On Wednesday, I wrote about the eight newcomers on the Portland Trail Blazers' roster for the 2012-13 NBA season.
Those eight, led by rookie point guard Damian Lillard, outnumber the Blazers' active returning players by two; guard Elliot Williams is expected to miss the season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon.
That leaves six returners for Portland, which might not sound like much, but among them is the core group that could shape much of the way this season turns out, both in terms of their play on the court and in terms of their influence on the youngsters.
Here's a look at Portland's six returning players for this season, not counting the injured Williams:
Coming off an All-Star season in which he averaged 21.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, Aldridge is the unquestioned centerpiece of this team, and among the league's top power forwards. If there were questions about him, they were health-related, after he underwent surgery in May to repair a slight labral tear. But Aldridge is healthy and ready to go, as he showed while scoring 19 points in Portland's season-opening win over the Los Angeles Lakers. I expect nothing less than another All-Star-worthy season from Aldridge, as he continues to develop his game and grow accustomed to the role of on-court leader.
It was an eventful offseason for Batum, who was a restricted free agent at the end of 2011-12 and made it clear, through his agent, that he wanted to go play for the Minnesota Timberwolves, having signed an offer sheet with the team. The Blazers, however, made it clear that they'd match any offer made to Batum, and new GM Neil Olshey lived up to his word, signing Batum to a four-year, $45 million deal. The small forward can knock down 3-pointers, get to the hoop and play defense, and he's also shown his versatility for the Blazers, playing both power forward and center at times last season. Batum has made strides in each of his four NBA seasons, and at 23 years old (he'll be 24 in December), he still hasn't hit his prime.
Wesley Matthews, SG
Matthews is solid but not flashy. When he's on, he can drain shots with the NBA's best. When he's off, he disappears from games in a hurry, sometimes even while he's still on the court. I like Matthews' game, and he's a pesky defender, but I'd really like to see improved consistency from him in 2012-13. Undrafted out of Marquette in 2009, Matthews has played just three NBA seasons, so there's plenty of time for him to continue developing. But as the Blazers gear up for the future, I have a feeling Matthews' play this season could go a long way toward determining how big a role he'll play for Portland going forward. He's in the third year of a five-year deal with the Blazers, having averaged 13.7 points on 41.2 percent field-goal shooting last season. His percentage was 20th-best among NBA shooting guards, and it might have been higher if not for inconsistent point guard play.
J.J. Hickson, PF/C
Hickson played in only 19 games for the Trail Blazers last season, but he was one of the bright spots for the team. So much so that I thought Portland would be making a big mistake if it didn't re-sign him. The Blazers did, giving Hickson a one-year deal in July, after having claimed him off waivers in March following his release by the Sacramento Kings. Hickson earned the opportunity, having put up 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game after joining the Blazers. The power forward is versatile (new coach Terry Stotts has him playing center), he can get to the hoop, knock down jumpers, defend big men and he hustles with the best of them. In other words, Hickson is the kind of guy these young Blazers needed.
Nolan Smith, PG
Smith is starting his second NBA season as the backup to rookie point guard Damian Lillard, and he doesn't appear to be in Portland's long-term plans. That was the message the team sent this week when it declined its option next season for Smith, as well as those for Luke Babbit and Williams. So Smith will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, although the Blazers would retain his Bird rights, meaning they could re-sign him if they are over the salary cap. Smith will have to give Portland plenty of reasons to bring him back, making this season a bit of an audition for the former Duke point guard. I do think Stotts and the Blazers will give him an honest chance; after all, it's fairly well known that Nate McMillan wasn't exactly the best at developing young talent, so Smith has hardly had much of an opportunity yet. Even still, he's looked mostly average during the playing time he has received, and he'll need to step it up this season to have a chance to stick.
Luke Babbit, F
Like Smith, Babbit will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. And like Smith, he hasn't had much of a chance to show what he can do. We know the former Nevada standout can shoot -- he hit 43 percent from 3-point range in limited action last season -- and he showed flashes of ability while gaining playing time after McMillan was fired last season. But Babbit will have to battle all season for playing time, and show that he can do more than knock down 3s.
Adam Sparks has followed the Portland Trail Blazers since the early 1980s, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.