Bust. Over-hyped. Underachiever.
These are words that Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard has already heard following his second season in the NBA, but they’re words that he’s ignoring in his quest to become an integral part of a contending rotation.
“I think I really have something to prove,” he said. “I have all the confidence in the world in myself. I know that I will work as hard as I can this summer and get a lot better. There’s no doubt in my mind that I will be a relevant factor in the team’s success in the future.”
The confidence is there, as it should be, but the question is: How can Meyers Leonard become the player he wants to be? That question can only be answered by taking a look at what he’s struggled with up to this point.
The last player Portland had who stood 7’1″ and was a key cog in the defense was Joel Przybilla. The “Vanilla Gorilla” played for Portland during eight seasons, averaging between 0.8 and 1.4 blocks per night.
Although those numbers may not jump off the page for someone of Przybilla’s stature, consider the following: He never played more than 24.9 minutes per game (his lowest minutes-per-game average was just 14.4) and he knew how to alter shots at the rim even when he didn’t block them.
More than anything else, Przybilla was an enforcer, and that’s what the Blazers need Leonard to be. The youngster has been pushed around down low early in his career, which is something the blue-collar Przybilla could never say during his stint in Rip City.
For Leonard, also 7’1″, to become that type of defender, you must look at a few points of emphasis. First and foremost, strength. The big man has the height, yet opposing bigs have faced little duress when backing him down and finding position.
The other thing Leonard needs to improve is his timing. This applies to his shot-blocking, but even more importantly, his rotations. The Blazers guards (for the most part) have been far from stellar when it comes to locking down the perimeter, and while it’s not Leonard’s fault when an opposing guard enters the lane, he must be ready to slide over and rotate when necessary.
Leonard came into the NBA with a jump shot, which at his size is extremely valuable. He can also run the floor, making him a potential offensive guru in Portland’s high-octane offense.
Unfortunately, he’s spent his offseasons thus far working on his three-point shot, which is an area where the Blazers hardly need improvement at this juncture.
While the idea of a three-point-shooting 7-footer should get fans excited, Portland needs an inside presence. Leonard has put together a brief, but impressive highlight reel when it comes to dunks, but it’s the baby hooks and spins off the shoulder that will help him become a more consistent option on the low block.
Przybilla, while never known as an offensive force (he averaged 3.9 points per game over his career), could push people down low with the ball in his hands. Leonard, who has a much better shot than the retired big man, needs that physical prowess and brute mindset to complement his already-impressive shooting ability.
It’s easy for a young player to get bogged down following a slow start. Not only has Leonard not lived up to the hype of being the 11th pick (especially after the Blazers found Damian Lillard at five), but his production actually dropped in Year 2, lending Thomas Robinson the opportunity to step in and earn a spot in the rotation.
Luckily for the Blazers, Leonard sounds motivated, and the team shouldn’t give up on him just yet.
At just 22 years old, Leonard has plenty of time to improve. The problem is that Portland has jumped from pretender to contender rather quickly, and it’s time that the bench does the same.
The Blazers won’t accept another season of decreased production, as they shouldn’t. There will be plenty of teams out there — plenty of rebuilding teams, that is — looking for a future asset, and while Portland doesn’t want to trade Leonard, that will become a topic of discussion if the big man doesn’t improve.
All that said, if he can show improvements in Year 3, he’ll become that relevant factor that he wants to be. With Joel Freeland as his primary competition off the bench, there’s plenty of opportunity for Leonard to shine, and with the right mentality, it’s easy to see how 2014-15 could be the start of something special for the third-year center.