Initial Report Card Grades for Every Key Portland Trail Blazers Player
After struggling mightily down the stretch last season, they have stormed out of the gates and are 10-2 through the first few weeks of the season.
A team that was thought to be on the cusp of a playoff berth is now envisioning a high seed and perhaps an extended playoff run.
So just exactly how have the Blazers done it?
Here are the initial grades for the top 10 players in their rotation.
Damian Lillard, last year's runaway rookie of the year has not only built on his excellent initial season, but he has shored up many of his perceived shortcomings from a year ago.
The biggest knocks on Lillard from a year ago were his defense and his inability at times to create easy shots for his teammates.
Lillard took these criticisms to heart and seriously worked on his game.
He is showing much more interest in playing defense, and while his assists are slightly down, he seems to be playing more under control.
He's shooting close to 40 percent on his threes and is even pitching in on the glass, grabbing close to five boards per game.
Would most people like to see Lillard average closer to eight or nine assists per game instead of his current clip of less than six?
But the Blazers are humming along and Lillard is a big part of the reason.
Initial Grade: A
LaMarcus Aldridge has certainly cemented himself as one of the top three power forwards in the game.
His scoring is up to a career-high 22.5, his rebounding is still solid at nine per game and he is becoming a more vocal leader on the court.
Defensively, he is holding his own, although he still isn't blocking many shots.
But it has definitely helped Aldridge having Robin Lopez next to him, which has taken a lot of the defensive pressure off of him—allowing him to focus more on scoring.
At this point in his career, there is little else for Aldridge to do aside from becoming more consistent in the clutch and perhaps improving slightly across the board.
But Aldridge is having his best year as a pro and his grade reflects that.
Initial Grade: A
Wesley Matthews has always been a consistent player for the Blazers and a nice third option on offense.
But the Blazers felt that they could improve the position so they went out and drafted C.J. McCollum in the first round this year.
McCollum has missed the entire season so far, and there is no timetable for his return.
Matthews, meanwhile, decided that he wasn't going to wait around for the rookie to take his job.
Matthews is having a career year, scoring close to 16 points per game and knocking down an amazing 50 percent of his triple tries.
Matthews, like Lillard, has also improved his rebounding and is a featured defender on the perimeter.
But the real value in Matthews is his ability to stretch the floor, which creates havoc down low with spacing.
Lopez and Aldridge both owe a lot of their success to Matthews.
His assists are slightly down, but Matthews isn't typically asked to pass the ball that much, anyway.
Initial Grade: A-
The biggest need heading into this season for the Blazers was adding a genuine center to the team.
They got their man in Robin Lopez, who, until this season, was just known as Brook's less- talented twin brother.
But a huge part of the Blazers' success has been the intangibles that Lopez brings to this team.
His numbers may not jump off the paper (just over seven points and rebounds per game) but his presence has been felt immediately.
Lopez occupies a large amount of space down low, is active on the glass and on defense and even features a few nifty offensive moves in the post.
He dives after loose balls and has even been blocking some shots.
Through 12 games, Lopez may be the team's greatest unsung hero.
Initial Grade: A
Nic Batum has always had the talent to be one of the league's best young small forwards.
His problem has been consistency and vanishing for long stretches in some games.
The hope has always been for Batum to develop into a Scottie Pippen-type of player.
While he still has a long way to go before that happens, he has certainly become more consistent this year.
His scoring is slightly down, but he is grabbing more rebounds and becoming a playmaker on offense. His assists are at a career-high 5.2 per game, and his turnovers have ticked slightly lower to 2.5 per contest.
This biggest improvement to his game has been this shooting from deep, where he is at a career-high 40.9 percent.
He has also become a nearly lock-down defender on the wing.
Initial Grade: A-
Joel Freeland blew everyone away this summer with his play during training camp.
Not only did he make the roster, but he beat out former lottery pick Meyers Leonard for the backup center spot in the rotation.
He provides a big, active body down low and has a nose for the ball.
He plays smart, although his aggressiveness often leads to fouls. Though only playing about 15 minutes per game, he is averaging 2.5 fouls.
Freeland has done exactly what the Blazers have hoped for thus far, and they couldn't have been more pleased with his progress.
Initial Grade: B
Mo Williams has always been an instant offense type of player throughout his career.
He never met a shot he didn't like and has a tendency to jack up shots at all times.
However, this year in Portland, he is playing much more under control.
He is averaging five assists per game and is providing solid leadership off the bench. He also seems to be taking on a bit of a mentoring role with Lillard, helping the young star guard improve his own play.
Ideally, you would like to see Williams shoot better from three-point range (32.2 percent) but that certainly will come. He is a career 38 percent shooter from deep, and he is far from over-the-hill.
Turnovers are also a problem but not too alarming yet (2.7 per game).
Initial Grade: B-
I must admit that I expected Dorell Wright to have a bigger role with this team.
However, it is tough for him to get minutes when the starting five is so good.
At this point, he is only averaging 14 minutes per game.
However, he is giving the Blazers quality minutes.
He is averaging five points per game and most importantly shooting a tremendous 45.5 percent from deep.
The Blazers are also getting some defense from Wright, which is certainly a bonus.
In all honesty, the Blazers were mainly looking for Wright to just knock down triples off the bench, and he is doing that.
Initial Grade: B+
What a sad journey this has been for Thomas Robinson.
After a stellar career at Kansas, Robinson was a high lottery pick and was expected to come into the league and immediately make an impact.
Now, in his second season with his third team, Robinson is no closer to realizing his potential.
He is providing solid scoring and rebounding off the bench, but given how talented he was supposed to be, he needs to be challenging for more than 11 minutes per game.
The key to getting more minutes continues to be the same for Robinson. He needs to play with a high motor and contribute defensively and on the boards.
At this point, he is a fringe rotation player.
Initial Grade: C
Blessed with an NBA body and prototypical athleticism, Meyers Leonard was supposed to challenge for a starting spot by now.
Instead, he finds himself outside of the rotation and only playing in blowouts.
So far, Leonard has seen action in only two games for a grand total of 16 minutes this season.
In order to crack the rotation, Leonard needs to be active on the glass and play strong defense down low.
So far, he is way behind where he needs to be as an NBA player.
Initial Grade: Incomplete