• Leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers’ season-opener against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center on October 18, HoopBall is profiling the team’s 15 players with guaranteed contracts, in reverse order of price.

    Prior entries: Anfernee SimonsCaleb SwaniganNik StauskasJake LaymanGary Trent, Jr.

    Player: Wade Baldwin IV

    2018-19 salary: $1,544,951

    Position: guard

    Age, experience: 22, third year

    Measureables: 6-foot-4, 202 pounds (6-foot-11 and 1/4 inch wingspan)

    Strengths: speed, quickness, defensive versatility, transition, penetrating, hands

    Weaknesses: jump shot, playing off-ball, free-throw shooting

    Swing factor: 3-point shooting

    Likely role: fourth guard, defensive stopper

    It’s still unclear why the Memphis Grizzlies so hastily gave up on Wade Baldwin, but what’s implicit by now is that long-time general manager Chris Wallace and company have surely come to regret that decision. Baldwin, just a year removed from being taken with the 17th pick in the draft, was waived two days before the Grizzlies’ 2017-18 regular-season opener to make room on the roster for veteran guard Mario Chalmers. The move wasn’t only shocking due to the inherent team-building benefits of retaining players on cheap long-term contracts, but also Memphis’ dire need for injections of youth and dynamism on the perimeter.

    Eleven months later, the Grizzlies’ trash has become the Portland Trail Blazers’ treasure, as Baldwin will be given the chance to play a consistent role for Terry Stotts in 2018-19. Anyone who watched the Vanderbilt product audition for Portland late last season in prolonged action against the Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz would be unsurprised by that development. Baldwin proved a dogged, disruptive individual defender when he got on the floor for the Blazers, relishing the task of checking the opposition’s top perimeter player with the ardent aggression of a true stopper. One of the most memorable moments throughout all of last season was Baldwin ripping James Harden‘s dribble for a leak-out dunk, stealing the ensuing inbounds pass, then goading the eventual MVP into a shoulder-check that went uncalled.

    Baldwin won’t cause superstars’ frustration to boil over on a nightly basis. At Summer League, in fact, he was far less impactful defensively than he was with Portland, not just in terms of full-court pressure, but overall engagement and commitment. It was so jarring to watch Baldwin fall asleep off the ball or fail to fight through screens precisely because he was such an undeniable bright spot for the Blazers on that end of the floor as last season wound down.

    Fortunately, those relative struggles came under the burden of an offensive load Baldwin won’t be asked to shoulder playing on the same team as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Serving as Portland’s primary ball handler in Las Vegas, he averaged an event-high 7.4 assists per game by relentlessly pushing the pace in transition and finding open shooters in the half court after creasing the paint. He shot 8-of-16 from beyond the arc, too, encouraging for a guard once billed as a non-shooter despite that relatively low number of attempts. If disaster strikes and Lillard goes down for an extended period, Summer League made it clear the Blazers should feel comfortable with Baldwin assuming some of those leftover ball-handling duties, basically, a realization that could hardly be assumed before July.

    Unfortunately for Baldwin, such confidence guarantees little in the way of a major role in Stotts’ rotation. Lillard, McCollum and Seth Curry will get the lion’s share of minutes at point guard and shooting guard, leaving Baldwin fourth in the pecking order among available ball handlers. His best route to consistent minutes, then, is forcing his way onto the floor next to those guys through individual defense and improved spot-up shooting. Baldwin is unlikely to beat out Evan Turner, and isn’t quite big enough to defend high-scoring threes despite his enviable wingspan, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be relegated to spot minutes. If Baldwin deserves nightly playing time and Stotts is so inclined, Portland could slide Moe Harkless, Jake Layman or even Turner to power forward when Al-Farouq Aminu is off the floor and commit to playing Zach Collins at center exclusively, paving the way for Baldwin to occupy the spot in the rotation vacated by Pat Connaughton.

    There are multiple avenues for Baldwin to be a regular contributor for the Blazers this season, but each of them comes with the caveat of his ability to knock down open jumpers. Baldwin, for instance, could find himself losing minutes to Nik Stauskas should he struggle from deep in training camp. The physical limitations of Lillard, McCollum and Curry make them imminently exploitable defensively, but it’s not like Stotts doesn’t have other options – Turner, Harkless and Aminu – to sick on the opposition’s most dangerous ball handler.

    Still, the best possible version of Portland in 2018-19 includes Baldwin playing a meaningful role off the bench, wreaking havoc on defense and igniting the fast-break attack of a team that ranked dead last in pace a season ago. Would that hope coming to fruition represent a successful outcome for a third-year player drafted just outside the lottery? Probably not, but considering Baldwin was on the fringes of the league this time last year, it would certainly be a significant step in the right direction for the trajectory of his career.

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