By Brian T. Smith for The Columbian
TUALATIN, Ore. — The battle has only just begun. And neither the players directly involved nor the Portland Trail Blazers’ coaches have any idea how long the competition will last, nor exactly how the back-and-forth oneupsmanship will play out.
But a few things are already certain. Patty Mills and Armon Johnson are young, talented point guards currently wearing Blazers uniforms. Yet there is no guarantee both will be employed by Portland when the 2010-11 season opens in late October. Moreover, there is a good chance that either Mills or Johnson is going to cancel the other one out.
The 6-foot, 175-pound Mills is entering his second year with the Blazers. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Johnson was chosen by Portland with 34th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Both have NBA potential. Yet with ironman veteran Andre Miller currently holding the keys as the Blazers’ starting point guard and up-and-coming third-year guard Jerryd Bayless waiting in the shadows, there will likely only be room for one more point guard on Portland’s roster.
Which means that every strong move or false step Mills and Johnson make during the 2010 NBA Summer League will be closely watched, graded and analyzed. And with Portland’s summer schedule one day away from tipping off, the duo are already on their game.
“I definitely feel like I have to prove something,” Johnson said Friday, following a morning workout at the team’s practice facility. “Just go out and play and play basketball. This is what I came here to do, and I’m having fun doing it.”
The former Nevada standout definitely had fun Friday, smiling wide after swishing a smooth pull-up jump shoot during a full-court scrimmage.
But in a symbol of the already-brewing competition, the assist went to Mills. In addition, Johnson’s jumper followed an impressive drive by Mills during their team’s previous offensive play. Mills started at the top of the key, pushed right, cut left, and then contorted his body before sending up a twisting, turning layup. The attempt resulted in an airball. But the hard-to-touch speed of Mills’ game was clearly displayed.
“I’m just excited to get out and play,” said Mills, a 21-year-old native of Canberra, Australia. “I haven’t gotten that chance for a while.”
Technically, Mills should be a step ahead of Johnson. Mills unexpectedly made Portland’s 2009-10 roster out of training camp, earning the 15th and final spot by beating out veterans Ime Udoka and Jarron Collins. Preseason foot surgery slowed his progress. But he shined for the Idaho Stampede, Portland’s NBA Development League affiliate, averaging 25.6 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 50 percent behind the 3-point line. Mills then appeared in 10 games for the Blazers last season, totalling 26 points and five assists in 38 minutes.
However, Portland’s depth at the guard position and the fact that Mills was originally chosen by the Blazers with the No. 55 overall pick during the second round of the 2009 draft has created an uncertain future for the former St. Mary’s star. Right now, Mills is playing with a non-guaranteed qualifying offer, which at best will turn into a non-guaranteed contract. And even then, his playing time will likely be limited.
Mills’ strengths include pinpoint outside shooting — he sank seven 3s and scored 38 points during a Jan. 1 D-League win over Reno — fast footwork and secure ballhandling. Portland assistant coach Bill Bayno said the former Gael also excels in the pick-and-roll defense. But Mills acknowledged that he must improve his one-on-one and full-court defense if he hopes to make a mark in the NBA.
“He’s done all the things we’ve asked him to do in terms of development,” Portland Summer League coach Kaleb Canales said. “Now, he can put it on the floor. He just needs to get confident, comfortable, and just start playing.”
As for Johnson, the muscle-armed native of Chicago said he has only been in two roster competitions his entire life. Once, when he was a sophomore in high school. The other when he was a Wolfpack sophomore.
“It’s always been fun to battle for a spot,” Johnson, 21, said. “You don’t want anything given to you, because then you get complacent. I like to keep chasing after something.”
Johnson averaged 15.7 points and 5.6 assists while shooting 49.5 percent from the floor during his junior year at Nevada. But while the longtime friend and college teammate of fellow Blazers rookie Luke Babbitt can undoubtedly make the net sway, his main asset is Mills’ biggest weakness: defense.
“He’s a big point guard,” Bayno said. “He’s got really good length. He’s strong. He can run a team, and he can handle pressure.”
The pressure will likely only build for Johnson and Mills. But after three days of twice-a-day Summer League practices, the duo are already as comfortable talking about each other as they are themselves. And Johnson knows the best days are yet to come.
“I’m not getting the full experience yet. But it’s all right,” Johnson said. “The real NBA players live the great life. Right now, we’re just living the good life. We’re trying to get to that great life.”