Blazer rookies shine as team tries to move forward

PORTLAND — Everything was normal for 30 minutes.

Portland Trail Blazers rookies Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams and Armon Johnson stood tall, proudly holding up their new jerseys, smiling wide as camera shutters clicked and flashes popped.

The trio were flanked by Blazer scouts Chad Buchanan and Michael Born, who saw months devoted to analysis, statistics and instinct take center stage.

And off to the side, Portland coach Nate McMillan watched it all. With folded arms and tired eyes, McMillan gladly let the new kids have their moment. But even McMillan broke out a smile when Johnson reminded a media member how to correctly pronounce his first name

“It’s R-mon,” Johnson said Monday afternoon inside the Rose Garden.

It was that kind of day for the Blazers. Fun, easy and loose. And while the newly acquired rookies have a multitude of tests to pass before they even set foot on the court they hope to one day dominate, simply having three new faces in the spotlight offered the organization a welcome respite from the questions that have followed since former general manager Kevin Pritchard was fired last Thursday, less than an hour before the start of the 2010 NBA Draft.

For 30 minutes, Pritchard was in the past. Portland was eyeing the future.

“We feel like we’ve got some great potential,” McMillan said.

Babbitt and Williams appear to hold the most.

Buchanan said Portland considered Babbitt to be the best shooter
in the draft, and compared the former Nevada standout to ex-Blazer Travis Outlaw.

“He can really create a mid-range jumper and raise up and make
shots,” said Buchanan, Portland’s director of NBA scouting. “He’s an offensive talent that we think will be a major part of our team moving forward.”

Meanwhile, Williams continued to draw praise for his natural
athleticism and untapped potential. Buchanan said the Blazers were thrilled to find Williams still on the board when Portland selected him No. 22 overall in the first round.

Portland was familiar with Williams in high school, and then began tracking him hard when he was a freshman at Duke. By the time Williams averaged 17.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.2 steals for Memphis as a sophomore in 2009-10, the Blazers were sold.

“He’s a very, very exciting player to watch,” Buchanan said. “He’s
a dynamic player and he can do a lot of things with the ball. … He’s one of those guys who can impact the game on both ends of the floor, which is hard to do.”

That left Johnson, whom Buchanan compared to ex-Blazer Greg
Anthony. Buchanan described the former Wolfpack standout as a tough, feisty defender who is willing to take on any challenge.

And considering that the relationship between Johnson and Babbitt dates back to the fifth grade, the Nevada duo are eagerly waiting the chance to officially wear black and red.

“I don’t know if it’s hit us yet,” Babbitt said. “We were talking
about it last night. Not only are we in the NBA, but we’re in the NBA together.”

Babbitt and Johnson will join Portland’s summer league team. Williams will be held out as a precautionary measure, while he continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered during a draft workout in May. … The Blazers must make a decision by 3 p.m. today about how they will handle the contract of forward Ryan Gomes, who was acquired in a draft-day deal with Minnesota. Portland can keep, waive or trade Gomes. The Blazers are open to trading Gomes, who is set to make $4.2 million next season, and have received initial offers from a couple teams. If Portland waives Gomes, the team expects to drop below the NBA’s luxury tax. If the Blazers keep Gomes, the final three years of his contract will become guaranteed. … The Blazers will likely target the point guard and wing positions during free agency, which starts at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. A sign and trade or multi-player package deal remain options. But it is more likely Portland will acquire a player with its mid-level exception, which is expected to be worth about $5.7 million. The Blazers also picked up a trade exception worth $560,000 when it traded Webster. Gomes’ future with the team will not affect the value of the exception, which cannot be combined with the MLE. Portland also holds a bi-annual exception worth $2 million. … McMillan, Born and Buchanan are scheduled to meet today to discuss free agency. They will then begin reaching out to players Thursday. “The landscape’s a little different for us than it was last summer,” said Born, Portland’s director of NBA scouting. … The Blazers expect the void left by the draft-day trade of forward Martell Webster to be partially filled by second-year forward Dante Cunningham. The former Villanova standout made a strong impression last season, due to his maturity, confidence and basketball intelligence. As a result, Portland hopes Cunningham will be able to replace Webster in locking down an opponent’s top small forward, while possibly handling shooting guards.

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