The 2017-18 NBA season unofficially started Monday for the Portland Trail Blazers, who hosted their annual media day event at the Moda Center.
It’s impossible to summarize everything said during the three-hour gauntlet of interviews with players, executives and coaches. But here are a few of the highlights:
September surprise: Caleb Swanigan
After spending the offseason impressing Blazers fans with summer league double-doubles, toughness and beyond-his-years maturity, Caleb Swanigan spent September impressing another group:
When asked Monday which teammate had impressed or surprised the most during voluntary workouts this month, most Blazers players pointed to the 6-foot-9, 250-pound rookie power forward.
“I think Caleb Swanigan is very impressive — very impressive,” All-Star point guard Damian Lillard said, adding later, “He’s definitely good enough to play right away.”
The Blazers’ starting lineup has two glaring openings at small forward and power forward. And while no one was suggesting that Swanigan would leapfrog his more seasoned teammates for a starting job, they say he seems ready to fill a rotation spot, especially while Noah Vonleh recovers from a strained right shoulder.
The Blazers drafted Swanigan with the No. 26th overall pick of the 2017 NBA draft and he made a solid first impression, leading the Blazers to the championship game of the Las Vegas Summer League. Swanigan averaged 16.1 points and 10.6 rebounds, while recording six double-doubles, in Las Vegas, joining Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Marreese Speights as the only rookies in the event’s history to average a double-double.
History shows that summer league success doesn’t always translate to the NBA — anyone remember Jerryd Bayless? — but Swanigan’s teammates say they like his confidence, knack for chasing down rebounds and no-nonsense demeanor.
“Caleb is like an enforcer,” Lillard said. “He’s … a bruiser in the paint. He’s going to play a physical game, attempt to block every shot. I think he’ll be really good as a rookie.”
And as he showed in Las Vegas — when he made six three-pointers — Swanigan has unexpected shooting range.
“Everybody knows he’s tough, that’s kind of his MO,” Moe Harkless said. “But guys don’t talk about his shooting ability. He can really shoot the ball. I was getting frustrated (at voluntary workouts) because guys were leaving him open. A lot of times he was on the other team and he just kept hitting three after three after three. That surprised me the most.”
Healthy Davis has sights set on starting job
While most players danced around the subject of starting lineups and rotation roles, veteran Ed Davis was eager to reveal his personal goal heading into his third training camp with the Blazers.
“I want to start,” Davis said. “I feel like that (power forward) position is open.”
Davis has started 94 games in his career, including 12 in Portland, but has spent the majority of his two seasons with the Blazers playing a reserve role. He likely will battle Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard, Swanigan and Vonleh — when he recovers from his shoulder injury — for playing time.
“I think you flip a coin and whoever wins the job should get those minutes,” Davis said. “I think that’s just how it’s going to be once training camp and preseason is over with. I’m just going to go out there and play my hardest, give it all I’ve got, and whatever happens, happens.”
Davis underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in March to repair a torn left labrum and spent spring and early summer rehabilitating. He was cleared by doctors on July 1 to resume basketball activities, but did not gain medical clearance to return to 5-on-5 play until Monday morning. So, Tuesday’s practice will be his first in a 5-on-5 game setting since last season.
It will be a welcome return for a player who played through pain much of last season.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t go up and make five layups in a row with my left hand,” he said. “So that just showed how much it was bothering me. I’m glad it got done. I’m healthy now.”
Damian Lillard elaborates on going vegan
Damian Lillard misses Wendy’s. He misses chicken and catfish. He misses the convenience of stopping at any restaurant when he feels a grumble in his stomach.
But the benefits of his new vegan diet far outweigh the cravings of the past. The longest-tenured Blazers player embraced Portland in a whole new way a month ago, when he started contemplating ways to live healthier and decided — after a chat with a few long-time vegans — to try a vegan diet. The results, he says, have been positive in a variety of ways.
“Once I did it and I was working out and started playing pick-up with the guys, it was different.” he said. “Not only did I feel lighter moving around the court, but when I got winded and I got tired, it wasn’t the same. I felt stronger. I felt good on the court. It might have its issues as far as recovery once we start really getting into the season, and I’ll address that. But it’s truly made a difference.”
Lillard, 27, inched closer to 30 this summer and decided it was time to be proactive about his long-term health and athleticism. Part of that was trimming down and embracing a healthier lifestyle. Lillard played at 198 pounds last season and said he hopes to trim down to 190 before the season starts. He enters training camp three pounds short of the goal.
“I wanted to get down in weight, just to be more explosive,” Lillard said. “I want to be able to play a faster game, a more explosive game. And do it and not be too hard on my joints, not (have) too much weight on my feet. I’ve had issues with my feet the past few years and I just turned 27. So, I’m getting a little older –I’m not old — but I think it’s more important to take care of my body and take those steps and be proactive with it instead of waiting until later (and) making that transition to playing lighter. Being able to do things more efficient and trying to stay injury free as much as possible.”
He has hired people to prepare vegan meals for him at his West Linn home and they’ve tailored meals to match his favorite foods.
His favorite new meal: “Fake sloppy Joe’s.”
“I’ve gotten to know mushrooms pretty well,” Lillard added, chuckling.
Blazers jerseys to be patch-free opening night
The Blazers will debut a new batch of redesigned uniforms this season, but they will not feature an advertising patch.
As part of a three-year pilot program, the NBA is allowing teams to sell small sponsorship patches on the front left side of jerseys. The Blazers were close to landing a partner this summer, but after three months of negotiations, the deal fell apart at the last minute.
“I don’t expect that will have something done imminently,” Blazers President Chris McGowan said. “But I think over the course of the season, we will probably get something done.”
McGowan said the Blazers are feeling out “two or three” companies they talked with months ago and are determined to find “the right partner.” If they strike a deal with someone during the season, the team can add the patch at any point. But it’s something that most likely would happen before the start of the 2018-19 season.
“We’re fully intending to do something,” McGowan said. “We are particularly focused on it being the right partner, though, so we’re probably being a little more selective, maybe, than others.”
Harkless will ‘rest easy’ despite rumor-filled summer
His teammates openly recruited Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to Portland. His name repeatedly was included in rumored trades to the New York Knicks.
But if you think any of that bothered Moe Harkless, think again.
“I rest easy,” he said, smiling.
When the rumors and recruiting pitches ended, of course, Anthony and George landed in Oklahoma City with the Thunder, the Blazers’ Northwest Division rivals. The Blazers’ roster — which features 12 returning players from last season — remains intact.
Harkless, who will be a key rotation player at forward, insisted Monday that the summer was not a distraction and he’s motivated to return to Portland.
“I’ve been traded before,” he said. “I know how it goes. If it happens, it happens. Otherwise, I take care of what I can control. That’s how hard I work and what I do. That’s the only thing that matters to me.”
–Joe Freeman | email@example.com 503-294-5183 @BlazerFreeman