LaMarcus Aldridge may not make the U.S. Olympic team this summer. Given the deep talent the States has up front, slighting him wouldn't be considered a crime. However his continued evolution as player -- and a leader -- for the Portland Trail Blazers could make an Olympic appearance a certainty at some point.
The leadership part comes from rote. Before going out last Friday and punishing the Toronto Raptors with impunity -- to the tune of a season-high 33 points and career-high 23 rebounds -- his coach Nate McMillan told me that Aldridge has simply evolved into the leadership role thanks to the medic-tent atmosphere of the Blazers locker room the past five seasons.
"I wouldn't say forced ... but through injuries, he's really kind of inherited this team," McMillan said. "With Greg Oden not playing the last few years, and Brandon [Roy] being in and out of the lineup ... he's [become] the face of the organization."
It's the delivering on the floor that has stepped up as well. While the Raptors posed no real match for Aldridge, and it was Portland's game plan for him to simply attack Amir Johnson inside, he averaged 24.4 points and 9.2 boards per game during a tough nine-games-in-13-day stretch in which the Blazers went 4-5 -- while urging his teammates to step up their game.
"We've kind of got used to having guys in and out over the years," Aldridge said Friday. "I definitely have to take on a bigger leadership role, be more of a vocal leader and a go-to guy."
McMillan likes the fact Aldridge is active both ways. "He's really improved and is getting more comfortable with himself and his role on this team. Some of that maturity has been due to us really putting a lot on his shoulders."
Current Blazers teammate and onetime Raptor Marcus Camby was so effusive in his praise for Aldridge Friday that he may have actually gotten a little carried away. "He is the best power forward in the game," the 16-year NBA veteran said before backtracking somewhat. "If not, definitely in consideration."
Camby was however right on the money about one thing -- Aldridge is getting better every year. The Blazers are also a better team when the 26-year-old LaMarcus and the 37-year-old Marcus are on the floor together. "When Camby's out there and playing for us it makes a huge difference," McMillan said. "Both he and LaMarcus have learned to connect on the offensive end of the floor."
While McMillan is happy with Aldridge's evolution as a team leader, he knows the power forward can continue to improve his game as the go-to guy and be more aggressive on both boards.
"Twenty-three is a big number," the coach said of the rebound total after the win in Toronto. "But a double-double is certainly a number that I think he should average." Aldridge agrees. "That's the part I'm growing in, learning how to be good in bad moments," he told ESPN's Jim Rome last week.
As far as the Olympic team stuff goes, Aldridge says he's not thinking about it. "I'm not worried about that right now," he said Friday with a pretty good Blazers team nearing the end of a six-game road trip which they would finish 2-4.
Like everyone else in the NBA right now, he probably doesn't have time to think about peripherals with the compressed schedule. He did admit the shortened training camp may have had a lasting effect on the team's consistency, but won't make excuses.
"I think the short training camp did have an effect on the execution and having better rhythms ... but teams are going to have ups and downs during the season. The Bulls had a big win, then lost by 30, we had a big win [over the Lakers] and lost to Phoenix by 25," he said.
"But this is our job, this is what we love to do."
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