How close are the Portland Trail Blazers to returning to the NBA Playoffs?
Portland ended the season with a record of 33-49 in the second year under head coach Chauncey Billups. Guard Damian Lillard led the team with a monstrous 32.2 points per game, a career-high for the former 1st-round pick out of Weber State. Guard Anfernee Simons and forward Jerami Grant took second and third place on the roster with 21.1 and 20.5 points per contest.
Lillard and Simons are both under contract for the Trail Blazers in the 2023-24 season, according to Spotrac. The two guards and center Jusuf Nurkic take up the three highest cap figures on the roster for next season. Guard Shaedon Sharpe and forward Nassir Little were also listed on Spotrac’s roster list, while forward Kevin Knox has a club option for the team’s 2023-24 campaign.
Forward Jabari Walker, who played in 56 games for the Trail Blazers, is listed with a partially-guaranteed deal on Spotrac.
Portland possesses the projected No. 5 pick and the No. 23 pick in the NBA Draft. Whether they go the route of taking a forward like UCF’s Taylor Hendricks or a guard like Overtime Elite’s Ausar Thompson with their top-5 selection, the Trail Blazers will need to ensure they can pick someone later in the first round who can either continue to build up some of the more glaring needs or compensate for what their earlier pick couldn’t.
Who will be a sleeper prospect the Blazers should watch for in the 2023 NBA Draft? And will they be able to find their way onto the roster next season?
Blazers’ Sleeper Prospect: Maxwell Lewis, Pepperdine
If Portland went the route of selecting a guard like either Amen or Ausar Thompson, they could take a chance on a forward like Leonard Miller from G League Ignite to help bring extra size and rebounding off the bench.
But if they selected Hendricks at No. 5, players like forward Maxwell Lewis out of Pepperdine and Duke’s Dariq Whitehead could be Blazers selections to look out for to provide an extra boost on offense.
A former 4-star prospect out of Phoenix, Ariz., Lewis chose to play for Pepperdine over offers from Utah, Arizona State, Baylor, Oklahoma, St. John’s, USC and Washington State, among others, according to 247Sports. He joined forward Kendall Munson in a 2020 recruiting class ranked 84th in the country.
“He knew that he had talent, but he knew he had some shortcomings,” Pepperdine coach Lorenzo Romar said in March, via the Spokesman-Review. “He came with that attitude and it was important to him that he went somewhere where he’d have a chance to play early and be able to play through mistakes and that’s what he was able to do.”
Lewis played in 52 games and started in 33 for the Waves over two seasons, earning averages of 14.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. He leapt to a more important role on the team between his first and second year, playing and starting in 31 games and jumping to 31.3 minutes per contest compared to 19.6 the year before.
“I never had the role I had at Pepperdine this season, just being able go at defenders one-on-one and in ball screens,” Lewis told ESPN NBA Draft expert Jonathan Givony in March. “I was in the corner in AAU and high school, shooting 3s and waiting for dump-offs. Coach (Lorenzo) Romar gave me a lot of flexibility and trusted me.
“Having that role and (being) given that opportunity gave me the ability to do more. Also (working) harder and being in the gym more than I ever have.”
Hendricks and Lewis could be solid short or long-term options for the Blazers to boost the team’s bench, which finished with the league’s 20th-highest offensive and defensive ratings last season at 54.5 and 57.9, respectively.
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