Meyers Leonard’s second season in Portland wasn’t an easy one. After suffering through last year’s 33-win campaign, Leonard has been relegated to the bench as the Blazers swung into the upper echelon of the Western Conference less than two years after drafting Damian Lillard. His draft-mate now leading the team, Leonard has been pushed to the back burner.
As an athletically-gifted but untested center who played just two years at the University of Illinois, Leonard has been labeled a project since the day he set foot inside the Trail Blazers’ practice facility in Tualatin.
Of course, left out of all this is that Leonard is far less experienced than many Blazers fans care to understand.
When Leonard was in college, ESPN reported on his difficult life growing up. As a 14-year-old freshman at Robinson High School, Leonard played guard rather than post. Standing 6-foot-5, his game was more about making the right pass rather than making the right read defending the pick-and-roll. A six-inch growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore years saw Leonard’s duties move to the block, where the Illini recruited him as a promising prospect.
When Leonard arrived at Illinois, his newfound size and innate physical gifts allowed him to find minutes during his second season. But with the end of the school year, Leonard faced a tough decision.
Leonard's father had passed away when he was six, and with his mother's medical needs, the best choice for him was to take a paycheck as a professional by entering a middling draft class as a sophomore. Still a budding player, Leonard's family life forced him into making the jump to the NBA.
Unfortunately, his experience in college wasn't sufficient to prepare him for play at an NBA level. After working with fellow Blazers big man Joel Freeland and assistant coach Kim Hughes for two years, perhaps no one understands that better than Leonard.
"I played against against guys who were, normally, no taller than 6’3. I went to Illinois [and] didn’t play my freshman year," Leonard said during exit interviews on Friday.
The result is that Leonard played just five short years in the post before suiting up for the Blazers in 2012, all of them against high school or at best, Big 10 collegiate talent. That has put him at a disadvantage, without much experience or playing time against some of the best players in the world.
Freeland, who began playing basketball at the age of 17 and is one of Leonard's closest friends on the team, knows all too well the difficulty of being labeled a "project." Now 27 years old, Portland's backup big man has worked hard to develop himself.
In 2012-13, Freeland barely played more than a third of the minutes Leonard did. But after a productive summer, those numbers flipped in 2013-14. Combined with the team's meteoric rise, expectations became high for Leonard to develop.
The journey for Leonard has not just been about his performance on the court, either. As the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers wrote in April, Leonard has faced significant backlash from fans. Social media, for most players a way to connect with fans, became a burden for the 22-year-old, as ad hominem attacks became an everyday part of his life.
"I heard it all (on Twitter). I’ve heard, ‘F you, I hope you tear your ACL.’ I’ve heard, ‘You’re a bust,’" said Leonard.
Insults by the city's own faithful became downright disgusting, especially considering the fan base's storied history of support. No doubt, as a professional player Leonard's play is fair game. But attacking a player's person outside of his performance when he's done nothing to deserve it is downright asinine. Regardless, Leonard knows the only thing he can do to silence his critics is to get better.
Last summer, Leonard's Instagram account was chock-full of photos of work outs -- hiking Multnomah Falls, lifting with Blazers Strength and Conditioning Coach Todd Forcier and doing squats in sweaty garages back in Illinois.
If Leonard is going to improve, he knows he has to do more than just lift weights and stay in shape. He has struggled with playing pick-and-roll coverages, adapting in the flow of the dynamic Blazers offense and in staying out of foul trouble.
"I’m always doing individual workouts but the main thing is for me to get out and play against good competition," said Leonard. "Summer League will be a good test of where I’m at. I plan in being in LA for all of August where I will go to the Clippers facility. That will be good for me to get out in open gym."
Turning Leonard into a decent rotation big man will not be easy. He's got a sweet touch from everywhere on the court -- even from three-point range -- and is an offensive talent first and foremost. Learning how to defend the pick-and-roll, going one-on-one in the post and boxing out are all things he will need to add to his repertoire. Confidence to match his shooting stroke would help too.
Leonard appears to be dedicated to the task, and despite what malice may have come to him on Twitter this season, a post of his on social media on Thursday featuring a picture of his teammates had a message for the city of Portland: "I won't let you down."
Perhaps he is right. Several NBA big men have taken years to develop, some all the way through their rookie contract. DeAndre Jordan, Amir Johnson, Bismack Biyombo, Channing Frye and JaVale McGee all produced similarly unimpressive numbers on the defensive side of the ball and on the glass as Leonard did in his rookie season.
By their third year, most of these players had balanced their scoring, moved their per-36 rebounding to double-digits and improved their two-point field goal percentage. Some, like Jordan and McGee, found their calling as a defensive stopper. Others, like Frye, progressed into reliable offensive threats.
What may be most difficult to understand is that it still took many of these players several years after their third-year jump to become a good rotation player. The process of creating a serviceable NBA big man includes many factors, only one of which is his own personal dedication. You also have to consider timing, minutes and team culture, among other factors.
At this point, fans are downright demanding a significant jump from Leonard. Worst-case scenario: His play doesn't move at all and Blazers GM Neil Olshey lets him walk without picking up his team option next offseason. Best-case scenario: he becomes a better-rebounding version of Frye, able to step out and hit the midrange jumper as he slowly develops the ability to guard NBA bigs.
Next season, the most likely scenario is that Leonard slowly puts the pieces together. His head is in the right space, and he has said publicly he knows he needs to work on details of the game. This season, flashes of using Freeland's verticality came through in his limited playing time. Adding a solid pick game and getting a feel for post defense will be top of mind.
For now, Leonard appears focused on his job. During exit interviews, Leonard mapped out his plan for the summer, week-by-week, for attending media. His voice stern, the two-year veteran pledged himself to the Blazer faithful.
"I want to play and I want to get better," he said. "I want to show everyone that I’m more than capable of having an impact."