The Latest from Priority Sports
The Latest from Priority Sports
Even though the Portland Trail Blazers ended their 2016-17 season woefully short on big bodies due to injury, they didn’t necessarily set out to address that issue through the 2017 Draft. But in the end, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey’s strict edict of selecting the best player available regardless of position or need just happened to result in Portland coming away with two players who should ensure they finish next season with plenty of options in the front court.
On a night when many thought the Trail Blazers might try to flip their three first-round picks to shed salary or trade for a veteran, they did neither, instead using their first two picks to move up to select Gonzaga center Zach Collins while keeping their third pick to select Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan.
Portland acquired Collins by trading the draft rights to the 15th overall pick, North Carolina forward Justin Jackson, and the rights to the 20th pick, Duke forward/center Harry Giles, to Sacramento in exchange for Gonzaga product, who the Kings selected with the 10th overall pick.
“(Collins) is a big time rim protector, he’s a great one-on-one defender, he’s a big time post defender, he can really pass it — any of you guys who were at the Gonzaga/Portland game I’m sure saw that,” said Olshey after the draft. “He put on a clinic. He can stretch the floor, he’s got range, he can score over both shoulders. He’s everything you want to look for in a big man in our league today because he can play inside and out, he can defend the rim, he can defend one-on-one, he can defend pick-and-roll.”
Olshey said he and his staff were enamored in Collins “really early in the process”, but knew that, as the collegiate season wore on, their chances of acquiring the 7-0 Las Vegas native dwindled with every great performance he turned in.
“We went Mountain West, Pac12, WCC to go scout, and it wasn’t just for the sunshine,” said Olshey. “We sat there, (Collins) just kept playing better and better and we kept getting more frustrated knowing the more minutes he got, the more the rest of the country was going to catch up. I was talking to his agent about it tonight, he said ‘You guys were on this in January,’ and I said ‘Yeah, unfortunately he went on a run in March that got everybody else up to speed on it.’
There was no way Collins would last until the 15h pick once the secret was out, belied by the fact that the team couldn’t get him to come to Portland for a workout due to the expectation he would be taken at some point in the lottery. But the initial picks of the first round broke the right way from Portland’s perspective, opening up the opportunity to package the 15th and 20th picks to move up.
“This was a tough one because we knew we had been talking to Sacramento and a lot was going to have to happen in terms of what they got at (pick) five for them to be amenable to trading (pick) 10,” said Olshey. “So what was exciting was they knew right away at five they were open to trading 10, our problem was we still had to get through some players. We couldn’t do 10 on the come… he was the only guy we were going to move both picks to get. So it was a little bit agonizing waiting around for those four draft picks to make sure that he was still going to be on the board.”
That wait ultimately paid off, with the Trail Blazers getting a player they hope to consider a “franchise-level building block.” And while Collins himself wasn’t expecting to end up with the Trail Blazers, he was nonetheless excited at the prospect meshing his talents with those already on the roster.
“I think I can bring my shooting ability,” said Collins. “I think I can stretch the floor, and I think in today's game shooting the three, regardless of position, is really important. I think I can bring some toughness, some shot-blocking, rebounding, and I just think I can bring a winning mentality.”
After finishing the deal with the Kings for Collins, Olshey once again was stuck playing the waiting game in hopes that Swanigan, who worked out for the Trail Blazers prior to the draft at their facility in Tualatin, would last until the 26th pick. Even though Swanigan, who overcame bouts of homelessness and weight issues before moving on to a stellar career with the Boilermakers, put up some of the best stats in college this season, there were questions of how a player of his stature and athleticism might fare against NBA bigs. But if the Trail Blazers had those concerns, they certainly weren’t grave enough to stop them from using the 26th pick to select the Indiana native.
“What he’s overcome off the court, on the court, the dedication and passion that he has to be the kind of person he is right now, it’s pretty incredible, it’s a great story,” said Olshey. “But he’s bought into it now. It was a means to an end, he’s turned his life around. What we really evaluated more than anything with him is he’s just a big time basketball player. You talk about a guy who shot 45 percent from three, he was number two in the nation in defensive rebounding, he can bang, he’s tough, he scores around the block. He’s just one of those guys we all keep talking about — non position basketball — you just put him on the court and let him play.”
While Swanigan’s story is surely an inspiring one, such stories don’t win basketball games. But his ability and willingness to overcome obstacles and fight through adversity are the kind of traits that any savvy team looks for in a player, especially one selected late in the first round.
“It’s not just his body, I think people get hyper focused on that, it’s also his game,” said Olshey of Swanigan. “I mean, look at what he’s done with his shooting, that’s hours in the gym. His skill level has just become so much more advanced. Playing in the Big 10 at that level, competing, to do what he did on the glass and expand his game is really inspiring.
“People put too much emphasis on upside being directly correlated strictly to athleticism. There’s upside too in terms of skill level and the ability to play the game of basketball and I think he’s got a really high ceiling when it comes to that because what we were most impressed with when we brought him in was his ability to be a really good team defender and the fact that he can really pass the ball. I think we all saw, the last four teams that were standing this year were all elite passing teams. So anybody that can defend on one side of the ball, rebound and is also an elite passer and can make shots is someone that we’re going to maximize.”
While Collins and Swanigan might not be the key to the Trail Blazers advancing out of the first round next season, their addition is the latest in a string of measured moves whose goal is to one day put the team in position to compete for a championship. While Portland’s draft night didn’t result in a one-year rental for an All-Star or the clearing of cap space, it netted Portland two players they hope can some day grow with the likes of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić into a contender. And according to Olshey, that’s good enough for him and team owner Paul Allen.
“If we could accelerate this we would accelerate it, but if we’re not going to accelerate it we need to make the best and the most of the model we’re under right now, which is — we’ve talked about it consistently — guys on Damian’s career arc but that can grow with the organization and grow with this team,” said Olshey of Collins, though it also applies to Swanigan. “He fits both because I think he can help right away. We’ve got a lot of depth, it’s going to be a tough rotation to crack, but we’re in this for the long haul with him, and that’s what the draft is for. The draft isn’t for quick fixes and positional need, the draft is for the long term.”