Portland Trail Blazers: How Each Player Must Improve Next Season

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2012

Portland Trail Blazers: How Each Player Must Improve Next Season

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    With the end of the 2011-12 NBA season in sight, the Portland Trail Blazers will enter the offseason following a year that was disappointing at best for Rip City and its fans.

    Entering a time of rebuilding, the Blazers should be ready to bring in a number of new players this summer, but there's no denying that the guys on the current roster have quite a bit to work on if they're going to get things turned around next season.

Elliot Williams

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    Staying healthy has to be the biggest concern for Elliot Williams going into next season.

    Williams has played just 24 games in his two-year career.

    Of course, the 22-year-old guard's game is raw, and a better jump shot and a more apparent defensive perimeter will also help boost the game of a player who has been full of highlights during the short time we've seen him so far in the NBA.

Hasheem Thabeet

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    Hasheem Thabeet is at the point where only a drastic turnaround will save a career that has been full of disappointment for the former No. 2 overall pick.

    Truthfully, to pinpoint just one area of improvement is completely unreasonable, as the guy's game needs a complete makeover to become relevant in the NBA.

    Despite his size, Thabeet can't score, doesn't impact the defensive end as he should and gets boxed out by guys who should have no business pulling down rebounds over his 7'3", 263-pound frame.

    Would Thabeet perform better with more minutes? Probably, but it's tough to say for a player who has struggled so drastically throughout his early playing days at the NBA level.

Craig Smith

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    Craig Smith began the season as a pleasant surprise for fans in Rip City.

    His numbers were never spectacular, but a stretch of games early in the year that featured solid rebounding and near double-digit scoring helped fans get to know the player who was signed on by the team last summer.

    Effort was never a question with this guy, so if he makes it back on the squad next season, it's just a matter of continuing to fight hard in the paint and making plays whenever he's fortunate enough to see the court as a backup big for the Blazers.

Joel Przybilla

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    Joel Przybilla returned to the Trail Blazers more than halfway through the 2011-12 NBA season and did what he was expected to do.

    His rebounding was solid, his defensive presence was good and his tough, physical nature was exactly what the Blazers needed.

    Where he needs improvement is clearly in his conditioning. Przybilla hadn't played basketball in quite some time, and quite frankly, it showed as he labored up and down the court on multiple possessions. 

    Whether or not he has enough in the tank to come back next year is a good question. If he does, though, spending the summer getting back into basketball shape should be his No. 1 priority.

Nolan Smith

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    Nolan Smith has seen a slight spike in production as his minutes have increased toward the end of the year, but he's going to have to continue learning the NBA game if he wants to become the backup point guard next season.

    Efficiency has been an issue at times for Smith, as his field goal percentage has been as low as the low 20s during stretches of the year.

    Shot selection and an improved jump shot will help his percentage rise, which could potentially help him find a more consistent spot in next year's rotation.

Kurt Thomas

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    As the oldest player in the NBA, it's tough to imagine 39-year-old Kurt Thomas improving his game much next season.

    If he does remain on the roster, it's going to be important that he does the things that don't necessarily show up on the stat sheet.

    Setting screens, taking chargers and committing hard fouls all make up Thomas' skill set, so doing the dirty work and putting in 100 percent effort when on the floor is important to a player who has been around for quite some time now.

Jonny Flynn

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    With the point guard position so up in the air for next year's roster, Jonny Flynn has a chance to come in an establish himself in the rotation next season.

    His ability to get others involved has been a refreshing sight for Blazers fans during his brief time in Portland, but having a threat to score could help take the pressure off LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson in pick-and-roll situations.

    Averaging only four shot attempts per game this year, Flynn should look to be aggressive next season and make plays for both his teammates and himself.

Luke Babbitt

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    Luke Babbitt made quite a turnaround from the beginning of the season to the end, but he certainly has more to work on heading into next year's NBA season.

    You'd like to see a bit of a quicker shot from a guy who has the threat to become a go-to three-point shooter on this roster, but you're not going to ask someone who is hitting 45.6 percent of his three-pointers to change his form at this point.

    Mechanically, a quicker first step would be a great addition to a guy whose only shot appears to be a spot-up jumper.

    As long as Babbitt keeps receiving the minutes next season, utilizing his 6'9" frame in the paint and on the boards could help boost his game to another level.

    Being a shooter is great, and the team needs it. Being a shooter, though, who can rebound and threaten inside would be an even greater tool to have on a roster that has so many areas of need heading into next season.

Raymond Felton

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    Raymond Felton is arguably the least likely Trail Blazer to return to the roster, but a late surge in production begs the question as to whether or not he's earned a contract in Portland next season.

    Should Felton return to Portland next year, the part of his game that needs the most improvement is late-game execution.

    Poor shot selection and costly turnovers late in games have contributed to a number of close losses this season, and the Feltdowns for which Felton has become known in Portland have been a major problem this year.

    While his points, assists and shooting percentages are all below his career averages, the team is going to need better execution down the stretch from their point guard next season.

Jamal Crawford

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    Considering the player option Jamal Crawford has available to him this upcoming summer, his future with the team is one of the biggest question marks surrounding the roster heading into next season.

    Should Crawford return, one of the biggest parts of his game to work on is consistency.

    Consistency is tough to improve for any player who thrives on streaky shooting from the three-point line, but his percentage this year from behind the arch was one of the lowest of his career.

    For a guy who has been known as a scorer and a shooter throughout his career, Portland could really use those qualities heading into the 2012-13 NBA season.

J.J. Hickson

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    If the Blazers are able to retain J.J. Hickson this summer, the biggest issue for the 23-year-old power forward next season is going to be accepting a bench role behind NBA All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.

    Having made a number of starts for the Blazers, it's possible that Hickson will want to keep the trend going into next year should he remain on the team beyond this season.

    His field goal percentage, scoring ability and rebounding ability have all been very good since arriving in Portland, so if he can adapt to his role off the bench next year, he's going to be arguably the best backup power forward on the team since Aldridge did it during his 2006-07 rookie campaign.

Wesley Matthews

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    Known as a defensive specialist, there's not much more you can ask from a guy who gets low on defense, disrupts players with his quick hands and dives on loose balls seemingly game after game.

    On offense, though, Wesley Matthews suffered a bit of a statistical drop off this year.

    Averaging a career-low field goal percentage and a near career-low in three-point percentage, Matthews needs to improve his shot if he's going to be a regular threat to score and take the double-teams away from LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint next season.

Nicolas Batum

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    Nicolas Batum has shown flashes of aggressiveness throughout his career—this season included. 

    The flashes, however, are not frequent enough, as Batum seemingly becomes complacent to shoot jumpers and defer to other players far too often throughout each season.

    When Batum is attacking the basket, he's been known to put players on posters and create shots for other players on the perimeter.

    If you're Batum, you don't want to stop shooting the three because 39.1 percent this season is nearly a career-high from beyond the arch.

    Mixing it in, though, with an attack-the-basket mentality will make him one of the most diverse players on a roster that will be looking for a No. 2 scoring option behind LaMarcus Aldridge next season.

LaMarcus Aldridge

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    LaMarcus Aldridge had one of his best statistical seasons of his career, but to say he has nothing to improve would be saying you're completely content with what he's done thus far.

    His scoring was great and his field goal percentage was 51.2 percent, but defense and rebounding are two areas where the 6'11" power forward should look to improve next season.

    Rebounding has been a focus of his the past few seasons, but getting in the paint and getting physical will help further boost those numbers down the road in his career.

    Aldridge's defensive presence has never been a daunting one for post players, so if he is going to be counted upon to stop the opposing big men night in and night out, he's going to have to become a better defender in the post as the team rebuilds.