What to expect
With the 2013-14 NBA season quickly approaching, Damian Lillard has garnered most of the attention for the Portland Trail Blazers. The attention is well-deserved, as his rookie campaign was beyond noteworthy, but there’s one player who has slipped under the radar entering his second season.
Meyers Leonard is coming off of a rookie year that saw both ups and downs. He never validated his No. 11 pick, but he displayed a skillset that should eventually make him a starting-caliber player.
His unmet potential gives fans optimism at this stage in his career, but the question here is whether he soars or slumps during his sophomore season.
Rumor has it that Meyers Leonard has been in the gym quite a bit this summer. That’s good news for fans who believe, as it shows his work ethic extends well beyond the regular season and fall training camp.
Leonard’s biggest asset at this point is his ability to play up tempo. He can move well in transition with the rest of the crew, and his energy is unmatched by most at the center position.
Where Leonard also excels is in spreading the floor. His mid-range game is excellent—a crucial characteristic of today’s NBA bigs—and he’s been working to extend his range out to the three-point line.
But while having a three-point shooter who is seven-feet tall sounds like a good idea in theory—Arvydas Sabonis, anybody?—the fact is that he flopped in that category during the summer league. Time and practice could change that moving forward, but the more pressing issue here is having a big man who can actually play big.
Leonard needs to acquire a back-to-the-basket game, if
for no other reason than to keep defenses honest. Defenders are hardly afraid to stop Leonard one-on-one, and forcing them to bring a second body would create more offense for the rest of his teammates.
Sticking with the theme of living at the rim, Leonard must improve his low-post defense. The big man was bullied down low during his rookie season, and not-so coincidentally, the Blazers were the worst team in the league at defending the paint.
So we go back to the question that’s on everybody’s mind: What will Leonard’s sophomore year actually look like? Will he step up to the challenge and get stronger along the way? Or will he struggle to adapt to the physical NBA game?
The truth is that bringing in Robin Lopez helps his cause. On the surface, having a starting center detracts from the minutes he hopes to earn; however, a slow integration will be a plus when it comes to a young, developing player.
Additionally, Leonard now has someone from whom he can learn the center position. As good as JJ Hickson was in 2012-13, he just didn’t have the physical tools or defensive mindset to help groom an up-and-coming seven-footer.
As a reserve, expect Leonard to play about 20 minutes a game, and look for him to get involved in the team’s half-court sets. His rookie year was made up of hustle plays and scramble points, and while you don’t want to take that away from him, you want to see what he can do paired alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.
If Leonard continues to bulk up and keeps his three-point shooting in the practice gym, he’s going to take a step in the right direction. His game isn’t that of a traditional center’s, but in today’s NBA, having a 7’1” hybrid makes your offense that much more dangerous.