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The NBA season is here and so is Blazer basketball after a noteworthy offseason filled with changes and questions.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups takes questions during Blazers Media Day on Sept. 27, 2021, at the Moda Center.

The mysteries of the offseason have come to an end and the NBA season has returned with the Portland Trail Blazers media day taking place Monday, Sept. 26.

General manager Joe Cronin, head coach Chauncey Billups and many players came to the podium to address all kinds of storylines coming into the 2022-23 campaign.

With new faces at the top and throughout the organization, the upcoming season is certainly an intriguing one with plenty of questions to answer. So much so, star Damian Lillard said he doesn't truly know how anything will shake up.

The path to figuring it all out begins this week with the Blazers holding training camp in Santa Barbara before playing their first preseason game Oct. 3 in Seattle against the Los Angeles Clippers.

There's plenty to look forward to, but for now, here are the most notable takeaways from the Blazers' media day:

Connection is key

The reason Portland is shipping off to Santa Barbara, other than to soak in a little more sunshine and lower some golf scores, is to connect as a team.

Billups said his biggest goal for this season isn't about wins and losses; rather, he wants to have the most connected team in the NBA.

Achieving that goal won't be easy with plenty of players on the roster being deadline-acquisitions last year, offseason pickups or rookies.

"We haven't had too much time to connect, but a lot of guys have been here for the last month so they've been in the gym playing," offseason signee Gary Payton II said. "I've been around trying to get to know these guys, especially the young guys and some of the older guys. I think this trip that we got, this training camp is going to help a lot."

During the offseason, Cronin and Billups have been adamant about finding players who are good people on and off the court. Not so much about filling specific holes, but finding the right people to make up this roster.

With that thinking and this focus on connecting as a team, it's a message that's quite different from years prior in the preseason for Portland.

Hearing and seeing those changes, plus having 10 months off after surgery, have given Lillard a refreshed feeling coming into 2022-23.

"A couple years back it wasn't as fresh because we had guys that had been around for longer stretches," Lillard said. "I think the biggest difference this year is that it's fresh. It's a lot of new guys, a lot of things I've had to learn over time just about people I've had to build these relationships with … That's been fun for me, just getting to know the younger guys, some of our newer guys and building those relationships. It's not the same old thing, it's something new."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little (9) shoots in between Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jarred Vanderbilt (8) and forward Anthony Edwards (1) on Jan. 25, 2022, at the Moda Center.

Who starts at the three?

One area folks might have more questions now than answers is filling out the starting lineup. Billups left no doubt that the starting backcourt will be Lillard and Anfernee Simons, while the front court will have Jusuf Nurkic at center and Jerami Grant at power forward.

As for small forward? Billups said any one of Nassir Little, Josh Hart and even Justise Winslow could be getting the role. The second-year coach said it could even be something approached by committee and looking at each night according to matchups.

Still, getting the chance to start on a nightly basis for an NBA team comes with a different feeling, and it's one Little, Hart and Winslow all agreed that they want to achieve.

"I think if anyone says no, they're either foolish or lying," Hart said on starting. "I think I've shown I can start in this league and I can be a piece to a winning team. It's up to Chauncey and the coaching staff."

While plenty of attention goes to that starting point, the Blazers still have some depth when it comes to players who can fill multiple roles like Hart, Little and Winslow can.

No matter how the starting role shakes out, Hart thinks it's good that having a conversation on who should start is a healthy one for a team who wants to contend.

"I think if you look at any of these championship teams, they have six, seven or eight guys that can start on any team in the league," Hart said. "You're going to need depth to be successful in this league, to be successful in the playoffs. That's a conversation that's never a bad thing to have, that means you have a number of guys that can take that role on.

"I'd be more worried if we weren't having that conversation."

Simons time to shine

The new $100 million man in Simons is set to start alongside Lillard going into the 2022-23 season, signaling a new role for the young guard who the Blazers hoped could develop into this position.

As previously mentioned, starting comes with a different feeling and different expectations. Billups thinks the 23-year-old is ready mentally and physically to take the leap.

"One of the shining stars from our situation last year was Ant … I felt like he took the step into showing he can be a starter in our game," Billups said. "He understands he won't be surprising anybody this year … You're just seeing him kind of grow up and it's been fun to really see it."

Billups said Simons is aware of the responsibilities that come with starting, noting that the often quiet Simons has been leading a few huddles and becoming more vocal on the team.

As for preparing this offseason for the spot physically, Simons has been making sure his body is right and trying to get in shape before preseason.

"At the beginning of the summer I was just rehabbing my knee, mostly lifting and strengthening," Simons said. "Trying to slowly build up after rehabbing my knee for a while. Over the past two months, that's when I've started ramping up and trying to get into game shape and ready to go."

Mentorships showing

After the Summer League, fans clamored on Twitter to help get Blazers second round draft pick Jabari Walker verified.

With the blue check mark next to his name on the social media platform now, Walker has been surprised with the amount of fan support that's come from just a few good games in Las Vegas.

"I don't think I should have as much fan support as I do based off of not having played a regular season game yet," Walker said. "I guess the way I portray myself or the way I engage my fans, they really like me and I can tell."

Making that transition to the pro level easier for Walker has been Nassir Little, who's entering only his fourth season in the NBA.

Little said he knew about Walker before the team drafted him and it's been a natural gravitation toward one another in the offseason.

"We're kind of like-minded individuals, he has a great head on his shoulders and he works hard," Little said. "When I saw we picked him up late in the second round, I texted Joe (Cronin) right away, I was like, 'Steal.'"

Little went on to say he appreciates Walker's approach to getting better and asking questions of the veterans above him.

And of course Simons and Lillard's relationship has developed over the years between the guards, which was also touched on during media day.

The Blazers have an interesting dynamic of seasoned vets to young guys stepping into new roles, and those mentorships were on the forefront Monday.

PMG PHOTO: JOHN LARIVIERE - Portland Trail Blazers' forward Drew Eubanks, middle, throws up a shot against the New Orleans Pelicans on March 30, 2022 at the Moda Center., Portland Tribune - Sports With the tank fully on, the players on the court are still playing for something, even if the goal is improve draft odds. CJ McCollum's return a point of reflection for Trail Blazers

Center minutes open as well

Jusuf Nurkic returns to start at center for the Blazers after an eventful offseason that saw the big man venture around the world and compete for his home of Bosnia and Herzegovina in FIBA World Cup qualifying and EuroBasket.

However, the lack of size has been a notable area of concern with this roster with 6-foot-9 Drew Eubanks and Trendon Watford as the next logical "centers" on the team.

Both Eubanks and Watford have limited NBA experience and leave some question marks, but for the home-town kid in Eubanks, there's quite a bit of pride in putting on the red, black and white.

"(My dad) was like, 'What was different about your mindset going into the season,' and I told him I could just chalk it up to being proud," Eubanks said. "Going out there, I felt like I was playing for the people I grew up with, the people who knew who I was out here, Oregon State, Reynolds, Troutdale."

Watford has plenty of pride as well after helping guide the Blazers to a Summer League title and being the main focus of that squad.

Having him at the five would mean more of a small-ball lineup on the floor, but that's no concern for Watford who think the team can thrive in that style.

"I think we're pretty athletic and long, we got a lot of guys that can play multiple positions," Watford said. "Speaking as far as myself, being able to play the four or five, or small-ball five or even play four, we got a lot of ways we can switch lineups up. I think that's what's eye-opening about this team this year."

Fans will get their first chance to set their eyes on this team at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at Climate Pledge Arena to open the preseason against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Portland returns for two home preseason games at 7 p.m. Oct. 4 against Utah and then 7 p.m. Oct. 6 against Israeli club Maccabi Ra'anana. The final two preseason games are on the road at 6 p.m. Oct. 9 in Sacramento then 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at Golden State.


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