The Portland Trail Blazers have filled 14 spots on the regular roster and have a free two-way contract heading into the 2022-23 season. It’s unclear whether general manager Joe Cronin intends to fill the two remaining positions before opening night, but he’s brought in four young corps to, at the very least, attend training camp.
Point guard Isaiah Miller, winger Jared Rhoden, forward Devontae Cacok and center Olivier Sarr are also expected to line up for the Blazers throughout the preseason. Veteran big man Norvel Pelle had a momentary dalliance with the team but was waived before a pre-season ball bounced.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume that the foursome aren’t contributing enough to earn 15th on the regular roster – especially if Cronin has his heart set on starting the season with 14 on the roster. Let’s just say the candidates are competing to join Brandon Williams as a second two-way contract.
This is probably a good time to remind everyone of the criteria for bilateral contracts.
Players with less than four years of NBA experience can sign a two-way contract with a team. However, teams cannot sign a player on a two-way contract for three seasons. Agreements are limited to two years and cannot include options.
Although bilateral contracts can last up to two years, a player who has three years of NBA experience cannot sign such a contract, as he would have four years of service after the first season. Thus, two-way contracts for players with three years of experience are limited to one year.
Of the four, Cacok had the most experience. 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers Championship member Orlando Bubble before spending a year with the San Antonio Spurs. Last season, Sarr played for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miller was with Minnesota Timberwolves G-League affiliate Iowa, while Rhoden only came out of Seton Hall this year.
The other factor to consider when deciding between the four is the Blazers’ current roster composition, with a squad rich in guards and power forwards and a bit thin in small forward and center. So form could trump talent when deciding which of the four has the best chance.
So, let’s look at the candidates.
Measurements: 6 feet, 190 lbs.
Draft: not draft 2021
College: UNC Greensboro
Previous stops: Iowa Wolves (2021-22), Utah Jazz Summer League 2022
The two-time Southern Conference Little Player of the Year had four-year college averages of 14.9 points on an inaccurate 24% three-point percentage, 4.8 boards, 2.6 assists, but redeemed himself with 2.4 interceptions.
Once in the G-League, he averaged 12.7 points on 26.5% three-point shooting, 4.7 boards, 3.2 assists and 1.6 steals. Miller makes up for his lack of height and long-range shooting with surprising athleticism and a ridiculous 6-8 span helping him both compete on defense and finish at the rim on offense.
While Brandon Williams isn’t the defensive player Miller is, it’s hard to imagine the Blazers bringing another small guard on opening night.
Age: 23 years old
Measurements: 6’6, 210lbs
Draft: undrafted 2022
College: Seton Hall
Previous stops: Sacramento Kings Summer League 2022
Rhoden had a successful five-game stint with the Kings in July, recording 11.8 points on 39% three-point shooting, 5.4 boards, 1.6 assists and 1.4 steals. But I’m cautious of taking too much of his Summer League long-range shot with the four-year-old Seton Hall star averaging just 31% in three of 72 more thoughtful games.
Despite this, Rhoden’s movement and physical gifts share an uncanny resemblance to Philadelphia 76ers winger Matisse Thybulle. Like Australia’s defensive-minded wing, Rhoden boasts a ridiculous wingspan at almost 7ft and displays impressive lateral movement.
Unfortunately, Rhoden only showed glimpses of three-point shooting, instead relying on his defensive skills to see the ground. I still don’t think the 23-year-old is the favorite of the four to make the Blazers’ roster, but he wouldn’t be the worst option if he proves he can play a small forward with skill and consistency.
Age: 25 years old
Measurements: 6’7, 240 lbs.
Draft: not draft 2019
College: UNC Wilmington
Previous stops: Los Angeles Lakers (2019-21), San Antonio Spurs (2021-22).
The most experienced of the quartet, Cacok has an NBA championship next to his name, despite not contributing a playoff minute to the Lakers’ 2022 banner. Unlike the obvious exceptions, namely Gary Payton II, once a player hits their mid-twenties, we pretty much know what they are and what they can do.
When it comes to compositions, I can definitely see nuances of a slightly smaller Thomas Robinson thanks to his impressive physical profile and ferocity. But Cacok’s inability to expand the ground negates any chance of him playing the small forward as he is just 6’7, almost too short to play all four. We really can’t get anything out of his NBA minutes, averaging just over six minutes per game. However, his G-League stint with the Austin Spurs last season wasn’t stellar, with the 25-year-old picking up 20.9 points, 12.4 boards, 2.7 assists and 0.9 steals in 30 minutes over 14 games.
But not sure if that will happen for Cacok, especially given the glut of power forwards already on the roster.
Age: 23 years old
Measurements: 7 feet, 240 lbs.
Draft: not draft 2021
College: Wake Forrest/Kentucky (French)
Previous stops: Oklahoma City Thunder (2021-22), Phoenix Suns Summer League 2022
One thing is clear, Sarr has the potential to be one of those sought-after seven footers who can shoot from beyond the arc. His shooting mechanics are smooth for a guy his size, not to mention pretty decent composure and shot selection. He’s a solid defender and has little trouble protecting the rim.
In his 22 games with the Thunder last season, Sarr recorded 7 points on a whopping 44% shooting on three, 4.2 boards, 0.9 assists and 0.7 blocks in 10 minutes per game. The highlight of his season came in an April 3 game against the Phoenix Suns, where he had 24 points on five of six for three, six boards, one assist and two blocks.
One more thing, Jusuf Nurkic is the only Blazer currently above 6’9. And with the big Bosnian injury- and foul-prone, having another seven-footer waiting backstage wouldn’t hurt.
Before picking our winner, we must also prepare for the possibility that none of the four will make the cut by the end of the pre-season, with Cronin potentially looking further afield for young talent that meets this squad’s needs. .
However, if we pick from this group, it’s Sarr a country mile away, Rhoden being my outside bet. It’s no surprise that they’re also the youngest of the four, possessing skills in positions that are relatively necessary for this Portland team.
While Cacok has strength, athleticism and the ability to finish, he’s had every chance to prove he belongs in the league with little success as he approaches his late 20s. Miller has pretty decent defensive chops, but his lack of size or shooting will prevent him from getting him across the line.
If Rhoden can fill that defensive role and not be desperate from age three, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he pulls it off. But ideally 7’0 Sarr gets that second place either way, giving the Blazers some modicum of insurance if Nurkic goes down. Sarr has the offensive and defensive skills to at least have a chance at regular playing time, but first he needs to show he deserves that vacant two-way deal.