Following the NBA Draft, the Portland Trail Blazers enter the bulk of the off-season with three new rookies in the fold: No. 3 pick Scoot Henderson from G League Ignite, No. 23 pick Kris Murray of Iowa and No. 43 pick Rayan Rupert, a French wing who played in the Australian NBL last season.
Yesterday, the franchise welcomed the trio to Portland with an introductory press conference. Alongside General Manager Joe Cronin and Head Coach Chauncey Billups, the rookies fielded questions about their respective games and matches with Portland.
Below are some of the more notable quotes from the over 20-minute session.
Cronin opened up the event with excitement about the players landing at Portland’s draft selections, especially since the franchise had Murray and Rupert rated far higher on its big board.
“For us, it was one of those unique draft nights where we had all three of these players ranked in the lottery, and we were fortunate enough to get three of them at very different parts of the draft. … It was a unique way the draft broke for us that just lined up really well with how we had it tiered out.”
Billups echoed Cronin’s remark, and said the players fit his preferred archetype of versatile competitors.
“[It’s] not oftentimes you have [picks] three, 23 and 43 and you come away with three guys that were invited to the green room. … A lot of y’all know what I believe about the game of basketball, I love guys that are very competitive. I love guys that play with fire, that play on both sides of the basketball, and all three of these guys do that. They’re all very dynamic, so I’m looking forward to pouring into them and teaching them the best that I can.”
Henderson comes to Portland as one of the most hyped prospects the Blazers have landed in a long time. Thought of as a likely No. 1 overall pick in almost any other draft that doesn’t feature French phenom Victor Wembanyama or Alabama forward Brandon Miller, Henderson comes to Portland after the Charlotte Hornets went with Miller at No. 2. The 6-foot-2, athletic point guard possesses big-time confidence and swagger, evident in the presser (and by his draft night outfit), and is thought to be more pro-ready than most 19-year-olds, following two years in the NBA G League.
When asked about the hype, Henderson said he tries to not give it much thought.
“Honestly, I don’t really pay attention to it. It’s kind of hard not to see it, obviously I got social media, but I always just rely on the gym. I wouldn’t have none of this if it wasn’t for me and my work ethic. … So whenever there’s words like that, ‘generational,’ ‘special,’ I know who I am as a person and that’s all that matters.”
Entering the NBA as a high lottery pick comes with expectations of leadership and being the face of a franchise at some point. Henderson said his time in the G League helped prepare him for that responsibility, and he doesn’t shy away from being vocal.
“I’m blessed that I did the two years at Ignite as a pro having to tell men, [like] Pooh [Jeter], who is 20 years older than me, where to go on the court. It’s something I’m going to continue to get comfortable with at, and I’m going to embrace it. That’s the thing I could do, embrace that, and embrace that I got a lot of responsibility, but it comes with the work ethic. I always go back to that. I work on things like that — just talking and little stuff like that in my game.”
After four years at Iowa, Murray, 22, enters the league much older than his teenage rookie teammates and most rookies in the modern NBA. Cronin said he received a lot of calls from other teams trying to trade into the No. 23 spot, especially on draft night, but the franchise was excited to see Murray still on the board when the pick eventually came.
“A few weeks prior to the draft [we] started getting a lot of calls about pick 23. I could tell the league was starting to really evaluate and start to figure out the depth that was here in this draft. So there were frequent calls for really the two weeks prior about our pick and teams wanting it. …As we got into the teens, phones were exploding. Teams were trying to get into the draft, going after not just Kris but other guys as well. Just a lot of activity, a bunch of different phone calls and discussions. Mentally we had Kris really high on our board, and say we’re at pick 18, 17, we’re like, ‘man, he can’t get that far.’ You’re just hoping and rooting, and at a certain point we consider ourselves fortunate that he got to us.”
Along with the extra experience of age, Murray also has the benefit of learning from his older brother, Keegan, who was drafted by the Sacramento Kings with the No. 4 pick last summer. The 6-foot-8 forward discussed how his brother has helped him get ready for his NBA moment.
“It’s definitely a unique experience when your brother who you’re really close to gets to go through this whole process, and I kind of get to see in the shadows last year just what it all entails, so just little things I learned from him. … Just how you take care of yourself on and off the court. The biggest thing I learned from him is just do the same thing every day. Don’t change who you are.”
Rupert, 19, comes to the NBA after a year in the Australian NBL with the New Zealand Breakers. The 6-foot-8 forward briefly explained to reporters his journey from an elite basketball academy in France to the NBA, and how he likes to play.
“I grew up in France, I played four years at INSEP Academy. Tony Parker, Evan Fournier played there, so I spent four years there. Last year I made the decision to play with the New Zealand Breakers in the NBL. It was a great opportunity to grow up as a player, and a person to play far from my country, so it was an amazing journey, and now I’m happy to be here.
I think I’m a two-way player, my first quality is defensively, I just love to be disruptive defensively, play with max energy.”
One big fan of the Rupert selection included former Blazer Nicolas Batum, who tweeted his endorsement of the pick. Rupert discussed his relationship with his fellow Frenchman at the presser, which goes back years.
“Nic Batum is like a big brother for me. He called me [Friday], I know him since 10 years, I did a camp and I finished MVP in this camp, so I spent 10 days with him when he was in Charlotte. When he called me yesterday [he] just said a lot of good things about this organization, the people here. I like his game. I try to learn about him on the court and off the court.”
While Portland’s selections garnered generally positive reviews from media, criticism has come with the franchise’s inability to build a team around Damian Lillard ready to contend, a reality further reinforced by Portland’s decision to use all three picks. On that front, Billups said the Blazers front office still has a lot of team-building work to do this summer, but also that these rookies are more ready than most.
“The way that I see these guys is obviously their age is pretty young, but they don’t play that way. Their IQ is different than the normal guy their age. It’s a reason why they’re here, we handpicked all of them for those reasons. Those young moments and those young things, they’ll be minimized with these guys. Scoot just said it: he’s been leading men for two years. … Kris, you can tell he has a maturity about him. He won’t be playing like a rookie, when he’s out there he’s going to be able to contribute. Rayan played pro in a very, very physical, tough league. I don’t feel that these dudes are young, I feel like they can contribute right away. … Obviously we have a big few weeks ahead of us in building the rest of our team out.”
The players were asked how they could contribute in their rookie seasons and said the following:
Rupert: “I will try to earn my minutes by max energy and defense at the beginning, do whatever the coach wants me to do to help the team.”
Henderson: “I think I can put pressure on the defense in all kinds of ways. Come in as a voice, try to lead by example, and gain that trust from my teammates. Then on the defensive side just grow… and become one of the premier defenders in the league.”
Murray: I think for me, it’s just my versatility, offensively and defensively. I feel like I can guard multiple positions and play multiple positions, but definitely my basketball IQ. I think I’m a low-mistake kind of guy.”
The Lillard Situation
The narrative around Lillard and if he remains a Blazer for next season is turning out to be the storyline of the summer. Near the end of the presser, Cronin discussed his communication with the franchise face surrounding the draft results.
“Last time we spoke directly was while he was in Europe Tuesday, and I’ve talked to his agent multiple times everyday, been staying in close contact. Dame is getting back in town fairly soon, so we’ll get together.”
Weeks of speculation and uncertainty around the draft are now firmly in the rearview mirror with the Blazers bringing Henderson, Murray and Rupert to town. Now, all eyes turn to free agency and the summer trade season.