Travis Outlaw's Strange Summer

Portland small forward Travis Outlaw has been one of the NBA's success stories. He arrived in the NBA straight from high school in small-town Mississippi, and at first appeared wholly unprepared. He had essentially dunked his way to great numbers in high-school, and he could still jump in the NBA. But his jumper was a little scary, his defense was nothing special and coaches had a hard time finding a use for him.

But he worked.

And he did something that you seldom see. He entered the NBA with a noted weakness -- shooting -- and has since turned it into his calling card.

The athletic things Outlaw can do -- finishing on the break, catching alley-oops, getting the occasional spectacular block -- now take a backseat to his ability to get off a high quality shot just about whenever he wants. He can catch and shoot from downtown, or drive and show off the high point of release in his mid-range game.

That last quality has made him Portland's Option 1b (behind Brandon Roy) as a crunch-time shooter.

He is also noted as a lynchpin of the Portland lockerroom -- when things were frosty between Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, it was the smily Outlaw who bridged the gap.

The main criticism of Outlaw is that he is not noted for his defense, and he has been accused of being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- which he acknowledges happens from time to time, but he says, not more than it happens to anyone else.

Today, with the news that Hedo Turkoglu is on his way to being a Blazer, Outlaw is the man in the spotlight. It's hard to imagine that all of Portland's small forwards -- Hedo Turkoglu, Nicolas Batum, Outlaw, Martell Webster -- will see significant playing time.

Many speculate that the Blazers will be making another move -- one that could involve Outlaw, who is young, skilled and affordable enough to be desirable on the trade market.

So, how does he feel about the Turkoglu news? Did it turn his stomach?

"When I first heard about it," he admits, "maybe a little bit. But now it's, aww, things happen for a reason. That's the way I look at it. ... That's just the NBA for you."

Outlaw is candid about the fact that he dreams of being an NBA starter, and one of the big name players fans talk about. He says it really doesn't matter to him which team that happens on. "I definitely want to play more," he says. "I definitely want to get to a place in my career where I'm a starter. I also do want to win. But I could play anywhere in any system, as long as they have a winning mentality."

Does he care at all where that is? "No," he says. "Not really."

Which is not to say he's unhappy with his Portland teammates. Many teams struggle socially with the reality that some players make much more than others. Nearly all of Portland's key players have had huge contracts. I wondered if a big contract like Turkoglu's might upset the balance or create factions. Outlaw couldn't see it. "There's a bunch of great guys in the lockerroom," he says, "and everyone always wants what's best for each other."

Of Turkoglu, he adds: "He's a great player. They had a great year. If he's willing to come over and help us out, fine."

What does this mean for Outlaw, and his role on the team? Has he heard from them? "No," he says. Does he have any idea what their plans are for him? "No idea."

That would seem to put Travis in a stressful place. But Outlaw doesn't seem to feel all that much pressure. He's spending the summer working out ("swimming and shooting, mostly") and spending time in his hometown.

With the ball in crunch time, he looks just as calm and confident as at any other time in the game. ("I've never been afraid to shoot," he says. "When I'm shooting, I just don't want to rush it. I just want to shoot it soft.")

He doesn't seem to be under too much stress now. He has funny stories about what he's up to, including convincing his marketing manager Ty Davis that they needed plane tickets to Orlando, because he had been traded there with Steve Blake for Hedo Turkoglu. "I had him going," says Outlaw, "for about ten minutes. He didn't know Hedo Turkoglu was a free agent."

Relaxed though he may be about crunch time, trades, or the future, he's not immune to nerves.

Outlaw has another story, about having a swimming pool put into his backyard. The workers have a backhoe parked there. Outlaw, Davis, and Danny Ainge's nephew Erik (of the New York Jets) were hanging around and decided to try driving it.

"We were just trying to crank it up," says Outlaw. "We cranked it up. And all of a sudden I got really nervous. What if I run it towards my house, and then I can't stop it? I left it alone."