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Blazers roll dice with youth, better backups

by: COURTESY OF LEHIGH UNIVERSITY - With rookie guard CJ McCollum (above), the Trail Blazers have four players drafted in the top 11 either last year or this year, giving coach Terry Stotts more potential depth. CJ McCollum was distributing and directing. Allen Crabbe and Will Barton were bombing. Meyers Leonard was working a little jump hook, and Joel Freeland was finishing the break with a dunk. Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews were even in the gym, laughing and joking while going through shooting drills.

Trail Blazers basketball was back in session.

A four-day mini-camp prior to Las Vegas Summer League opened Tuesday at the Blazers' practice facility, with draft picks McCollum and Crabbe joining second-year players Barton, Leonard, Freeland and Victor Claver.

Lillard and Matthews are working out but won't participate in the summer league games, but the others will be joined by second-year forward Thomas Robinson, whose trade from Houston wasn't made official until Wednesday.

"We'll have (five) roster players on our summer league team, which is very unusual, and it's good," second-year coach Terry Stotts says. "Our second-year guys will show improvement, and I know how valuable summer league is for first-year players. They get to learn our system and the NBA game, so it's not a shock to their system in October. To have that many (veterans) on your roster is like having an additional two weeks to training camp."

McCollum, the 10th pick in the recent draft, likes the idea of having that many players with NBA experience on his side during summer league.

"I know these guys are itching to get back on the court and get some competitive five-on-five in," McCollum says. "They can help me. They've been there before. I can ask them questions and touch base with them on a lot of things."

Portland opens summer league play against Phoenix at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. The Blazers and each of the other 21 teams will play three games before entering a single-elimination tournament. Seeding will be based on the old Continental Basketball Association point system, with three points for a win and one point for winning each of the four quarters.

"It's always good to play for something," says Stotts, who played three years in the CBA and coached another two. "Being an old CBA guy, I like the point system. If you go down there and win the summer league with (22) teams, it speaks well for the guys. It will be a good competition."

Stotts says assistant coaches David Vanterpool, Nate Tibbetts, Dale Osbourne and Kim Hughes will all be in Las Vegas, but none will be designated as head coach.

"David, Nate and Dale will primarily run practices, and David and Nate will each coach some games," Stotts says. "We're doing it by committee."

Leonard, Freeland, Claver and Barton have spent the past month in Portland, working with the assistant coaches on individual skills and with strength coach Todd Forcier in the weight room.

"The work we did in June with those four was very productive," Stotts says. "It showed (Tuesday). They are in good shape. They all made good strides over the course of the year and are prepared for more improvement now."

The 7-1 Leonard has added about five pounds to reach 255.

"Eventually I hope to get to 260 or 265, but right now I'm content," he says.

Leonard, 21, says he worked mainly with Hughes but also spent time with the other three assistants working on his game.

"I felt I made some strides and got a lot better," Leonard says. "We worked on scoring in the post, keeping my jump shot consistent, finishing around the rim. Offense comes a little more naturally for me. On defense, we worked on staying straight up and down whenever I jump to block shots, and not giving guys free layups. And we also spent time working on rebounding angles, staying low when going after the ball."

"Meyers is a better player from where he was last year at this time," Stotts says. "He has a better understanding. He's much more comfortable with his game and the NBA game. The work he's done is going to show."

Leonard will be in competition for newly acquired veteran Robin Lopez for time at center.

"I played against him last year and know he is very strong," Leonard says. "Hopefully, I can learn some things from him, compete in practice and get better."

The 6-3 McCollum will play plenty of his natural point guard at Las Vegas. Stotts says he will use McCollum at both guard spots, though, and hopes to use him alongside Lillard in the backcourt next season.

McCollum says he feels a bond already with Crabbe, the 6-6 former California shooting guard who was the first pick in the second round.

"Allen and I are getting along pretty well," McCollum says. "He's a great shooter. He's one of the guys I try to get going when I'm running the show, getting him shots. I know if he's happy, I'm happy, and everybody's happy.

"Another thing you have to do is congratulate the bigs when they set screens for you. That way they set more. You have make sure you're getting them touches. I'm trying to get more familiar with the players who are here and build relationships with the guys who come in for summer league."

McCollum has already impressed those around him in Blazer camp.

"Everybody wants to play with a good point guard," Crabbe says. "CJ can get teammates involved, and he can score to keep the defense on its toes."

"He's smart, he knows how to play, he has a good feel for the game," Freeland says. "You can see that. He tries to get his teammates involved. He makes plays and doesn't make bad plays. That's what we need. He can play the 2 guard. He's pretty strong, he's pretty big. He's not like a pure point guard, but he can play the point. That versatility will help us."

McCollum will be among the most literate of players in franchise history. The former Lehigh star, who graduated with a degree in journalism, wrote a pre-draft column entitled "Poked, Prodded … Then Picked" for Sports Illustrated.

"They reached out to me and asked if I'd be interested in writing a story on the back page focusing on the pre-draft process," McCollum says. "They'd seen what I'd written before and thought it would be a good idea to give an insider's perspective."

McCollum wrote a piece for Sporting News and will write a rookie diary for NBA.com during the 2013-14 season. He interned for the Lehigh media relations department, writing for its website, and was heavily involved with the "Brown & White," the school newspaper. He was sports editor for two years and covered all sports -- "except men's basketball."

"It's just the beginning," McCollum says. "I have a lot of stuff coming up. My portfolio is being put together by my agency so I don't have to worry about it. I can just play basketball."

McCollum started as a business major at Lehigh.

"I don't like math that much," he says. "Economics and calculus are too much for me. I'd rather write than study for an exam. Coach (Matt) Logie was a journalism major, got me on to it and I switched from the business school."

• Crabbe says there was no fallout from the incident during a game in February when Cal coach Mike Montgomery gave him a shove in the chest during a timeout. Montgomery later apologized and was reprimanded by the Pac-12 for his actions.

"It was an incident where something that wasn't supposed to happen happened," Crabbe says. "My coach and I still talk to this day. I had no intention of me being mad at him after that. It was spur of the moment. The situation got a little heated, but we settled it the night of the incident.

"We always had a pretty good relationship. As the years went on, he told me my role on the team was going to have to improve each and every year. I can't say I didn't have a good time at Cal. The opportunities for me there was great."

• The team with the worst bench in the NBA last season -- maybe ever -- would seem to have bolstered that for next season. The 7-foot Lopez replaces 6-9 JJ Hickson at center. Off the bench now are Leonard at center, Robinson and Freeland at power forward, Claver and Dorell Wright at small forward, Crabbe and Barton at shooting guard and McCollum and Earl Watson at point guard.

"We've added some pieces that were missing last year," Leonard says.

The Blazers will still be young, with eight of 14 roster players in their first or second year in the league. Leonard points out that they'll have the Nos. 5 (Robinson), 6 (Lillard) and 11 (Leonard) picks in the 2012 draft.

Robinson "had his ups and downs last year, just like me, but he is full of talent," Leonard says. "I'm excited to play with him."

Freeland says the addition of Lopez will fortify the interior defense.

"He might not block a lot of shots, but he can change a lot of shots," Freeland says. "That's just as good."

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