rebounding and running the floor.

"To be in the NBA, I have had to do what I've had to do and make these steps in the right direction for my career to better stay here," he said.

Freeland went back to the Canary Islands in Spain for about a month before returning to Portland to work out in anticipation of summer league. Stotts said the work towards becoming a trustworthy defender within Portland's new defensive system began in the summer.

"It started back in June," Stotts said. "He had a really good month of June, particularly help defense, responsibilities. Obviously we changed what we're going to do, we started working on it in June, so that gave him a leg up with his learning curve."

Offensively, Freeland still didn't look comfortable. But defensively, Stotts came away impressed with Freeland's play.

"But I thought defensively in summer league he was very good, going and contesting shots with verticality," Stotts said. "He's more comfortable verbalizing help, what's going on and because of that understanding he is in the right place at the right time more."

Freeland says that he may never get comfortable being a jump-shooter. He was used as a low-post scorer for the first seven years of his professional basketball career.

While he may never be completely comfortable on offense, it doesn't matter anymore and trying to score no longer clouds his thinking about how he can contribute to a team with playoff aspirations.

Freeland wants to run the court. He wants to rebound, play good defense and set good screens.

In Freeland's ninth year of professional basketball, he no longer is trying to be the star or be known as a scorer, or worry about jumpers that, like last season, won't go in.

Freeland just wants to keep things simple.

"I'm just focusing on the defensive side of things, I've got a smile on my face so I'm happy."