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NBA basketball is almost back with the preseason getting underway this week for the new-look Blazers.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 17, 2021, at the Moda Center.

Connection is key for the 2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers. The team made that clear at its annual media day held Sept. 26.

Finding that chemistry is so important that head coach Chauncey Billups came up with the idea to hold training camp at the University of Santa Barbara for a week in hopes of the crew bonding on and off the court with nothing but free time among themselves away from family and friends.

While Billups hopes to be the most connected team in the league, as he said at media day, that is one of many pieces of the Blazers to keep an eye on during their five-game preseason slate.

Portland's preseason begins at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3, in Seattle against the Clippers. Then it's a quick turnaround to a 7 p.m. tip Tuesday, Oct. 4, at home against Utah. The last home preseason game is 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, against Israeli team Maccabi Ra'anana.

The last two games are on the road, starting at 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, at Sacramento and ending at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11, at Golden State.

The season opener is 7 p.m. Oct. 19 at Sacramento, followed by the home opener at 7 p.m. Oct. 21 against Phoenix.

Here's what to watch for over the next couple of weeks before the season opens up:

Team chemistry

As mentioned above, this is the big one for the whole organization really as it enters the new season with plenty of new faces up and down the franchise.

General Manager Joe Cronin has said this roster isn't final, but it certainly seems like this is the crew to expect to take the floor together Oct. 19 in Sacramento.

The most notable additions that weren't draft picks are Jerami Grant, acquired in an offseason trade with Detroit, and Gary Payton II, signed as a free agent.

Both are used to jelling quickly: Grant now on his fifth NBA team and Payton having to prove himself through the G League and bouncing around NBA rosters.

More than that, Anfernee Simons is stepping into the starting guard role while someone else will be new to the starting small forward spot (more on that later).

Needless to say, there's quite a few on-court changes. Some of the players have been around to get in the gym and get some work in however, laying the groundwork early.

"We haven't had too much time to connect, but a lot of guys have been here for the last month so we've been in the gym playing," Payton said. "I think this training camp we got is going to help a lot."

Gym time is helping the players get in sync on the court, but the hope is being "isolated" in Santa Barbara brings the off-court piece together to make the squad whole.

But those early gym sessions this offseason have certainly helped in the eyes of Grant.

"We've been going at it for a few weeks now," Grant told the media at training camp. "It's been great for us, we're ahead of the curve right now. Coming out here we're just fine-tuning a lot of things, putting in some sets and stuff like that."

Rookies up to speed

Many eyes will be on Shaedon Sharpe, the Blazers No. 7 overall pick in this year's NBA Draft after the 6-foot-6 guard/forward missed most of the Summer League due to a small labral tear in his left shoulder.

Fans and the team are excited to see Sharpe finally get some significant run time since the hype around his game has mostly come behind closed doors. Sharpe, of course, didn't play last season at Kentucky after enrolling early and deciding to keep himself healthy for the 2022 draft.

Stories have emerged from all the Blazers players this offseason about Sharpe's potential, and early on at training camp it seemed the legend of Sharpe continues to grow.

"I think he's one of those guys who's going to be able to use his athleticism on both ends of the floor," Billups said. "He's an incredible shot blocker already, he's never out of a play. He goes and meets guys at the square. It's unbelievable the instincts that he has on that end."

Billups went on to say it's more mental and positional areas of growth he needs to see from Sharpe, which is understandable for an NBA rookie.

The Blazers are filled with athletic and versatile players like Sharpe, however, so impressing in Portland's five preseason games could be the best avenue for Sharpe to make a case for minutes early in his career.

Open competitions

Billups made it clear on media day that the small forward is the only spot up for grabs in the starting lineup, saying it was a three-man race between Nassir Little, Josh Hart and Justise Winslow.

The second-year coach said it could be approached by committee as well based on matchups, leaving plenty of reason for the trio to show out in the preseason.

Hart came over last year in the CJ McCollum trade with New Orleans while Winslow joined from the Los Angeles Clippers in the trade that sent Norman Powell and Robert Covington south. Little enters his fourth season with the Blazers after being drafted in 2019.

All three said in some fashion on media day that starting is important to them, hammering home the importance of the next couple weeks to make their case.

Hart put it the most bluntly at media day on the race for the three.

"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."

Portland also is looking to figure out what it does at center behind starter Jusuf Nurkic. That spot has been a rotating door to say the least the last few years, and the 2022-23 answer currently is either Trendon Watford or Drew Eubanks, both 6-foot-9 and relatively inexperienced in the NBA.

Watford was a leader on the Summer League championship team, while Eubanks played the best of his career the last few months of last season with the Blazers in tank mode.

Watford isn't too worried about his role, however. He's ready to help the team anyway he can.

"Anywhere Chauncey decides to put me at, I feel like I can thrive at, whether that's at the one, two, three or the four or the five," Watford said. "Wherever Chauncey has confidence in putting me."


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