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Thursday, 9 October 2008

Sergio Rodriguez : The Forgotten Blazer

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The NBA preseason has finally commenced and there is plenty of excitement around the Portland Trail Blazer circles, as has been anticipated for some time now. For over a year, a great many people have been waiting for a behemoth named Greg Oden to take the court and give the Blazers that inside presence that only comes along once a decade.

As if that wasn't enough to get the crowd into a frenzy, there was the sparkling Olympic Silver Medal performance of Rudy Fernandez with the Spanish National Team to get tongues wagging, including the Spaniard swingman's stunning dunk over Team USA's own manchild Dwight Howard. There was also a Summer League MVP performance by fellow rookie Jerryd Bayless to continue the Kevin Pritchard worship by the Rose Garden faithful.

Last season saw the Blazers do much better than expected and the All-Star play of Brandon Roy got him not just Oregon-wide, but national recognition as a player to respect. LaMarcus Aldridge proved himself as a player on the verge of similar fame with many solid performances as the inside punch to Roy's outside kick. Along the way, we saw the hatching of Travis Outlaw as a solid go-to scorer and perhaps the best bench injection in the league down the stretch of games. Late on we were reminded with glimpses of what Channing Frye can do on the basketball court with a solid finish to the regular season, followed by the off-season news that he was developing a three point shot to prove himself worthy of playing time.

At this point we have not even mentioned starting point guard stalwart, Steve Blake, sharpshooter continually on-the-verge, Martell Webster nor the Vanilla Gorilla in the middle, Joel Przybilla.

All of this gives you an indication of how much talent Sergio Rodriguez has to battle with in order to get himself noticed on this Blazer team and entice coach Nate McMillan to grant him playing time. The Spanish point guard disappointingly was not part of the Spanish Olympic team that took on Team USA in the Gold Medal Match. No doubt this, along with his struggle for minutes last season behind Blake and Jarrett Jack, motivated him to find answers this off-season.

He returned to his home in the Canary Islands and did his best to clear his mind in order to improve his game. Often in the past, the biggest criticsm of Rodriguez's game has been his apparent inability to slow down and make the right decisions on the court. He has lured Blazer fans through two seasons with Steve Nash-like ability to handle and dish the rock, but the consistency has not been there to allow McMillan to give him solid playing time.

“After two years playing in the NBA, I have to think that the most important thing is you don’t have to worry about anything else. You have to worry about yourself,” Rodriguez said. “And that is what I tried to do during the summer.”

The other area lacking in the point guard's game, which is essential at the NBA level, was his shooting ability from the outside. On a team stacked with a big three of scorers, the only way to get your shots is to knock them down when the opportunity knocks.

He worked with Blazers shooting coach John Thompson to develop more arc on his shot — one of the biggest weaknesses of his game.

He improved his strength and played with other pro players each day. And when training camp opened last week, that offseason work showed through when Rodriguez posted the third-fastest time in McMillan’s infamous conditioning test.

These changes to his game, along with fortune smiling on him, might make Rodriguez the most unexpected surprise in a Blazer uniform early on this season. That fortune has arrived in the form of misfortune for incumbent starter Blake, who will miss time early on with a strained hamstring. Rodriguez has often felt mistrust from his tough-love coach and had communicated that to good friend Fernandez before he too joined the team. However, it appears that the Blazers brass want to make sure that rookie Bayless knows his place (MVP of Summer League or not) and hence, McMillan has made it known that Rodriguez holds the edge for playing time in Blake's absence.

This will be the Spaniard's chance to prove that his newly cleared mind, improved shot and added experience will be what it takes to get him over the hurdle and be a solid contributer for this exciting team.

Already in the Blazers' preseason opener versus the Sacramento Kings, Rodriguez was given the starting nod and did not disappoint, putting up 11 points (whilst shooting the ball well from deep), 7 assists and 2 turnovers in only 26 minutes of victorious action. Tonight versus the Golden State Warriors he again is seeing significant time, emphasised by the unfortunate news that Webster has sustained a stress fracture of his left foot, in the never-ending stream of Blazer injuries.

Rodriguez's strong connection with newly-crowned star Fernandez may indeed add to his playing time with the primary playing unit, giving him an added advantage over Bayless, who will be better suited to igniting the scoring in the second unit with Outlaw until further changes to the rotation are arrived at.

“I just had to get my confidence back,” Rodriguez said. “I feel I’m stronger now. I can shoot better. And my mind is clear. And I just want to play, I just want to have fun. I just want to win.”

Video Highlights of the Blazers' win over the Kings (courtesy of ESPN).

Coach McMillan's thoughts on the Blazers after their first win:

Nate McMillan's take after the exhibition opener

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