I find it difficult to discuss player performances during pick-up games. On one hand, these are professional athletes trying to perfect their craft, so some skills, tenancies and deficiencies are noticeable. But on the other hand, it's an informal run, in many ways no different than any pickup game taking place in any part of the city, sans the world class athletes.
I guess what I'm trying to get at is I'm loath, for various reasons, to put much significance in the positive or negative things that I've seen in Tualatin over the past few weeks. It's not fair to the players or to you. The players need to be able to practice, which includes making mistakes, without being overly scrutinized. Even Nate McMillan has said he doesn't watch the practices because he doesn't want anyone to feel like they're being evaluated. And the flip of that is they shouldn't have too many expectations placed upon their shoulders just because they look good in pick-up games.
Having stated that, I know there's a lot of interest in this team and these players. Realizing that, I'm confident that I can derive and share some conclusions from what I've seen at the practice facility without compromising a players' right to the relative privacy that a closed practice supposedly provides. So here goes.
-- Steve Blake looks like he's in the best shape of his life. Outside of Steven Hill (who lives in a hotel and is thousands of miles away from his friends and family, hence he's got nothing better to do), Blake is the most consistent presence at the practice facility. As Jason Quick has reported, Blake has been working on his vert, and it shows. He's not playing above the rim, but he definitely looks more explosive. A bit more muscular too.
Every day when the teams divvy up players, Blake always ends up on Oden's team (or to be fair to the veteran, Oden plays on Blake's team). I'm sure that's done with a purpose.
It should also be noted that Steve Blake hates to lose. I mean, he really hates it. I've heard Steve drop the f-bomb on more than a few occasions after ending up on the losing side. He also doesn't mind arguing foul calls should the mood strike him.
-- I've only had the chance to see LaMarcus Aldridge play once at the practice facility, though he did look like the best player on the court. I watched him play three or four games and during that time he handled the ball outside of the post more often than I've seen in his first two years in the league. I don't know if that speaks more to the informal nature of the game or an effort on LaMarcus' part to improve his handle. Either way, he looked comfortable.
Aldridge looks to have added some muscle, but not much. And really, how much bigger can a guy like LaMarcus get?
-- Jerryd Bayless is going to be fun to watch this season. Like I mentioned in the Q&A, he's shooting the ball a little more and driving a little less than he did in summer league. The good news on that front is the shots are falling regularly. When he does take it to the rack, he's finishing consistently with the finger roll. Numerous times I've seen him initially prepare for a dunk before deciding (correctly I might add) to finish with a layin.
I'm still surprised by Bayless' ups every time I watch him play. His ability to elevate, especially in terms of quickness and distance off the floor, is phenomenal. I may be speaking too soon, but Bayless might rival Outlaw when it comes to vertical, at least relative to their respective statures.
Bayless actually seems interested in playing defense, which is more than you can say for a few of the guys out there.
-- Sergio Rodriguez has made obvious strides in the offseason. He looks bigger without having lost any quickness. He's also one of the guys who is almost always a the practice facility when I roll in. I'm not sure that would have been the case in years prior.
As others have mentioned, Sergio's shot does have more arc, though I think he's still working on making that new release instinctual. It seems to me that sometimes he has to remind himself to put more air under the ball, which is causing a slight hesitation. I know he worked out hard with shooting coach John Townsend this summer in Spain (tough gig I'm sure!), so I'm confident that, with a bit more repetition, Sergio's shot will be far more reliable this season.
Sergio seems more intent on taking the ball to the basket during these runs as well. His finishing is better, but probably not where he'd like it just yet.
Just as Blake always plays with Oden, Rodriguez almost always plays alongside Martell Webster.
-- Speaking of Martell: the guy's body is transformed, far more than any other player on the team. Much leaner. I don't know if it's all the workouts in L.A. or a new diet, but whatever he's doing, it's working. The change is really noticeable in his legs; all lean muscle. Martell has always been a little thick, but no more. He looks more like a prototypical small forward.
Martell told me at the end of the season that he was going to work on his ball handling, and from what little I've seen, an improvement has been made. He also continues to gain confidence in his ability to put the ball on the floor. This might be the year everything comes together for Marty, and not a moment too soon.
Any by the way, he still automatic from beyond the arc. If he's got the slightest bit of daylight, that's buckets.
-- And then there's Greg Oden. Greg plays 5-on-5 every other day, and he seems to get better every time I see him. I've noticed he doesn't dunk the ball as often as I'd like, opting to throw the ball through the hoop or simply drop it above the basket, but it all scores the same.
These kinds of games are a bit hard offensively for a guy like Greg, as dumping the ball into the post and letting the big man work tends to slow the game down. That's great in a real game with real stakes, but that ain't what they're playing in Tualatin. There's a reason why you don't see much back to the basket play on the playground. It's no different on the courts at the PF (that's what we call the practice facility, by the way).
Greg does get to try out some of the moves he works on during his off-days, primarily the jump hook, but it's still a work in progress. He's got a nice mid-range jumper, which surprised me, but he doesn't use it often during games. That would require being more than five feet away from the basket.
Defense is where Greg shines in these runs. On numerous occasions I've seen GO block back-to-back shots with ease. His rebounding is more than sufficient. He's the immovable object in the post.
His stamina is improving. Greg plays game after game and seems no more or less winded that anyone else out there. The explosiveness we saw from pre-surgery Oden isn't there yet, but he's getting close. And what he's lacking right now in lift is being made up for with raw power.
-- Steven Hill, the guy who has had the "honor" of going toe-to-toe with Oden on the court, has been playing well. He's working out every day but Sunday. Every time you talk to anyone at the PF about Hill, the discussion always turns to his great attitude, his outstanding work ethic or his epic beard (hence the nickname "Steven of Nazareth").
The thing with a guy like Steven is that he's already better than other big men who are under contract in the league. He's better than Jamaal Magloire. He's better than Jerome James. I'm sure there are others.
You always know what you're going to get with Steven Hill. He's going to block shots, get rebounds and avoid shooting like the plague. He's also going to give you maximum effort whenever he's on the court. Is that enough to get signed? I have no idea.
-- Last but not least, there's Luke Jackson. Another guy who is always in the gym; always going hard. It's hard to tell who has the leg up for that last spot at this point.
Luke has said that he's working on perfecting what he does best, which is shooting the deep ball. If he wants to make the roster based on that skill, he needs to continue to improve. He's not to the point where he's automatic from three when he's open, and for a guy trying to claw back into the league, he has to be. He's nothing if not steady, but you've got to have that little something extra to make this roster.