YEAR 3 OF TERRY PORTER'S PILOTS
When the question of how to make it in pro basketball comes up, Terry Porter delivers a straightforward answer.
"I didn't think I was going to make it to the NBA. I worked my tail off, not knowing what opportunity would present itself going down that road," Porter says. "But as opportunities opened to me on my journey and because of the way I prepared and the work I put in, I was able to take advantage of them."
Today, Porter shares that message with his players at the University of Portland, where the former Trail Blazers guard and NBA head coach is in the third year of a building project.
The Pilots were a combined 21-44 in Porter's first two seasons, and a rough 6-30 in West Coast Conference play. The asterisk is that his first season was shaping up well until star guard Alec Wintering went down with a season-ending injury.
As Year 3 of Porter at Portland begins, the Pilots' roster is now populated with players recruited by the head man and his staff.
Still, it is a relatively young team that figures to endure more growing pains before it is ready to push the WCCs top programs.
Porter hopes his 2018-19 team can be better at finishing games and play with more confidence than the young Pilots did last season. He is realistic enough to know Portland isn't where it needs to be to challenge Gonzaga, Saint Mary's or BYU at the top of the conference.
"If we do all the things that will make us a good team — take care of the ball, defend and rebound — I think we have a chance to move up," Porter says. "But if we don't do those things I think we're going to be battling like we've been battling before."
At a school that has made the NCAA Tournament only twice — most recently in 1996 — Porter is focused on establishing a foundation for future success.
"I think we have a good makeup of players. I think our culture has gotten really good," he says. "These are officially all our guys now, so when I think about the overall roster we are slowly getting the pieces we feel are important to get to be able to compete: size, shooting, speed and more athleticism."
South Carolina Upstate, Cal Poly and Texas State will join Portland for this week's Portland Classic, with games on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at Chiles Center.
The Pilots have returned most of their perimeter players from last season and added some size.
Sophomore guards Marcus Shaver Jr. and JoJo Walker and junior wing Josh McSwiggan are returning starters off to encouraging starts.
Shaver averaged 20 points through the first three games this season and was named to the all-tournament team at the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii.
Walker scored a career-high 22 points (on 9-of-11 shooting) in 78-73 loss to North Texas on Nov. 10.
"We have two pretty good guards in JoJo and Marcus, who are fast and can get in the gaps," Porter says. "Then we have some good catch-and-shoot guys that can spot up and knock down shots."
One of those is McSwiggan, a 6-7 redshirt junior from England who averaged 11 points per game as a sophomore and scored a career-high 37 in this year's season-opening shootout with Multnomah (a 111-103 Pilots win).
"Two things we really challenged him on during the offseason were to get his body a little stronger and bigger and then to become more of a complete player," Porter says. "Last year, he was one of the best shooters in our conference, but we challenged him to get to the free-throw-line more and put the ball on the floor and use his ability to catch and shoot as a weapon."
The fourth player to start each of the first three games was freshman Theo Akwuba, a 6-10, 205-pound post from Montgomery, Alabama, who provides a defensive and rebounding presence around the rim.
"Of all the incoming freshmen, he's grown the most from summer to now," Porter says.
Akwuba can contribute as a shot blocker and rebounder as he works on his offensive game.
"Offensively, he's not close to where he's going to be as a polished product. He's still thin," Porter says. "But he can catch it in the post. He has moves. He can go up and dunk and finish around the rim."
Porter's sons, redshirt junior Franklin and redshirt sophomore Malcolm, both 6-4, figure to play prominent roles, starting or coming off the bench.
Malcolm Porter is pushing Walker and Shaver for playing time at guard. The former Jesuit High standout averaged seven points and two assists in 30 games last season, mostly coming off the bench.
Franklin Porter, who averaged nine points and two assists in 2017-18, is in the rotation at wing along with McSwiggan.
Takiula Fahrensohn, a 6-6 redshirt freshman from New Zealand, is another option there.
Tahirou Diabate, a 6-9, 240-pound sophomore, is stronger than he was last season when he made 22 starts and averaged 6.4 points and 4.2 rebounds while playing about 20 minutes per game.
One intriguing newcomer is 7-foot sophomore Jacob Tryon, a transfer from East Los Angeles Junior College. Tryon's size can help the Pilots protect the rim and rebound, but his offensive game is that of a forward who can stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting.
Also adding needed frontcourt depth are 6-10 redshirt freshman Hugh Hogland and 6-9 true freshman Josh Phillips.
"We hope the (frontcourt) depth really helps us," Porter says. "They're all pretty good rim protectors, they're all pretty good rebounders, and they can score a little bit."
Crisshawn Clark was expected to provide important perimeter depth and be a situational defender until suffering a dislocated ankle in a preseason practice. It was a tough blow for a player who missed the previous three seasons — two due to injury and last season because of NCAA transfer rules. Porter is holding out hope that Clark might be available later this season, but he says the 6-4 guard's future is in doubt.
Last season, the Pilots faced North Carolina, Oklahoma and DePaul in the PK80 Tournament and played a road game at Boise State — tough matchups all for a young team. There are no college basketball blue bloods on this season's nonconference slate, which includes a Nov. 28 game at Colorado. The Pilots visit Portland State on Dec. 5, one of five December games in Portland.
In conference, the Pilots will play host to Gonzaga on Jan. 19. But they do not visit the Zags this season because the WCC has shortened its conference schedule from 18 to 16 games in an effort to help its top programs improve their strength of schedule and NCAA Tournament chances. Saint Mary's will not visit Chiles Center this season.
In another WCC shift to aid its top programs (and perhaps appease Gonzaga, which has flirted with leaving the conference), the top two teams in conference play will get a bye into the WCC tournament semifinals, leaving the other eight teams to battle for two spots in the tourney semifinals.
Former Portland State head coach Tyler Geving has joined Porter's coaching staff in an interim role. Geving replaces Kramer Knutson, who is on family leave from the program.
Geving joins veteran coaches Bob Cantu and Ben Johnson, who came to Portland when Porter was hired in the summer of 2016. Cantu's 23 seasons of college coaching include 12 at Southern Cal, where he was an associate head coach and also served as the interim head coach. Johnson's varied coaching career includes a decade as an assistant at Washington State.
Cantu and Johnson are proven recruiters. Last week, the Pilots signed two high school seniors to letters-of-intent: 7-foot senior Cody Collinsworth of Lindale, Texas, and point guard Donyae McCaskill from St. Louis.
The Pilots reportedly beat Minnesota and TCU among others to land Collinsworth, another big guy who can shoot 3-pointers.
Porter says McCaskill will be the most athletic guard on the roster when he arrives next season and will bring an ability to defend on the perimeter that the Pilots need.
As for this season, Porter will measure progress by how well his team executes when games are in the balance.
"We are better," he says, pointing to rebounding as one area Portland must improve to win more games.
"Like I share with the guys, every great team I've been around and every good team I've watched, they all have two things in common: their ability to defend and their ability to rebound," Porter says. "We have to try to hold our own in those two areas. If we do that, on the road and at home, we're going to give ourselves a chance to win a lot of basketball games."
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