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Robert Covington

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The axiom goes that an NBA team can’t ever have enough wings. It’s true, and if you don’t think so then watch any 2021-22 Los Angeles Laker game (please don’t actually, I care about you) or how puny the Brooklyn Nets were in their lone playoff series against the Finals-bound Boston Celtics. Wings that are big, long, and versatile defensively will always have a shot at cracking a playoff rotation. If they can hit threes or even make smart reads as a passer, even better. If they can create their own shot then they’re going in the lottery. But a player in the 2022 NBA Draft that likely won’t get selected in the lottery but does hit those benchmarks? Wake Forest’s Jake LaRavia

Cutting

Jake LaRavia is not going to be a guy you ask to create a lot of offense; he averaged just over eight field goal attempts per game over his college career and finished with a usage rate of just 21.9-percent. But LaRavia excels in filling in the gaps as a mover, a cutter, and a floor spacer, the primary ways he was used at college. He’s always vigilant without the ball in his hands. Once he sees an opening to zip through the lane, he hits it. Playing with a true point guard in Alondes Williams helped in finding LaRavia in those circumstances.

LaRavia shot 61.6-percent on two-point shots this past year and it’s easy to see why. He knows who he is and how to get the shots he knows he can make. He’s also more than sneaky athletic so he can punch those down once he gets the ball with that head of steam.

Shooting

LaRavia is also a very solid shooter. He didn’t shoot a ton of threes but he made 37.1-percent of the 132 threes he attempted over his three-year collegiate career. The stroke looks solid.

If Jake LaRavia is going to stay on the floor in high-leverage moments, he’s going to have to make shots like that. Luckily, he proved he can do so at a high level. LaRavia generated 1.5 points per possession on every unguarded catch-and-shoot jumper he shot last season, according to Zach Welch on Twitter. Excelling as a jump shooter as well as a finisher played a large role in LaRavia finishing last season with a 64.9-percent true-shooting percentage and a 60.6-percent effective field goal percentage. That he’s even somewhat close to the efficiency Chet Holmgren (69.1-percent TS; 68.1-percent eFG) posted is incredible and a testament to how well LaRavia excels at being a complementary piece. It isn’t as if LaRavia is only shooting corner threes like PJ Tucker either; he’s got NBA range and can hit shots on the move as well.

 

Playmaking

Another area of offense Jake LaRavia excels at is his passing. He reads the floor very well and especially so on the move, which will be very important in the NBA. Teams are going to force a team’s star players to get rid of the ball and force others to beat them. LaRavia can diagnose those defensive rotations on the fly and make the correct decisions to get his team a great look. This play is a great example. 

Towson traps the ballhandler. As they do, Wake Forest’s center slips to the rim. LaRavia makes himself available in the middle of the floor and sees the defender in the corner tagging Wake Forest’s roller. As he tags LaRavia zips it to the wing to create an open three. LaRavia is a smart and unselfish passer. It’s no wonder why he averaged 3.5 assists per 40 minutes (to 3 turnovers) and an above-average 17.8-percent assist percentage for his career. (For context: Karl-Anthony Towns and Thaddeus Young finished with a 17.7-percent assist percentage last season.) He has no problem manipulating a defense or making the simple extra pass. He keeps the machine humming.

Defense

The same way Jake LaRavia reads the floor offensively he also does so defensively. This side of the floor is where LaRavia’s bread gets buttered. At 6-8 227-pounds and a 6-9.5 wingspan, he can cover a ton of ground defensively. He has no issue disrupting offenses as a free safety. Watch here how he rotates from the weakside to strip the Towson roll man as he’s going up to force a turnover. 

That’s just one example of LaRavia putting out a fire off the ball. Here’s another. He begins the possession on a Towson big man. But as the ball rotates from one side to the other, a Towson guard is open on the left-wing. LaRavia sees it and zips over to make him put it on the deck, redirecting his rotating teammate Alondes Williams back to his original man. LaRavia sticks with the Towson guard and forces a wild shot as a result.

 

LaRavia can clearly defend in the team scheme, but he can put the clamps on people? That answer is also a definite yes. He’s got the quick feet to stick with guards and the size to stand up bruising wings. He didn’t have much of an issue sticking with two dynamic NC State scorers in Terquavion Smith and Dereon Seabron, both of whom fared well in May’s NBA Combine.

I think Jake LaRavia would probably be better deployed in more of a free safety role like a Robert Covington, but he’s definitely capable of being a point-of-attack stopper too, in my opinion. But it’s clear to me he is a plus defender. The numbers back it up too. LaRavia finished with a 12.7-percent rebound percentage, 2.4-percent steal percentage, 3.9-percent block percentage, and 4.6 defensive win shares (this stat continues to accumulate the more games you play. The more games one plays, the bigger the number. Veterans will have a bigger number than freshmen.). That is very similar to or better than a number of wings projected to go ahead of him in this year’s class. Here are how a few others that share LaRavia’s position in this class compare to LaRavia:

Jeremy Sochan, Baylor: 14.7 RB%, 2.9 STL%, 3.2 BLK%, 1.9 DWS

Tari Eason, LSU: 15.2 RB%, 4.5 STL%, 6.2 BLK%, 3.4 DWS

Kendall Brown, Baylor: 10.5 RB%, 2.2 STL%, 1.5 BLK%, 1.8 DWS

EJ Liddell, Ohio State: 13.7 RB%, 1.2 STL%, 6.5 BLK%, 3.8 DWS

Patrick Baldwin Jr., Milwaukee: 11.2 RB%, 1.7 STL%, 3.2 BLK%, 0.4 DWS

Jake LaRavia is just as good or even a better shooter than some of these guys with the defensive impact, but isn’t mocked in the top 20 the way these guys are or have previously been. I think that’s a mistake. LaRavia is right there amongst the most impactful wings in this draft whose game fits the mold of an Aaron Gordon‘s. He may be a junior but he’s still just 20 years. He’s just six months older than freshman Chet Holmgren and 12 days older than freshman TyTy Washington. There’s plenty of room for LaRavia to grow.

Jake LaRavia should be a top 20 pick in my opinion, but any team that sees themselves as a contender picking in the 20s (such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Golden State Warriors) that is low on wing depth should have no qualms taking LaRavia in the first round. He is a perfect complementary piece on the wing that can step in and help a team immediately. Every team needs players like him to get through the riggers of the playoffs to get that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy. If you like winning players, then Jake LaRavia is your man.

The notion that the Green Bay Packers ‘wasted’ the prime of all-time great quarterback Aaron Rodgers has irked me as a fan of the Packers. Rodgers has had more playoff losses come from the last play of that certain game than not. He’s always had a stellar offensive line and at least one All-Pro caliber receiver to throw to for just about all his tenure. He now has a running game after years without one. The Packers’ defense has stabilized into competence at the very least, but not good enough to get over the hump. That was a big reason why they couldn’t get past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game earlier this January.

Yet there surely were seasons that Aaron Rodgers dragged the Packers single-handedly into places they didn’t belong. The 2016 season is a prime example. After starting the season 4-6 with a running game so barren that Rodgers trailed converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery by just 88 yards for the team’s most rushing yards on the season and a secondary so decimated that poor LaDarius Gunter was forced to shadow cover the great Julio Jones, which went about as well as the Hulk trying to fight Thanos in ‘Infinity War.’ Despite it all, Rodgers still carried that team to the NFC Championship, where they got routed by Julio and crew by a final score of 44-21. That Packers team had no business being there, but in a results-oriented business, success buys you time. Rodgers dragging that team (and the next couple of Packers teams after that in seasons where Rodgers didn’t get injured) into the playoffs bought then-head coach Mike McCarthy and the late general manager Ted Thompson extra seasons despite hindsight suggesting they should’ve been gone long before. 

Which gets us to Portland. It would’ve been very easy for the Portland Trail Blazers to fire now-fired head coach Terry Stotts in the summer of 2018 after the Anthony Davis-led New Orleans Pelicans wiped the floor with them in a dejecting four-game sweep despite being the lower seed in that series. Reports suggest Stotts nearly was in fact canned after that series but survived the flames after Lillard went to bat for him. Lillard’s faith in Stotts was repaid with a trip to the Western Conference Finals, but they were swept there too against a Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors squad despite holding a lead in every fourth quarter of that series.

Things have stagnated drastically since then. It isn’t much of a surprise; the Blazers have a predictable, pick-and-roll-laden offense without a competent defense to back it up. Portland’s possessions were consumed by pick-and-rolls at the 7th-most frequent rate during the regular season, according to NBA.com. They have been in the top ten in that department in every season since the 2015-16 season. Now, it does make sense to play to your players’ strengths, and Lillard is one of the best we have in the league today at slicing defenses in the pick-and-roll, but more variety has been needed, especially without much of a defense to hold the Blazers’ offense down. Since the 2015-16 season, the Blazers have finished with a top ten defense just one time and that was the year they got swept by the Pelicans in the first round. This season they finished 29th in the NBA in defensive rating. If you’re asking yourself if it is bad that only one team was worse than you in something, I’d like to entrench in your brain that yes, that is very very bad.

To be fair, the Blazers have tried to bolster their defense. Trading for Jusuf Nurkic to anchor the rim worked out at first, but he hasn’t been anywhere near the same on that end since breaking his leg. They signed Derrick Jones Jr. using their midlevel exception in the 2020 offseason, but he (strangely) got worked out of the rotation. The Blazers traded two first-round picks for Robert Covington, but I never understood that move either. Covington had routinely been hunted in his previous playoff expenditures. Despite averaging more than a steal and a block a game, Covington is not an elite 1v1 stopper, which is what the Blazers. Trading two first-round picks for him was like an NFL team asking a safety to go shadow an opposing team’s best wide receiver. The fit just wasn’t there, and Covington’s arrival did not help the Blazers’ defense much at all, which is a shame because just a couple of players who would’ve been available with Portland’s first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, to name a few) could’ve helped in this regard immediately while still having the talent to develop. Trading Gary Trent Jr. for Norman Powell seemed like a lateral move in this regard too. Once Jones Jr. starting racking up DNP-CDs, there was no one left on Portland’s roster that they could count on to get stops. It was all too evident in the Blazers’ first-round series against a decimated Denver Nuggets roster. Sure, it is difficult to stop presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic, but once he’d get Jusuf Nurkic in foul trouble (which happened in every game the Blazers lost in this series), there’d be nothing left to stop Jokic from steamrolling through everybody, freeing up opportunities for his teammates. It would be one thing to get burnt by Jamal Murray; Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris, and Austin Rivers doing it to ya is completely unacceptable.

That leads me to the Blazers’ front office. I don’t feel like GM Neil Olshey has gotten enough heat for the Blazers’ yearly underachieving outside of Lillard. So many pieces on this team are redundant: what do Norman Powell and Anfernee Simons provide that they don’t already have in Dame’s backcourt running mate in CJ McCollum? How is it satisfactory to think a Carmelo Anthony – Enes Kanter frontcourt can get enough stops against anybody to think it’s a good idea to pair them together. With how valuable first-round picks are, is Robert Covington really worth two of them? I haven’t even mentioned how Olshey signed Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu to big, cap-draining deals in the summer of the cap spike in 2016. His drafting has often missed the mark for me as well. Trading up to acquire Zach Collins in 2017 has turned out to be a great move (he traded the picks that became Justin Jackson and Harry Giles III to get Collins); it isn’t Olshey’s fault that Collins has been perpetually injured. But drafting Anfernee Simons, for as talented as he is, as a turbo-charged scoring combo guard when you already have two players starting in that mold was puzzling instead of emphasizing defense. Do you think Robert Williams III, Mitchell Robinson, or De’Anthony Melton wouldn’t be useful there? Olshey did also draft Gary Trent Jr. in the second round, but still. The 2019 Draft wasn’t exactly rosy either. Five-star top ten recruit Nassir Little fell farther than he probably should’ve in that draft, but the book on him was that he was a very raw prospect. A team that looks at itself as a contender doesn’t have time to develop raw players like Little, especially since the Blazers don’t have a G League team. Keldon Johnson, Kevin Porter Jr., Daniel Gafford, and Terance Mann all got drafted after Little, and all except for Porter Jr. (who would also be quite redundant on this team) contributed towards their teams’ efforts of competing in the postseason. The urgency to surround Lillard with players that fit around him and fix the glaring holes of the roster has been nonexistent. Terry Stotts did not do enough to get the job done as the head coach, but he also always had to deal with a flawed roster from the start of seasons. That isn’t his fault. Olshey has to do better or else he’ll be the next to go (if he even gets the chance that Stotts didn’t get).

The Blazers are down their 2021 first-round pick but will have all their picks after that. The Blazers are already capped out with contracts due to Norman Powell and Zach Collins or risk losing them for nothing. Only Anfernee Simons could have positive trade value on their roster outside of CJ McCollum, but there aren’t many paths to getting an upgrade at the talent and fit without dealing extra assets alongside McCollum himself. If McCollum’s trade market proves cool, would Portland seriously consider their franchise icon in Damian Lillard? It probably wouldn’t come without Lillard himself asking out, but he’s been hell-bent on staying in Portland up to this point. I don’t think it’s impossible, however. It would be a crushing blow if that were to happen. But no one would blame Lillard for making that move. Portland has done little to nothing right to bolster his surrounding cast. The path to a championship looks as arduous as walking a tightrope that is connecting two cliffs with miles of separation in between. It might (likely?) never come for a player who has given his all for that team and that city.

The Trail Blazers need change. The change probably should’ve come a few years ago but is coming now. More should be forthcoming. Damian Lillard has dragged the Portland Trail Blazers into the postseason for multiple years now. The Blazers need to give him a better cast to help him compete deep into the playoffs. Failing to do so will mean squandering the great gifts and talents their franchise icon possesses.