How the Portland Trail Blazers are winning with youth

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

The Portland Trail Blazers appeared to have made themselves a championship contender despite relying heavily on two extremely young key pieces.

The Portland Trail Blazers went all in on roster changes over the past few months, trying to leverage what time they had left of Damian Lillard’s prime to try and build a contender. So far, things have worked as well as they could have hoped — a 9-4 record, tied for the best in the Western Conference.

In a new episode of The Step Back Podcast, Sean Highkin joined hosts Ethan Skolnick and Brady Hawk to the Portland Trail Blazers and how two of their youngest rotation players are making the biggest difference.

How are Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe making a difference for the Trail Blazers?

Anfernee Simons has taken over as the starting shooting guard since the Blazers trade CJ McCollum at the deadline last season. This year, Simons is averaging 22.3 points, 4.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game, all career highs. As Highkin pointed out, Simons hasn’t just replaced McCollum, he’s given the Blazers a new dimension.

“Simons is a lot more willing playmaker than CJ was, and a lot more able to get to the rim and draw contact than CJ was. So I don’t think there are that many similarities between them as players besides their scoring totals and shooting ability.”

The other big piece is 19-year-old wing Shaedon Sharpe who is, somewhat unexpectedly, one of the first players off the bench and seventh on the team in total minutes played.

“To be honest with you guys,” said Highkin, “I had no idea what to expect from Sharpe this season, just like nobody else really did. He was the No. 7 overall pick but when they drafted him it was a pure upside swing, it was ‘we think this guy is the most talented guy on the board and we’ll worry about the fit and the long-term stuff later.”

As Highkin pointed out, Sharpe was something of an unknown after reclassifying to join Kentucky a semester earlier than expected. However, didn’t actually appear in a single game with Kentucky while preparing for his draft. Between his talent and lack of experience, he seemed like a guy who, at best, might not be making an impact until later in the season. However, Sharpe is playing 20.8 minutes per game, shooting 44.4 percent from beyond the arc and producing a steady stream of highlights.

“He doesn’t make the same mistake twice and for someone that young and inexperienced, people are really encouraged by how quickly he picks stuff up and just the way he approaches it … And then there’s just one or two plays every game that are just eye-popping and the rest of it is coming around a lot quicker than people expected,” said Highkin.

In addition to the conversation with Highkin, Skolnick and Hawk dug into a great week for the Atlanta Hawks and a disastrous one for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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