Greek Freak 2.0

With the 2013–’14 Portland Trail Blazers season in the books, the time has come to look toward next year. The team is fresh off a smashing success for Rip City, their best season in over a decade, and everyone from fans to players to executives wants to see this team build off their momentum. For most NBA teams, the offseason is a prime opportunity to improve their rosters through free agency, trades and the draft.

The 2014 NBA draft will take place on June 26, and this year features several young players who are given the label of “game changer,” or “can’t miss prospect.” Unfortunately for the Blazers, they are not in a position to take advantage of this talent influx or shop for any of the available free agents. Right now the Blazers have zero draft picks and negligible salary cap space, meaning it could be a dry, fruitless summer for Blazermania.

The third option is to make trades to improve a team. The Blazers could trade for a draft pick or possibly outright buy one, as they did with Rudy Fernandez in 2007. But looking down the roster, there aren’t many options to trade, especially considering most rookies will not be ready to contribute immediately.

The starting lineup was one of the best and most consistent in the league last year, so we won’t consider moving them anytime soon. The most effective bench player, Mo Williams, has announced plans to use his player option and become a free agent this summer, hoping to find the last big deal of his career. This doesn’t mean he won’t wear a Blazers uniform next season; the right amount of money and years would keep a viable backup guard on the squad, but at this time we can’t count on it. Even without Mo, the Blazers have two young, promising guards in Will Barton and CJ McCollum. I’m not ready to part with either guy—they’re still developing as hoopers. With another summer league under their belts and playing time available, it doesn’t make much sense to give up on these guys to trade them for an unknown at the professional level.

Portland could certainly use a reliable backup big man, but you face the same problem as the guard spot; we already have improving young guys. Joel Freeland proved in the first half of last year he has what it takes. Thomas Robinson opened eyes and reeled off unexpected highlights during the playoffs. Even Meyers Leonard could show the world he’s a capable NBA rotation player.

This leaves one position without an heir apparent: small forward. This position can be enigmatic in the modern NBA. It’s a mix of wing and post, big and small, finesse and force. It’s dominated by some of the most versatile two-way players in today’s game. Nic Batum may not be King James or Kevin Durant, but he does a dozen different things to help his team win games, and the Blazers would look completely different without him. But who is our next Nic Batum, who will fill his shoes if he’s injured or begins to lose his athleticism to age? I have selected a player not exactly like Batum, but possibly in his same mold.

He’s international. He’s hyper-athletic, yet unpolished. He has some serious upside and maybe most importantly, he’s not a big target on other team’s radars. He’s Thanasis Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo withdrew from last year’s draft at the deadline. His younger brother Giannis, known as the Greek Freak, also entered the draft that year and was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks. The 21 year old was born in Athens, Greece, though he’s of Nigerian descent. He played for a minor league team in Greece and last year was a member of the NBA Developmental League’s Delaware 87er’s. In the D-League, Antetokounmpo averaged 12 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks. He was also named to the D-League All Defense Third Team.

Most expert mock drafts place him in the late 2nd round if they include him at all, so it shouldn’t be impossible to trade for a late pick if he’s available. I’m no NBA GM, but I think Victor Claver for a late second round pick could be a viable trade. Claver may not be worth a second round pick right now, but a lot will change for teams as draft day approaches. Antetokounmpo is expected to provide defense right away, but his offensive abilities need some work. He is most effective in transition and slashing toward the rim, taking advantage of his athleticism. He’s 6-feet 6-inches tall with a 7-inch wingspan, so less length than Batum but more muscular and physical. He probably wouldn’t play much in the way of meaningful minutes, but watching him run with the second unit and catch lobs from CJ could be extremely fun to watch.

There’s no guarantee the Blazers will make any moves on draft day, but if they can get Antetokounmpo for a marginal player or cash, I think the risk is worth the reward. This team made great strides last year in improving their stature, and even more importantly, in making LaMarcus Aldridge happy. He needs to see management make an effort to improve this team every year. Great teams look to the future, they build through the draft. Blazers fans can only wait and see what will happen, if this team is going to bolster their roster or stick with who they have. Happy draft day—it always reveals what direction teams are going.