July 22, 2024

In the wake of drafting Donovan Clingan, Blazers GM Joe Cronin made an important call

PORTLAND, Ore. — It was Thursday morning, hours after the first round of the NBA Draft had ended, when Portland Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin knew he had to place a call to veteran center Deandre Ayton. The night before, Cronin used the seventh pick to draft Connecticut center Donovan Clingan. Knowing how egos and feelings can be bruised when teams draft heralded players, the Blazers’ top executive wanted to touch base with his starter from the 2023-24 season. 

When Cronin reached Ayton, who is training with the Bahamas national team, he said there was no steam coming from the other end of the line. No passive-aggressive silence. No insecurity about his standing.

“Deandre was incredibly excited,” Cronin said. 

All the questions Ayton could have asked — Why did you pick a center? … Is he replacing me? … What does this mean for me? — were instead framed in a positive tone.

“He was like, ‘OK, where can we take this?’” Cronin said. “(He asked) How can he help me? How can I help him? What can we do together?’ His attitude was great about the whole situation.”

The phone conversation goes a long way in answering a clouded picture at center for the Blazers, who also have veteran Robert Williams III and second-year sharpshooter Duop Reath.

After spending much of last fall and early winter frustrated with Ayton skipping rehabilitation appointments, being late to practice and throwing tantrums, the franchise now celebrates Ayton as a building block. Although Cronin can’t say for sure what lies ahead for this Blazers roster in the coming weeks, there are strong indications Ayton will be in the middle of anything the Blazers do next season. 

For starters, coach Chauncey Billups is preparing to fly to Valencia, Spain, to watch and support Ayton as The Bahamas competes in the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament. Billups will be in the stands when The Bahamas opens with Finland on Tuesday. As Billups engages with Ayton, it will no doubt include talk about expanding his role next season. Billups on Saturday told The Athletic he intends to experiment next season with the 7-foot Ayton at power forward and the 7-foot-2 Clingan at center. He also said he continues to encourage Ayton to expand his steady midrange jumper to perhaps incorporate a 3-point shot. 

“I’m willing to try things,” Billups said. “Several teams are playing big — Cleveland, Denver, Memphis … I’m going to try having (Clingan) and D.A. out there together. But it depends who is on the floor. Is it Jaren Jackson? Is it Aaron Gordon? Is it Evan Mobley?”

Billups nods his head in the affirmative and continues: “What I’m not going to do is put him out there to guard Jayson Tatum. Or Kevin Durant … it’s going to be situational. But I’m telling you, I think the league is going to try and get bigger in the interior. So, I think it will be fun.”

It’s too early to say definitively whether the Blazers will enter September’s training camp with Ayton and Clingan. The Blazers have the maximum 15 players under contract, but Cronin told The Athletic he remains in a proactive mode of upgrading the roster.

“I’m constantly looking for ways to get better,” Cronin said. “That’s my challenge. We are not good enough yet. We have to get better. We like what we’ve accomplished, but we can’t rest. Gotta keep moving forward. A lot of what we are doing is player development … you know, we have a lot of young guys we have to get ready. But our challenge is also getting as many high-level players as possible.”

Still, it has become apparent Portland is intrigued by what an Ayton-Clingan pairing can accomplish, either together or as a platoon. 

Billups was quick to point out the Blazers’ last-place standing in rim protection last season, so he was ecstatic when Clingan — who has won a title the past four years he has played basketball (two in high school, two at Connecticut) — slipped to the Blazers at seventh overall.

“Our rim defense was a problem for us, we struggled there,” Billups said. “So I love what we did. We went out and got the best in the draft at protecting the rim.”

Billups said he will employ the same drop defense he used last season (the center drops toward the basket while defending the pick-and-roll), when Portland ranked 23rd out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency. Dropping to protect the rim is Clingan’s strength, which is accentuated by his ability to stay vertical, a skill he said was honed by Connecticut coach Dan Hurley. Clingan said his drive to play elite defense comes from his mom, Stacey, who passed away from breast cancer when he was in eighth grade. His mom was a three-time conference player of the year at Maine. 

“My mom always told me defense wins ball games; offense sells tickets,” Clingan said Saturday at his introductory news conference in Portland. “So you have to play great defense to win games, and I want to win games. I’ll take a block off the backboard over a dunk any day of the week.”

That’s why Billups said the Blazers’ defensive principles this season will stay the same, but he expects different results. 

“He will spend a lot of time with that red paint under his feet in our defense,” Billups said of Clingan. “I think most teams will reconsider attacking our paint … that changes it.”

Billups said he also envisions Ayton and Clingan giving the Blazers a sneaky advantage. Ayton, of course, is a top-notch midrange shooter. Last season, Ayton made 55.2 percent of his 2-point shots from 16 feet and beyond. But what many might not be aware of is Clingan’s shooting ability. During his pre-draft workout in Portland, Clingan stunned the Blazers with his outside shooting, which included NBA 3-pointers.

“I was shocked. Really shocked,” Billups said. “He shot it, and it was like … an easy shot.”

After the workout, Billups took Clingan into his office and interviewed him. One of his first questions to Clingan was why he attempted only nine 3-pointers over two seasons at UConn.

“He gave me one of the best answers a kid could have given me: He said, ‘I just wanted to do what coach needed me to do to win.’ And to me, that’s just a winner.”

Billups said Clingan will enter the season with a green light to shoot 3-pointers, provided he is open and it’s a smart shot. With the Blazers building around Shaedon Sharpe and Scoot Henderson, two players who like to attack the basket, Billups said it is essential for the Blazers to have big men who can space the floor.

“Understanding that we are going to attack the basket, having (Clingan) space … their big is going to have to make a decision (stop the drive or guard the outside shot),” Billups said. “And that’s a weapon you can use. So it will be fun for me to design stuff to have that, because even at the end of last year, I was talking to D.A. about expanding his range.”

Cronin and Billups also noted that Clingan is an underrated passer who has a thorough understanding of the nuance and feel of plays. All of which adds to why Clingan has so much appeal to the Blazers — and to Ayton.

“At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters to me: winning,” Clingan said. “It’s not the points, it’s not the rebounds.

“It’s if my team won and your team lost.”

Required Reading

(Photo of Joe Cronin, Donovan Clingan and Chauncey Billups: Cameron Browne / NBAE via Getty Images)