Time has run out on the Portland Trail Blazers. They avoided total playoff elimination Wednesday night only because the Utah Jazz were unable to find a way to beat the Denver Nuggets in Salt Lake City, but the Blazers’ next loss will be the final nail in their coffin.
With the meaningful part of the regular season coming to a close, it’s nearing time for the Blazers to switch their focus.
“You hate to lose and you hate to lose at home,” Blazer head coach Terry Stotts said Wednesday night following his team’s sixth straight loss, their fourth in as many games by at least 10 points. “But I think we played hard. Most of these guys are going to be here next year, and we’ve got to work with them, and this is an opportunity for them.”
“These guys” who Stotts is referring to are his middle to end of the bench players, the guys who finished out the game for the Blazers Wednesday night. With the returns of LaMarcus Aldridge (out with a twisted ankle) and Nicolas Batum (shoulder) in question for the remaining seven games, these middle to end of the bench players are going to be the same guys who are going to finish the season.
Getting heavy minutes down the stretch is the opportunity Stotts is referring to, and of the players on the roster who are going to be Blazers next season, none is a bigger question mark than Joel Freeland.
Freeland is a rookie, one of five Blazer rookies who shared the court briefly in Wednesday’s first quarter, coming to Portland by way of the United Kingdom and the Liga ACB, the highest-level professional league in Spain. Where his fellow rookie and ACB transplant Victor Claver has found some minutes and been effective at times, getting the second-most starts for Blazer rookies with nine, Freeland has been relegated mostly to garbage time, playing less than 10 minutes in over half of his 46 appearances.
What’s most troublesome about Freeland’s lack of production in his rookie season is that he is arguably the best homegrown talent produced by Great Britain. Freeland has the international pedigree. He just hasn’t quite figured out how it translates to the NBA.
“It’s a different game completely. The speed, the strength, the athleticism of the guys, everything in general is completely different,” Freeland said Wednesday, comparing the ACB to the NBA.
Adjusting to the different style of play has been Freeland’s marching orders since joining the Blazers. Adjusting to life on the fringes of the NBA has been another task entirely.
“Coming off the bench has been an adjustment,” he said. “Not knowing where my minutes are coming from has been an adjustment. Knowing the rotation, knowing if I’m going in, knowing if I’m not going in, knowing how long I’m going to be on the court when I actually get on to the court—it’s all an adjustment,” Freeland said.
“When I played in Spain, I could afford to make a mistake and know that I wasn’t going to come out,” he added. “Here, I’ve got to make sure that I don’t make that mistake, because if I make that mistake I could be coming out and sitting on the bench and not knowing when I’m going to go back in again.”
There was a third European product on hand Wednesday night at the Rose Garden— another NBA player who came to the United States from the ACB, in fact.
If someone were going to make a list of European basketball players who have successfully made the transition to the American game, Memphis Grizzlies’ center Marc Gasol would be near the top.
Two or three seasons ago, Marc Gasol was probably best known for being part of the deal the Los Angeles Lakers put together to fleece the Memphis Grizzlies of his brother Pau. More recently, the younger Gasol has made a name for himself as one of the very best big men in the NBA. An All-Star in 2012, Gasol is a highly skilled 7-footer with a soft shooting touch.
“He’s an incredible player he’s learned and he adjusted really quickly,” Freeland said of Gasol. “He’s a great example of what European players can do in this league.”
Marc Gasol’s formula for success is pretty simple.
“Playing time is the key—getting to know the league, getting to know the little wrinkles and tricks that are in this league,” Gasol said Friday after he’d helped his team dispatch the Blazers. “You can work real hard in practice, you can do all the right things off the court, days off and all that, but if you don’t get to play, it’s tough.”
And that’s where these last five games become incredibly important for a player like Freeland.
“There have been spurts and moments during this year where I’ve showed that I can do it. It’s just finding that consistency,” Freeland said. “There’s a lot of people that would probably be happy to be in the position that I’m in at the moment, just being on an NBA roster and being privileged to be here. I’ve got more fight in me than that. I want to be on the team, I want to contribute to the team, I want to help the team win, and I want to be the best player I can possibly be."