As the 2014 Summer League draws to a close, two young players are emerging as potential solutions to the Portland Trail Blazers‘ bench uncertainties. After uneven playing time during the 2013-14 NBA season, young talents Will Barton and C.J. McCollum are becoming vital pieces to the Blazers’ roster.
Last year, Barton’s emergence during the end of the regular season seemed to bolster Portland’s supporting cast. Barton appeared in 25 of the Blazers’ final 28 regular season games, but a series of DNPs in the first round of the playoffs followed by garbage time minutes against the San Antonio Spurs limited Barton’s impact.
Similarly, last season, rookie McCollum found little room in Portland’s rotation, averaging only 12.5 minutes per game in 38 appearances after his return from injury. McCollum’s role diminished at the end of the season and he joined Barton on the bench for most of the Blazers’ playoff run.
Reports have indicated that the team’s offseason moves are essentially over, and fans have questioned if these moves have been enough to improve a Portland bench that was the league’s worst last year. Free agent signings Steve Blake and Chris Kaman are certainly viable veteran assets, but the potential loss of Mo Williams to free agency and a returning group of unproven young players leaves the Blazers’ supporting cast with lingering question marks.
However, Summer League performances by Barton and McCollum may indicate that Portland’s bench is more improved than previously thought. The young guards have been highlighted heavily during the tournament, with both players averaging over 31 minutes per game. In five games, McCollum is the Vegas Summer League’s fourth-highest scorer, averaging 20.2 points per contest. Barton has been equally impressive, averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 assists.
If this improvement keeps up, the Trail Blazers may be touting a formidable batch of substitutes as the season fully kicks into gear. Much of last year’s surprise playoff run involved a starting lineup with exceptionally fortunate health, which prevented coach Terry Stotts from needing to insert unproven players for significant stretches. LaMarcus Aldridge’s brief injury battle brought to light the shortcomings of backups Joel Freeland and Myers Leonard, and Portland was fortunate enough for Aldridge to return to full health as last year’s regular season came to a close.
Yet, even without significant injury, the playing time of Portland’s starter will need to decrease this year if the team is to succeed in the long run. Although still quite young, Portland’s starters are a year older and coming off the deepest playoff run of their careers. In order for there to be another playoff push, the starters will need to be healthy, which means a deep rotation during the regular season. The emergence of Barton and McCollum makes that reality all the more encouraging.