The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2021-22 season has been an exercise in futility. The silver lining in an otherwise-dismal showing has been the chance to audition an entire roster of new players, filling in for injured and resting veterans as Portland pursues lottery dreams. Portland fans are far more familiar with Brandon Williams, Ben McLemore, Greg Brown III, and Keljin Blevins than they ever expected to be.
Realistically few, if any, of the “New” Blazers will return next season. Portland appears poised for another run with Damian Lillard at the fore. That will require veterans stacked around him, the antithesis of the current roster. Trendon Watford and Keon Johnson are probably safe, due to their long-term contracts. Anyone on a single-year deal is vulnerable.
One player with a chance to buck that trend—the “found money” candidate among the short-term lot—is Drew Eubanks. The fourth-year center got traded in February, part of the Thaddeus Young-Goran Dragic deal between the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors. The Raptors waived Eubanks the same day. Two weeks later, he signed his first 10-day contract with the Blazers and he hasn’t stopped since.
In 17 games with Portland, all starts, Eubanks has averaged 14.1 points and 8.9 rebounds, 3.3 offense, in 29.2 minutes per game. In the process, he’s shot 66.2% from the field. Those are gaudy numbers from a 10-day replacement player, let alone one who plays at center.
Journeyman bigs often have a hard time establishing themselves, as ball-handlers—also looking to further their careers—value their own shots over opportunities for Stiffy McNoShot, who probably won’t make the team either way. Eubanks has bucked the trend with more than just the stereotypical “hard work”. Almost all of the young Trail Blazers are working their butts off out there. They understand what’s at stake.
Eubanks has made his mark by making the right play in any given situation. Forget where the shot goes up. Look at what’s happening on the floor before, during, and after that shot. Eubanks is likely to be near the heart of the action. He’s setting a screen, making himself available for a pass, pivoting to box out for the offensive rebound. On defense he’s occupying space as effectively as he can manage, trying to seal off or draw charges, and (of course) going for those rebounding opportunities.
Even these qualities might not make Eubanks a sure fit. It’s the way in which he approaches the game—and his part in it—that screams, “Keep me around!” He’s not trying to learn by the year or by the game, but by the play. He’s active in discussions with coaches. You can see him adapt as each game progresses, finding the rhythm and how he can contribute that night.
Eubanks is also into it. During last week’s Blazers-Thunder game, a snoozer by almost every measure, Eubanks was dunking and beating his chest, not just as the big completion, but because of the correct play that set it up. If he can’t get big wins, he’ll take smaller, more granular ones. Either way, they appear to matter to him.
None of this recommends Eubanks as a top rotation player. If that’s ever coming, the proving grounds between here and there are wide. But he’s had to miss Eubanks’ energy and devotion, plus his ability to make selective, correct contributions. That’s exactly what you want out of a deeper bench player. You can trust him to make the right play and you know he’s going to go hard in every situation. If you ever need a big-minute fill-in, he’s there, but he’s going to give you something in 10 minutes, not save it for 35.
These qualities have been missing from Portland’s bench for a while now, as the Blazers have shoehorned talented veterans into roles more limited than they were willing to accept. Seeing Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little grow this year, when the rotation loosened, was one of the few joys of the season. Eubanks’ emergence is a natural progression of that.
Add in the fact that he’s a hometown player, and there’s no reason the Blazers shouldn’t bring him back for another year or three. At age 24, with limited duty behind him, he’s got all the tread to keep the wheels spinning. If they get good mileage out of him, they’ve found a steal. If not, no loss. Eubanks should be back next year as part of Portland’s 10th-12th man brigade, with permission to climb higher into the rotation if he can manage it. He might be just a momentary blip on the radar, but he also might be a steady hand for seasons to come and one of the cult heroes who ends up sticking around the franchise long past initial expectations.