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Game Preview: Phoenix Suns take on young, talented Portland Trail Blazers

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Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Talking Stick Resort Arena

Start time: 7:30 pm

TV: Fox Sports Arizona

Radio: 98.7 FM

Oh yeah, and some guy named Steve Nash will be there. #NashROH

If you haven't had time yet, listen to this fun podcast by Scott Howard, Sreekar and Greg Esposito (Suns) as they discuss a wide range of Nashy topics.

Tonight's opponent

The Portland Trail Blazers are coming off consecutive excellent regular seasons and mid-seed playoff appearances, but the defection of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (free agency) forced them to reboot the entire team around young All-Star Damian Lillard.

The Phoenix Suns are coming off a series a middling-to-poor regular seasons and a five-year playoff drought in the wake since the defection of All-Star Amare Stoudemire (free agency) and their inability to effectively retool around aging All-Star Steve Nash (and later All-NBA Goran Dragic).

It's quite possible the Blazers took a look at the Suns post-Amare retooling "plan" and used that horror as fuel to rebuild in a much more aggressive fashion.

They could have just replaced Aldridge with someone like David West or even traded for Markieff Morris and still made the playoffs for the next 1-2 years during Damian Lillard's prime. But instead they blew up the team completely, trading or allowing 4/5 of their starting lineup.

Now the Blazers enter what they hope is a quick rebuild, as long some of their young players grow into All-Star level talent. Already, third-year guard C.J. McCollum put up a career-high 37 points in their opening night win, including 22 in the first quarter alone.

The Blazers enter tonight's game with a robust 1-0 record while the Suns are a paltry 0-1.

Let's have an exchange with BlazersEdge.com contributor Peter Sampson to find out more about these young Blazers. You can check out my answers on the Suns here.

1) Wow, talk about a reboot. The Blazers got aggressive this summer trying to rebuild real quick on the heels of LMA's imminent departure. Well done on all counts! Is the fan base excited about the changes in the team, even if it means 1-2 years of growing pains in the process?

Blazers fans are, for the most part, excited about the changes to the roster, though they had to progress through the 5 stages of grief first. When Nic Batum was traded before the draft for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh, it was easy to rationalize the possibility that LMA wanted him gone (due to his frustratingly inconsistent play). Then when LaMarcus bolted, the amount of vitriol, and eventually sadness, expressed online was immense, and understandable. As fans began to rationalize what the team might look like with a new power forward, it became clear that Portland was not going to make an offer to their remaining free agents.

Finally, Blazer fans have been able to look at the collection of talent on this year's squad and be optimistic. With so many young players who have yet to reach their potential, the future is bright. The Blazers have a superstar point guard in Damian Lillard, a great collection of athletic big men, and the likelihood of a decent lottery pick next year.

Perhaps surprisingly, fans are excited for this season as well, even if the team will fall from 51 to 25-35 wins. Nearly every young Blazer has something to prove, whether it's being passed over for playing time on another team or, in Lillard's case, whether he can be the undisputed leader of a team. With the team's length and athleticism, fans are predicting a lot of dunking and getting out in transition. No one is delusional about the Blazer's chances to make the playoffs this season, but I've heard the phrase "bad, but great to watch" thrown around more than once.

2) Damian Lillard is the only returning starter, and it looks like C.J. McCollum will line up next to him a lot of the time as he rotates with Gerald Henderson. How high do Portland fans think C.J.'s ceiling is? Is he the most exciting youngster in the new lineup around Lillard?

McCollum's ceiling depends, in part, on what role he is asked to play. As an undersized scoring guard, McCollum can't quite defend prototypical shooting guards, but doesn't yet have the vision and passing skills to truly run the point guard spot. He spent time with Steve Nash in the offseason, and so far he has demonstrated improve PG skills. But make no mistake, McCollum's bread and butter is putting the ball in the basket. He has an above average jump shot, and is uncanny at snaking his way to the mid-range or the rim.

I think that it's easier to define CJ's floor than his ceiling. At the very least, health provided, McCollum will have a nice career as an instant offense spark plug off of the bench, able to rejuvenate a stagnant offense in a heartbeat. Should he continue to develop his defense and ball handling skills, he has a chance to be a 20-22 ppg scorer and a fringe All-Star in the future.

For the most part, fans seem to agree that McCollum is the most exciting young player on the roster, in terms of this year. Thinking longer term, some fans are tantalized by Meyers Leonard's combination of size and shooting or Noah Vonleh's soft touch coupled with an ability to mix it up inside. Though they may not have the immediate impact the McCollum will, the possibility to develop into a dominant big is very real with each of them.

3) On the front line, you've got a handful of potential answers for the future in Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh at PF, and Myers Leonard and Mason Plumlee at C. How do you see the rotation and playing opportunities unfolding for these guys to allow the coach and FO to figure out the cream of the crop?

The Blazers currently have a wealth of young size. If preseason is any indicator, it looks like Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee will start at the 4/5, respectively, with Davis and Vonleh coming off of the bench. Spacing plays a big part in this decision, as Leonard shoots predominately from the outside, and Plumlee and Davis almost never attempt a shot from outside of 10 feet. So if Davis spends too much time with Plumlee, the paint can get clogged up in a big way, which limits driving opportunities for Lillard and McCollum. With less proven 3-point shooting on the wings compared to last season, the Blazers are going to need every opportunity for the aforementioned guards to get to the rim that they can get.

That being said, it's not always about who starts, but who finishes, and I expect coach Stotts to ride the hot hand or matchup in a lot of games. It's a very real possibility that there will be games where Leonard and Plumlee both start, but Davis and Vonleh end up playing slightly more minutes. Davis, in particular is a phenomenal rebounder and challenges shots and a high rate. Vonleh is largely unproven after a lost rookie season in Charlotte, but his ceiling is crazy high.

4) Besides the aforementioned young players, who else in the Blazers young rotation is poised to break out and become a key piece of the rebuilding effort?

Moe Harkless, acquired from Orlando for a future top 55(!) protected draft pick, has shown a lot this preseason. A long and athletic small forward, Harkless struggled with his 3-point shot last year in Orlando and ended up in former coach Jacque Vaughn's doghouse. So far, it looks like last season's 18% 3-point percentage was an outlier and his percentage will drift up toward the mid 30's. A decent rebounder, and explosive finisher, look for Harkless to surprise some people who don't follow the Blazers closely this season. Picking him up for essentially nothing has already shown to be a move. If he develops the potential he showed before last season's slump, there's a chance that the trade could go down as one of the more memorable in recent Blazer history.

The other young wing to watch is Allen Crabbe. Crabbe, a third year 2/3 out of Cal, has shown a new found aggressiveness this year, especially in terms of looking for his shot. Last season, he never stood out in any particular positive or negative light, aside from the Blazers having an 8-1 record when he started (despite his low statistical output). While he may not have the potential upside that Harkless has, Crabbe has fit within the flow of the offense, made plays, and very well could force his way in to the rotation.

5) What's your win total for the Blazers this year? Do you see a surprise playoff run? Or a down year while the kids develop around Dame?

As much as a surprise playoff run, a la the Phoenix Suns 2 seasons ago would be fun, there is just too much firepower in the Western Conference. Golden State won it all, the Clippers, San Antonio, and Houston got better, OKC has a healthy Durant back, Memphis is still right where they were, and New Orleans, Utah, and possibly Phoenix are in the hunt for the final playoff spot. Even teams like Minnesota and Sacramento have a chance to show real strides this season (though it's just as likely that they implode). And we can't forget Dallas, if somehow Parsons, Matthews, and Williams all stay healthy.

That being said, the over/under in Vegas is 26.5 wins, which most fans feel is quite low. At Blazers Edge, we seem to have reached a consensus somewhere between 30-35 wins. Portland has the talent to catch some teams off guard, and it's easy to look at past production from the youngsters and not realize that this the first chance for many of them to play significant minutes. On the flip side, Portland is going to cough up a lot of leads in the 4th quarter. Veteran teams know how to win, and it takes time to develop that killer instinct. Look for the Blazers to be surprisingly competitive but still manage to give some games away as they develop their identity.

--

Thanks Peter!

On to the game tonight, folks.

Steve Nash Ring of Honor Night

Oh yeah, that Nash guy. Steve Nash retired this summer, and the Suns immediately decided to name him to the team's Ring of Honor.

The team is honoring him by wearing his face on their shins.

Nash will be introduced at halftime of tonight's game (hopefully with the Suns leading), with a lot of former teammates on hand to watch.

You can also expect a lot of retired former teammates as well.

Maybe not Lakers folks, but Mavericks and Suns will be well represented!