The Greg Oden era (if it can be called that) has passed, and with Joel Przybilla also gone, the Trail Blazers have just one certainty in the paint, and that is LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge made his first All-Star team this past season before undergoing season-ending hip surgery in April that officially removed the Trail Blazers from playoff contention.
Fortunately, Aldridge should be fully recovered for the start of next season, and his injury coupled with the Blazers’ ensuing collapse did have the benefit of providing Portland with the eleventh pick in the draft, also known as Meyers Leonard.
The Blazers look like an improved team heading into next season, with Aldridge, re-signed free agent Nicolas Batum and lottery pick Damian Lillard ready to lead Portland’s charge back to the playoffs. Add in defensive stopper Wesley Matthews at shooting guard and Portland’s starting lineup is beginning to take shape. Just one question remains: who will start at center?
The Blazers struggled mightily with Aldridge sidelined at the end of last season, but they did get some help down low from the recently acquired J.J. Hickson. Hickson did his best to fill in for Aldridge’s lost production, and played particularly well as a starter through Portland’s final ten games.
Hickson is a powerful athlete who can help out on the glass, but stands at only 6’9” and struggles with inconsistency due to his low basketball I.Q. Still, he produced at a high level in 19 games at the end of last season, averaging over 15 points and eight boards, and could get the nod provided the Blazers feel confident that Hickson can guard opposing centers.
If size is a concern, however, the Blazers may feel most comfortable starting rookie Meyers Leonard. At 7’1,” Leonard is already one of the league’s top five tallest players, but possesses surprising mobility and touch for a player of his size.
Leonard is undeniably raw, particularly offensively, and the Blazers may be hesitant to start two rookies right off the bat. However, he played well in the summer league and showed immediate chemistry with Lillard while doing an admirable job of defending the paint. Leonard averaged 10.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks during the Vegas summer league, clearly outplaying fellow lottery big men Andre Drummond and Thomas Robinson.
Leonard will need time to develop, but his combination of size, mobility and defensive instincts will make him a competitive candidate for the starting job come training camp.
The final candidate for the starting center spot is Joel Freeland of Great Britain. Although technically an incoming rookie, the 25-year-old center was drafted by the Blazers back in 2006 and has since carved out a strong career in Europe.
At 6’10” and 250 pounds, Freeland has prototypical size for an NBA center, but hardly a typical game. Freeland has developed into a highly versatile big man since 2006, one who thrives off a rare combination of perimeter shooting, athleticism and defensive grit.
The British big man impressed as a member of Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics, averaging 14.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while playing with great energy. However, international basketball is far different from the NBA game, and Freeland will need time to adjust to a faster paced, athletically superior league.
Leonard had an impressive college career and has the potential to be a top-tier center in the NBA. However, he is simply too raw to begin his NBA career in the starting lineup. Leonard will be most effective as a defensive anchor for the second unit, and the Portland coaching staff should focus on developing the 20-year-old before burdening him with the pressure of squaring off against starting centers.
Despite his solid play as a starter at the end of last season, Hickson will likewise be better suited coming off the bench for Portland this coming season. His lack of height and poor perimeter skills make him a questionable fit next to Aldridge, who requires freedom to operate effectively in the post.
Hickson could be a good option should the Blazers opt for a fast paced, small-ball offense, but given Portland's track record, this seems unlikely. Hickson will hit the free agent market again following this season, which should provide him with motivation to produce at a high level. He may not start, but he should get plenty of opportunities to prove himself and carve out an important role.
That leaves Freeland as the prime candidate to start for Portland this coming season. Freeland's combination of size, versatility and experience make him the most logical starting center for the Blazers. His solid mid-ranged game should keep defenders honest and give Aldridge room to operate in the post, and his 25-point performance against Spain’s Gasol brothers in the Olympics should help to dispel any doubts about his ability to match up against NBA centers.
Freeland should be Portland's starting center come opening night, but it seems likely that newly appointed head coach Terry Stotts will frequently shuffle a lineup featuring so many young, unproven yet highly talented players. Aldridge, although best as a power forward, may even spend some time as the starting center, which would make Hickson's inclusion in the starting lineup more logical.
The Blazers have taken major steps in the right direction this offseason, but this team is still a long way from contender status. Fortunately, the Blazers have three young, cheap big men primed to fill the hole at center, and regardless of which of them starts, the future looks bright for Rip City.