Aldridge follows in Z-Bo's footsteps

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Zach Randolph watched the 2006 NBA draft on TV, but he didn't know much about the big man his team acquired with the second overall pick. Trail Blazers coaches and management filled him in: talented, athletic, good wingspan, shot very well, even reminded them of Rasheed Wallace, the versatile (but volatile), sharpshooting All-Star who led the Blazers deep into the playoffs at the turn of the millennium.

All in all, Randolph remembered, they intended for this player to one day assume the mantle as the next dominant Trail Blazers power forward, a role Randolph then occupied, that had been handed down from Wallace before him. LaMarcus Aldridge would extend a proud lineage. He was "up next."

"Um, I'm glad Zach knew, because when I was drafted, all I heard was, 'He's a project, he's soft,'" Aldridge said this week, as his Trail Blazers trail Randolph's Grizzlies 2-0 in a Western Conference first-round series that resumes Saturday at Portland's Moda Center. "And I didn't play [that first year]. I was in and out of the lineup. So I'm glad Zach knew, because I definitely didn't know."

It seems unlikely, if not impossible, that Aldridge didn't know management's intentions when he first came aboard. But the news hit him like a ton of bricks when Randolph's recollection was shared with him before a postseason practice.

Aldridge said he'd love it if the story was a simple one -- Randolph and the team welcomed him with open arms, preparing him for his destined role as the franchise's prized post player. "I wish I could say that," Aldridge said. "I want to give you that story so bad. But I'm trying to tell you, they did not believe in me in the beginning. I was a 'project.'"

Randolph led the Trail Blazers in scoring (18.0) and rebounding (8.0) in 2005-06, the season before Aldridge arrived, but the Trail Blazers finished a league-worst 21-61. Change was needed.

The team made aggressive draft-day trades to land the 6-foot-11 Aldridge out of Texas and Washington shooting guard Brandon Roy. "You just felt like those could be two major pieces to rebuild the Blazers," then-Portland coach Nate McMillan said recently.

Roy immediately flourished, averaging 16.8 points per game on his way to rookie of the year honors. Aldridge, meanwhile, faced injury and fought for minutes as Randolph piled up double-doubles.

"He kind of doubted himself a little, especially when Brandon got off to a good start," McMillan said of Aldridge. "He could have looked at that as Brandon was The Man and the team was built around him."

Most of the time, Aldridge, who averaged 22.1 minutes in 63 appearances as a rookie, cut his teeth during practices. The team had several post players in Joel Przybilla, Jamaal Magloire and Raef LaFrentz, but Aldridge often faced Randolph, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound bowling ball then in his sixth season with the Trail Blazers.

"People always called me 'soft,' but Z-Bo never did," Aldridge said. "In practice, I would go at it. I wasn't strong enough to bang, but I would bang with him as much as I could."

Randolph smiled at the thought.

"It was a battle," he said. "Practices were crazy."

The southpaw outweighed Aldridge by about 25 pounds, and his game was played below the rim whereas Aldridge preferred to play away from it.

"People would say that [Aldridge] was soft and that was something that he proved wasn't true," McMillan said. "He would use his athleticism and his length to defend Zach and of course Zach was trying to feel him and use his physicality to dominate LaMarcus."

"As far as the organization, we knew that in order for him to grow and become a franchise player and really the guy he's become, you had to allow him to play. And the only way to do that was to move Zach." Former Blazers coach Nate McMillan

But Aldridge held the edge in conditioning drills. "My first year," Aldridge said, "Nate had us do a conditioning test, where you go up and down 15 times. I was like 235. I was light. I was running and [Randolph] was like, 'You know what, rook? I'm going to stay with you the whole time.'

"I'm running hard. And then he's keeping up the first two or three times. He was like, 'I can't keep up with you. This is crazy.' I think him trying to use me cardio-wise, that was good for him."

"The kid could run so fast," Randolph said, smiling.

Just as Aldridge helped Randolph with sprints, all the banging beneath the rim helped Aldridge develop more of a post game.

"It was fun for me just learning how to use my body," Aldridge said. "Playing against somebody bigger and stronger at that time was valuable for me because I had never seen that before. In college, I was taller than everybody. I was pretty much stronger than most guys every night. So to have that experience for me, it was invaluable. He was such a good teacher as far as showing me things that I could do better."

McMillan remembered the relationship between those two players as positive and supportive, even though it easily could've gone the other way.

"Zach could've really been a nasty guy, had a nasty attitude about these young guys who were coming to take his position with this organization," McMillan said. "He knows they're going to be the future of the organization because he was once in that same position when he came in and Rasheed and those guys were there. He could've had an attitude toward the organization, but he didn't."

McMillan dreamed of Aldridge and Randolph playing side by side. Randolph did, too. In fact, that's why Randolph said he wasn't worried about management's prophecy that Aldridge would be the Blazers' next great power forward.

"I didn't think nothing of it, because he was 7 feet," Randolph said. "I felt like we could've played together."

Randolph's eyes go wide as he entertains the thought. "Me, him, Brandon Roy -- wow," Randolph said.

It wasn't to be. "LaMarcus at that time -- and still now -- didn't want any part of being called a center or playing the center position," McMillan said.

Aldridge was a power forward, the same position as Randolph. Something had to be done.

"LaMarcus came in as a team player," McMillan said. "He was a young guy that was OK playing behind Zach and wanting to learn and develop and kind of pay his dues. But as far as the organization, we knew that in order for him to grow and become a franchise player and really the guy he's become, you had to allow him to play. And the only way to do that was to move Zach."

The Trail Blazers won 32 games in that 2006-07 season.

Randolph took nearly 1,300 shots.

Aldridge took 479 but showed promise.

It was the only season they would play together. Off-the-court issues trailed Randolph, a key figure in the notorious "Jail Blazers" locker room, so named because of players' run-ins with the law.

In 2006, Randolph was cited for drag racing on Portland's Southwest Broadway at 3:15 a.m. and an exotic dancer sued him for sexual assault. (Police never filed charges.)

Those issues added to a long list: arrested for underage drinking during his rookie year, smashing a teammate's eye socket during practice, accused of lying to investigators about his brother's involvement in a nightclub shooting in Indiana. Randolph arrived in Portland when the team was a year removed from the Western Conference finals, sitting behind Wallace and Dale Davis as a rookie, biding his time.

He emerged in his second season and especially his third, when he averaged 20.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. However, the Trail Blazers continued to slide.

They were 50-32 the season before Randolph arrived, 41-41 by his third season, 27-55 by his fourth and 21-61 in his fifth.

The Oregonian reported that the Trail Blazers had hired a private investigator in 2007 to look into Randolph and his notorious "Hoops Family," an unsavory group of friends and hangers-on. The file, the newspaper reported, was three inches thick. A couple of months later, Randolph was traded to the New York Knicks for Channing Frye, whose 3-point range hadn't fully developed, and a washed-up Steve Francis.

The Trail Blazers essentially flushed a 20-10 player down the drain. But the move opened the door for Aldridge.

"That's when I started realizing that it's nothing personal," Randolph said, "it's just business."

The next season, the ascent began.

Aldridge started 76 games and averaged 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. Alongside Roy, who earned three straight All-Star appearances, he helped the Blazers to three straight playoff appearances from 2008 to 2011. With Greg Oden, the first overall pick in 2008, the franchise had one of the best young cores in all of basketball.

Knee injuries eventually ended Roy's run with the Blazers prematurely in 2011, and Oden's the following year, but the team soon found a new running mate for Aldridge in point guard Damian Lillard, the 2012 NBA Rookie of the Year. The Trail Blazers rebounded yet again, winning 54 games last season and 51 this season.

"Once we lost Zach, we put [Aldridge] down there and forced [him] to stay down there and establish that force because we didn't have anyone else we could go to down there," McMillan said.

In time, Aldridge bulked up and is now rock solid at 275 pounds, he said this week. Steadily, he has grown in every area while making his mark in the record books.

The four-time All-Star is now the second leading scorer in franchise history, trailing only Clyde Drexler, and the team's all-time leading rebounder, while ranking fourth in blocks and fourth in PER (20.3) behind Arvydas Sabonis (21.2), Drexler (21.3) and Bill Walton (22.1).

Looking back, McMillan chuckles at the notion that Aldridge didn't know how highly the Trail Blazers thought of him when he first got there. "If you really think about it, he should've known that -- he was the No. 2 pick in the draft," McMillan said.

Even still, Aldridge believes that Randolph believed in him more than the Trail Blazers did initially. "He saw the moments that I would have, going at him in practice," Aldridge said. "He would always tell me that he wanted to play with me. Even when they traded him, he always said, 'I wanted to play with you.'"

After short stints with the Knicks and Clippers, Randolph landed with the Grizzlies, with whom he's revived his career. Today, he proudly traces the Trail Blazers' power forward lineage from Wallace to him and then to Aldridge.

"Sheed was great. I learned so much from him," Randolph said. "Then, it was my time, and I saw LaMarcus come in and saw his growth and development. They knew what they had. There wasn't any hard feelings or anything, it was just business. LaMarcus is a good player, look what he turned out to be."

Likewise, Aldridge admires how far Randolph has come since his Trail Blazers years, and not just on the court. He recalled how, in Game 1, the Grizzlies took five straight shots without Randolph being involved.

"He's really good at getting you talking and saying things like, 'I was in Portland this summer and it was nice,' and then you let up and think, 'Yeah, it was nice,' and then he just drives past you and gets a basket." LaMarcus Aldridge on Zach Randolph

"The old Z-Bo would've been cussing people out, throwing headbands in the stands," Aldridge said, "but the new Z-Bo, as long as they're winning, I think he's good. "That's been great for this team because he's changed so much."

It's clear watching them this postseason that they have history. Aldridge laughed when asked about the chatter between the two on the court.

"He's really slick at softening you up, not like trickery, but we've been so close that he'll talk to you and you start relaxing, then he'll duck in on you and score," Aldridge said. "He's really good at getting you talking and saying things like, 'I was in Portland this summer and it was nice,' and then you let up and think, 'Yeah, it was nice,' and then he just drives past you and gets a basket."

McMillan has watched the matchup on television. He's now an assistant with the Indiana Pacers, but seeing the two forwards go at it brings back fond memories. "If I was betting, Zach was thinking, 'Yeah, they're bringing this young guy in, but he ain't better than me.'" said McMillan. "And I'm sure LaMarcus was thinking, 'Zach got game, but I can be better than him.'

"They won't say it, but they definitely believe they're better than each other."