Trail Blazers’ 3-man race at small forward most intriguing storyline entering training camp

Josh Hart left no doubt Monday that he wants to start at small forward for the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I think if anyone says, ‘No,’ they’re either foolish or lying,” Hart said at the team’s media day.

Justise Winslow would also like to start games with the starting five.

“I think as a competitor we all want to start, we all want to raise,” he said. “But at the same time, you understand that you’re part of a bigger team.”

Nassir Little, entering his fourth season, views this as the next step in his evolution as a player and is entering training camp prepared to compete.

“Just have a good training camp, go out there and compete and live with the results,” he said.

The competition at small forward is arguably the most intriguing storyline facing the Blazers, who begin training camp Tuesday at UC Santa Barbara.

The rest of the Blazers’ starting lineup is set.

Point guard Damian Lillard. Shooting guard Anfernee Simons. Power forward Jeremy Grant. Center Jusuf Nurkic.

The Blazers searched for deals to fill the small forward with at least a borderline All-Star caliber player, but to no avail.

So, coach Chauncey Billups has his work cut out for him sifting through three small forwards who each bring different strengths to the table. His approach will be simple: Let the three compete.

“It’s going to play out in camp,” Billups said.

“It just really depends,” he added. “At that spot, it’s not always about who is the best player in that spot, or the most talented guy. It’s about who plays best with that unit. You also want to have a really good bench, as well.”

The competition will certainly help shape the second unit.

Starting Hart likely means having Winslow as the primary backup at power forward, with Little as the primary backup small forward and Gary Payton II also available to play there.

The selection of Little would also push Winslow to backup power forward but leave Hart as a backup at small forward and shooting guard, where Payton will also see minutes.

Portland Trail Blazers forward Justise Winslow speaks during Blazers media day on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

Then there is rookie wing Shaedon Sharpe, who could find it difficult to find regular minutes at small forward and guard.

For Billups, the choice could come down to finding the best overall fit for both the starting unit and the bench crew.

“I kind of see it as all three of those guys can be starters in this league and who knows, it might be a committee type of thing based on lineups and matchups that particular night,” Billups said. “So, we’ll just see how they all play. How they all play with each other, and make that decision when it’s apparent to me.”

The likely frontrunners appear to be Little and Hart. Winslow, 26, brings toughness to the lineup and is an unselfish player who can defend several positions. But the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft (Miami) has yet to develop as a shooter. In 11 games with the Blazers last season, he shot 40.5% from the field and 27% on threes. Not having a three-point threat at small forward is certainly not ideal.

But his toughness in many ways offsets his shooting and has endeared Winslow to Billups, who played with hard-nosed teams in Detroit.

“I think deep down, he knows I could have played on some of those Bad Boys teams,” Winslow said. “I think I have that mentality. I embody some of those characteristics that made those teams so successful. So, I think when he just sees the intensity that I play with, my focus, my grit, my toughness, I think it kind of brings him back to some of those Detroit teams he was on.”

Hart thoroughly impressed Billups during his 13 games in Portland last season after being acquired in the trade that sent CJ McCollum to New Orleans. So much so that Hart could also see time at point guard behind Lillard and Simons. Hart shot 50.3% from the field and 37.3% on threes with the Blazers.

Little has overcome numerous injuries during his career, including a season-ending shoulder injury in late January that came during the best month of his career. In 12 games, Little averaged 13.1 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 45.4% from the field and 40.3% on threes.

Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little

Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little speaks during Blazers media day on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

Billups challenged Little early on to earn playing time primarily through strong defense and hustle and not overplay his hand on offense. He answered. In many ways, a player who doesn’t hunt for his shot is what the team needs at small forward with Lillard, Simons and Grant all capable of scoring 20 or more points on a given night.

“I’m just excited for the opportunity,” Little said. “My first three years have just been a steady progression from year to year. Now being in the conversation for being a potential starting small is one of the only things I could ask for.”

Blazers general manager Joe Cronin said he is confident Billups will figure out the best direction to take.

“We’re going to do an open competition and that’s going to be a theme with us throughout the roster and throughout our everyday basketball experience here,” Cronin said. “It’s come in and get it. Come in and compete. Earn those minutes. So, Chauncey’s perspective is there’s a lot of capable guys that could start there.”

— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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