Blazers’ draft class says hello

PORTLAND — The draft is over. The celebrating is done. From here, it’s nothing but business.

“Any questions you guys have?” asked Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey after introducing this year’s rookie draft class.

A kid no older than 6 raised his hand.

“Um…how tall are you?”
OK, maybe business could wait a day or two.
Monday afternoon, Blazers draftees Damian Lillard, Meyers Leonard and Will Barton were introduced to the media outside of the Portland Children’s museum. The trio has garnered mostly favorable reviews from pundits grading the draft, and is seen as a group that can have an immediate impact on the floor.

But just how immediate?

Lillard, for example, was being touted as the franchise point guard by Olshey despite never having played an NBA game. Granted, “franchise point guard” doesn’t necessarily imply a brilliant rookie season, but it doesn’t seem to leave whole lot of room for struggling without disappointing.

So is it too much to ask at this point? Lillard doesn’t think so.

“My whole life, I’ve always been the underdog. I’ve had to work,” said Lillard, the first point guard selected in this year’s draft. “Even though they’re saying that right now (being the franchise point guard), I still have to earn my stripes and try to live up to that.”

Having played his college ball at Weber State, Lillard didn’t get nearly the level of exposure as that of his peers from bigger schools. As a result, he posted videos of his pre-draft workouts on YouTube to showcase his talent and work ethic to those unfamiliar with his game. Lillard added that his best friend, PJ Taylor, who just finished his senior year at Lewis and Clark, lives in Portland.

But he also pushed hard for a new friend to join him in the Northwest: Meyers Leonard.

Lillard told Blazers management that if he went sixth, he wanted the 11th pick to be used on the 7-1 center. That’s how it worked out, and while Olshey doesn’t expect Leonard to make much of an offensive impact his rookie year, he is anticipating major defensive contributions. Leonard, meanwhile, just wants to get better.

“I want to learn, I’m gonna be a sponge,” the Illinois product said. “I want to learn from a guy like LaMarcus Aldridge and develop my over all game.”

Mere inches separated Leonard from Will Barton during Monday’s press conference, but a couple week earlier there were 29 picks between the two. Olshey said that he still didn’t know how Barton could slip to No. 40 in the Draft, adding that Blazers owner Paul Allen was pushing to trade up in the late first round in order to acquire him. It didn’t happen, but as a result, Portland is now dubbing the 6-6 wing as “the steal of the draft.”

Barton said he felt “mixed emotions” when teams continued to pass on him on draft night, expressing disappointment in his free fall but also delight in the face that the Blazers were willing to take a chance on him. Olshey, meanwhile, deflected a question asking why Barton may have dipped as low as he did, and followed it by listing names such as Carlos Boozer, Monta Ellis, and DeAndre Jordan as players who fell to the second round but still shined in the NBA.

“Once you get in, nobody cares where you get drafted,” Olshey said. “It’s not a perfect science. Three years from now, maybe you’ll end up being in the D-League or fighting overseas, or maybe I’ll have to write you a big check.”

All three rookies will be competing in summer-league play in Las Vegas, for which practices start on Wednesday.

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