The Blazers have a history with the NBA Draft, and it’s not the kind of history that needs to be celebrated.
With the exception of the wheeling and dealing on draft night back in 2006 that brought Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge to Portland, the last player to come to the Blazers as a rookie and end up an all-star was Zach Randolph. Even then, by the time Randolph—selected 18th overall out of Michigan State in 2001—made his first All-Star team until 2011, he was in Memphis, and all that was left of Z-Bo’s time in Portland were a handful of very memorable horror stories.
Outside of Randolph drafted 12 years ago, the Blazers’ draft history features forgotten names Qyntel Woods, Derrick Byars and Jon Diebler. And then, of course, there are those two historically bad No. 1 overall picks. In fact, a list of the worst draft choices of all time published by the Denver Post gives three of the worst draft choices ever made to the Blazers, the only team to appear more than once on the list.
The duty of the Blazers’ General Manager Neil Olshey, overseeing his second NBA Draft on Thursday, has been to reverse the trend of drafting players that don’t pan out. Olshey set the bar unreasonably high by selecting Damian Lillard in last year’s draft. Following his own blue print of drafting a seasoned college player from a school not known for producing NBA players, Olshey and his crew selected Lehigh’s CJ McCollum with the 16th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
McCollum joins a Blazer team facing some uncertainty going into the 2013-14 NBA season. Damian Lillard is an unquestioned superstar in the making, but LaMarcus Aldridge may be looking to opt out of what might turn into a lengthy rebuilding process. McCollum comes to Portland with a degree in journalism and a mandate to help make the Blazers better right away.
“I was drafted here to come and contribute and to help the team win games,” McCollum told Portland media via a Skype call at the team’s practice facility. “I would love to win Rookie of the Year, but I would also like to make the playoffs and win a championship. I’m willing to play a role and do whatever it takes to win.”
The NBA Draft makes for outstanding theater, what with the fans booing outgoing commissioner David Stern every time he steps up to the podium and the constant parade of enormous young men in designer suits accepting their first job with a friendly handshake, but its implications are real and far reaching.
Former Blazer General Manager Kevin Pritchard established his reputation by making an unprecedented number of draft-day trades to get Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldrige, and cemented his legacy by leaving the Blazers with Luke Babbitt, selected 16th overall on the same day Pritchard was let go by the organization.
So have Olshey and the Blazers discovered some secret about three- and four-year college players from mid-major conferences that is somehow eluding the general managers of other NBA teams, or are the similarities between the 2012 and 2013 draft coincidental?
“I think everybody saw Damian’s talent, and I think everybody saw CJ’s talent,” Blazers’ head coach Terry Stotts said Thursday night. “The way the draft played out, we were fortunate to get [McCollum].”
Olshey added a handful of second round picks Thursday evening, including a couple steals, but if CJ McCollum is more Armon Johnson than Damian Lillard, 2013’s draft could end up in the loser category. The blame for that, should it go that way, will fall on the General Manager. Staying off any future lists of worst draft picks of all-time probably wasn’t Olshey’s goal going into the draft, but there’s a good chance it should have been.
A couple of decades of failure—some more historic than others—won’t be erased with one good draft. Olshey bought himself some time by taking a calculated risk on Damian Lillard and hopes to extend that time with McCollum. This draft didn’t include any fireworks for the Blazers; LaMarcus Aldridge started his night in Portland and ended it Portland. But if history is any kind of guide, some player the Blazers passed on will develop into a MVP-caliber superstar.
If that’s an unavoidable certainty, Blazer fans are probably better served hoping CJ McCollum is a continuation of a new, historically successful draft-day trend, and that Damian Lillard, as unique as he was in his first season, wasn’t an outlier.
“I’m sure everybody doing a press conference right now is ecstatic about who they got,” Olshey said Thursday. “I know that we got a guy at ten that we had higher on our board, [and] that we’ve been coveting since all of us drove through snowstorms to Bethlehem, Penn., to go see.”