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By Cody Sharrett - Unless selected in the lottery, most of a rookie’s progress over the course of the 82-game NBA season goes mostly unseen by fans. Well over three hours before tipoff each game, the Portland Trail Blazers coaching staff is on the court working with the team’s young quartet of Noah Vonleh, Cliff Alexander, Pat Connaughton and Luis Montero.
Even on a squad as young as the 2015-16 Blazers, minutes were scarce for the team’s youngest players. While the 20-year-old Vonleh was featured regularly in the Blazer rotation during his second season as a pro, the growth of rookies Alexander, Connaughton and Montero shouldn’t be measured with their minutes on the court, but rather their adaptation to the pro game in practice.
Connaughton, the only drafted prospect of the three, saw the most time of the trio on the court during his rookie season. Often appearing in late-game blowouts with occasional first-half rotation minutes, the NBA’s resident two-sport athlete averaged 4.2 minutes in 34 appearances. Connaughton’s progress was evident in the latter weeks of the season as he grew more comfortable shooting the ball from deep when on the floor.
After forgoing his eligibility after a suspension-shortened season at Kansas, the then 19-year-old Alexander came to Portland with something to prove as an undrafted prospect after a highly regarded high school career. He only appeared in eight NBA games, but in a four-game spell with the Santa Cruz Warriors in the NBA D-League, the Chicago native averaged 15 points and 7.3 rebounds to show some promise for the 6-8, 240 lb. forward.
With just a single season of community college ball under his belt before joining the Blazers as an undrafted free agent, Montero is probably the most interesting case of the three. The Dominican Republic native sat out his sophomore season due to Westchester Community College cancelling its basketball season before making his rounds to NBA workouts last summer and impressing Blazers management. Like Alexander, Montero got his chance to show his development in four games with Santa Cruz in the D-League with averages of 16.3 points, 3.8 assists and six rebounds on 38.4% shooting from beyond the arc.
All three, along with Vonleh, will feature prominently on the Blazers’ Summer League squad in Las Vegas next month, giving fans a real chance the see the difference a year makes.