Portland Trail Blazers big man Joel Freeland saw the signs of possible change around him in the preseason.
He saw that his role on last year’s team was given to somebody else.
He saw that the Blazers had signed Chris Kaman to play back-up center, the spot he had earned last season.
Portland also had two young big men itching for playing time in Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard.
Freeland was a little pessimistic.
“I’m still in the same situation if not a worse situation than I found myself last year,” he said in the preseason about his potential playing time. “I’m honest with myself. I have to continue to show the coaches that I can play solid and to the best of my ability.”
But now center Robin Lopez is out for several weeks with a broken hand. The “stay ready” platitudes the Blazers’ bench players have heard from Portland’s coaches led by head coach Terry Stotts finally came to fruition.
Along with Kaman, Freeland will have to fill more of Lopez’s role.
Over the weekend Freeland got his second and third career NBA starts at center in two wins against the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans.
His unselfishness and defensive expertise has been a major key to his success after a rough start to his NBA career that began with missing 17 of his first 18 shots.
But it’s easy to forget that Freeland has been doing this for a while. It’s his ninth season of professional basketball.
And even before he was inserted into the starting line-up, Freeland was showing meaningful strides in his game. He’s averaging only 11 minutes per game but it seems like Freeland will be the choice to start at least a few more times while Lopez is out.
His midrange jumper has improved. He’s shooting 50 percent on those shots so far this year in a career-best season from the field so far.
But Freeland’s done nothing different and just says it’s a natural progression. In fact, his workout routine seems impossibly low maintenance compared to the specialized training many players do in the offseason.
The dirty work guy from Farnham, England doesn’t even have someone to go get his rebounds during much of his offseason work in Europe.
“I was just shooting by myself,” he said. “Working out by myself over there. That’s what I do in the summers.”
On Portland’s staff, he credits assistant coaches Kim Hughes and Dale Osborne for helping him improve his game.
“I’m away for seven, eight, nine months including summer league,” Freeland said. “To get back home, see family, just relax that’s great for me.”
Unlike the rest of the team, Freeland isn’t on Twitter. But he does like to play golf.
“I’m terrible at it,” he said.
But Freeland has been at his best where he made his name in Europe: down low. The former post scorer in Europe has been taking more of his shots close to the basket and it’s resulted in a career-high in field goal percentage. According to Basketball-Reference he’s taking 42 percent of his shots from inside three feet while hitting them at a career-high 60 percent rate.
Freeland played because of his play on defense last year but his offensive production has added more to his game. He’s also Portland’s leader in offensive rebound percentage.
He struggled with foul trouble in Saturday’s win but was a major part of the start that ripped the game away from the Pelicans. And it was Freeland who defended Anthony Davis before fouling out.
The Blazers have gotten big games from Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright and Kaman over the past week. But Freeland’s effectiveness could be the most important for sustained success without Robin Lopez especially against the league’s bigger front lines.