Quest To Repeat As Summer League Champs Begins Tuesday In Tualatin

by Casey Holdahl
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While potential trades and free agent signings were conceivably being considered in the office section of the Trail Blazes’ practice facility in Tualatin, out on the two courts, the team held their first practice in preparation for the Las Vegas Summer League, which begins his weekend on the campus of UNLV.

And just like the last week of free agency, there’s no shortage for storylines for the 2019 Las Vegas Summer League edition of the Portland Trail Blazers. Sure, the level of interest might not be the same and the course of the 2019-20 NBA regular season isn’t going to be dramatically altered by anything that happens over the course of the next two weeks in the Nevada desert, but there are ample reasons to tune in when the Trail Blazers start their slate of games beginning Saturday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center.

First and foremost, they’re attempting to repeat as Las Vegas Summer League champions after going undefeated on the way to besting the Lakers in the 2018 tournament final. While the Trail Blazers return a number of key contributors from the 2018 championship roster, most notably Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., players such as Zach Collins and Jake Layman are not playing in Las Vegas this time around.

Add in that both Wade Baldwin IV and Caleb Swanigan were traded during the 2018-19 season after playing key roles on Portland’s 2018 summer league squad, and the summer league Trail Blazers, much like their regular season counterpart, will look decidedly different once they take the court. But that hasn’t diminished their desire to repeat as summer league champs.

“Obviously we're competitors so you want to win each time you go on the court,” said Simons. “A lot of people saying we might not win, but we won last year, so I feel like we've got the best odds of winning this year as well.”

And those odds improve dramatically if Simons and Trent Jr. are able to apply what they learned in their rookie seasons during their upcoming schedule of games in Las Vegas. For Simons, that means adding some prototypical point guard skills to his ability to put up points, as he did while leading the Trail Blazers to a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the final game of Portland’s 2018-19 regular season.

“Coach told me to emphasis defense, make sure I'm guarding my man and also being a good point guard, being vocal with everybody. Me personally, just working on my passing as well,” said Simons. “Just get better at my point guard skills, learn how to run the team, run an offense and kind of pick my spots in scoring in the middle of the offensive stuff as well.”

As for Trent Jr., he’ll get a chance to show he’s worthy of rotation minutes this upcoming season after spending most of his rookie season either in street clothes or in the G League, where he put up historic numbers.

“Getting better every day,” said Trent Jr. “Feel stronger, feel quicker, feel more athletic than I was last year. Just a testament to the hard work.”

While summer league will be a chance for Simons, Trent Jr. and Skal Labissiere to show improvement from the end of the 2018-19 season to now, it also serves as the first chance to see Nassir Little, selected with the 25th overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, and Jalen Hoard, signed to a two-way contract after spending one season at Wake Forest, as Trail Blazers.

“I’m excited to play the first opening game and then transfer that to the regular season,” said Little, who played one season at North Carolina before declaring for the 2019 Draft. “I’m so excited… It’s a dream come true.”

The Trail Blazers will hold practices for the next two days before departing for Las Vegas Friday afternoon, with their opening game versus the Detroit Pistons scheduled for Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

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