For the Portland Trail Blazers, their plans in the NBA Draft should be straightforward. They need a point guard and a center, and with the sixth and eleventh selections they shouldn't have much difficulty finding players to fill needs.
That the 2011-2012 season was so disappointing exemplified that Portland must draft or sign players who can take pressure off power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. He needs a consistent sidekick, someone who can consistently find him in high-percentage situations, and a big man who can share the load inside both offensively and defensively. Nicolas Batum, if signed during his free-agency period, could end up being the Robin to Aldridge's Batman, but the Blazers would still be left without the other two players. So, who should they bring in?
It has been a long time since there has been a draft with so many similar players expected to go in the lottery. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Kansas's Thomas Robinson, Kentucky's Terrence Jones, and Baylor's Perry Jones III are, more or less, mirror images of each other; none of them seem to have the inside games to be considered NBA-caliber power forwards nor do they have consistent enough jumpers to have immediate impacts at small forward. That said, even though they are far from polished and without definitive positions, their talent alone makes them worthy of being selected in the top-20. Yet, they either rely on bulk or length, and their skill-sets may not serve them well in the NBA; at least not as quickly as is expected from top picks.
Portland doesn't need any of these players if Batum is re-signed and if they also pony up and pay forward J.J. Hickson, who produced at a very high level after being picked up off waivers. Batum and Hickson are only 23 years old, so if the Blazers lock them up to contracts they will have the necessary depth at forward and won't need to target any of the aforementioned five.
What new General Manager Neil Olshey and the rest of the front office should do is go after point guard Damian Lillard, formerly of Weber State, and then, with the 11th pick, reach for either Tyler Zeller or Arnett Moultrie, formerly of North Carolina and Mississippi State.
First, why target Lillard? Portland needs to upgrade at the point guard position and he is the best option. ESPN's Draft guru Chad Ford said he has the tools to be the next Derrick Rose. That is setting the bar very high, but all Portland needs is someone who can be both unselfish and aggressive in certain situations.
Lillard, who stands at 6'2" and 190 pounds, has the reputation as a scoring point guard who doesn't back down to anyone. He wowed those in attendance at the draft combine, as documented by Ford (ESPN Insider required):
"Weber State's Damian Lillard was the real star of the draft combine. He was the best player to agree to do the drills and it paid off for him. Many of the NBA executives in attendance had never seen him play in person before and the rest had only seen him only a handful of times. Lillard shot the lights out, had a couple of terrific dunks in the drills and 3-on-3 play, played hard and was very good in interviews with teams."
If the way Lillard is described sounds familiar, there is a reason why. Portland already has Elliot Williams, who played well in limited action before a dislocated shoulder on March 8th forced him to miss the rest of the season. Williams, a 6'5" 23-year-old, has a dependable jumper, tremendous athletic ability, and can jump out of his shoes. Lillard is Williams, Part 2, only shorter. Therefore, wouldn't getting Lillard create conflict?
A solution: play Williams at shooting guard while Lillard man's the point. It would be nice to think of Williams as the point guard of the future, but he belongs at a position where he can focus on creating shots for himself. In 2010, Portland gave up on Jerryd Bayless because he wasn't a true point guard. They shouldn't do the same with Williams. Instead, they should use him where he could prove most beneficial.
Making this decision would create the following minimal, albeit pleasing depth chart:
PG: Lillard, Nolan Smith
SG: Wesley Matthews, Williams
Portland will most likely add players to both positions either through free-agency or the second round of the NBA Draft, but giving Lillard and Williams the opportunity to log sustained and important minutes can only help the Blazers in their effort to get back among the elite in the Western Conference.
Zeller or Moultrie can help make that happen, too.
In their latest mock draft, DraftExpress.com has Zeller going to the Houston Rockets with the 16th pick and Moultrie to the Orlando Magic with the 19th pick. They aren't seen as smart selections as early as 11th, but I see nothing wrong with reaching for a talent if he fills a need.
Zeller, 22, has the height, the experience, and the skillset to contribute right away. He came on strong in his senior season at North Carolina, possessing a much improved all-around game. Standing at an even seven feet, he would fit in nicely alongside Aldridge.
Moultrie, 21, is 6'11", 230 pounds and was a scoring and rebounding machine at Mississippi State after transferring from UTEP. He averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, with the size, strength, agility, and overall talent Portland should be looking for. Moultrie and Zeller are very similar, and the Blazers can't go wrong with either.
There is a lot of talk regarding Portland potentially taking 19-year-old Andre Drummond out of UConn with one of their picks, most likely the sixth selection. He has impressed in workouts, but he is seen as a project, and a project is not what the Blazers need. They need players who can play now, who can help build a contender in the 2012-2013 season. Lillard and Zeller or Moultrie fit the bill.