We soldier onward today in our series taking stock of the Portland Trail Blazers' roster with an eye towards summer improvement through the draft, free agency, trades, and internal player growth. In case you missed any of the previous discussions you can find them by clicking on these links:
LaMarcus Aldridge, Unanimous Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, plus Eric Maynor and Will Barton.
So, I have a confession to make. You know I love covering the Blazers, right? I've been doing it for more years than I want to remember and more posts than I ever thought possible. Jailblazers, busted drafts, critical injuries...I've lived through it all and kept on writing enthusiastically. But finally the team has made me cry, "Uncle!" I had planned to do a post on a couple of rookie forwards today, a couple of rookie centers next, then finish up with a catch-all piece for everybody else. But I can't do it. I just can't do it. Spending words on this bench is like wallpapering a cow's behind. You could do it, but why? Even if it looked pretty for a second it's just going to get messed up and fall apart. So I surrender. We're going to cut to the two most promising rookie players remaining today and then bid adieu to everybody else (and/or speculate whether they're redeemable) in that catch-all post tomorrow.
Meyers Leonard! How can you not like Meyers Leonard, right? He's a legit 7-footer, he's got a cute, devil-may-care attitude, and his offense looked really nice when he got touches. He shot 54.5% from the field in his rookie season with a nice, shiny .596 true shooting percentage. He didn't earn that number through low post looks and offensive rebounds either. The guy's prowling around the mid-range, picking up shots where he can, and he's still producing a real center percentage. He's got a little passing ability, his jumpers are sound for a guy his size, and his in-between shots hit the rim softly and almost look pretty. It'll be interesting to see what his offense looks like in three years because he has the potential to be one of the better multi-purpose offensive centers in the game.
Unfortunately "soft and pretty" also describes Leonard's rebounding. His offensive rebounding numbers aren't bad but his defensive rebounding screams shooting guard, not center. He doesn't establish position, he doesn't have technique, he can't bully anybody with strength, he's overmatched on the boards every night.
And speaking of overmatched...defense? Oy vey. I'm trying to search my memory banks for a Blazer big with less defensive instinct than Meyers Leonard showed last year. I'm coming up empty. Mobility was his biggest asset but to what purpose? Leonard spent the first part of the season running every which way trying to find his place in the scheme. Just when he got that figured out opponents started taking him down in the paint and playing "Let's post up Meyers!" It was a piñata party without the blindfold. BAM BAM BAM BAM...candy for everyone! Leonard got bowled over, spun around...at times it seemed all the opposing big needed to do was say, "Look, Meyers, a bird!".
In his defense...ok, poor choice of words there. Obviously Leonard is a rookie. He had two years of college ball but averaged only 8 minutes per game the first year. You could make the argument that this was his second year playing high-level organized ball ever. The NBA is a rough introduction to basketball. One would assume that he'll improve. Then again, he's got so far to improve defensively and on the boards you have to be concerned whether it'll ever become part of his DNA or will remain a laborious process.
Leonard won't be a finished product next fall but, like Will Barton, the onus will be on him to show that he spent his summer wisely. The Blazers need a doctoral engineering student to fill the position and Meyers is still struggling to learn addition. There's no way the coaching staff can get across the necessary concepts if he doesn't get a grasp of basic math. His nose should be buried in a book, his rear end a permanent fixture in the gym during the off-season. If next fall is a return to square one this kid isn't going to catch up enough to be useful no matter how many minutes he gets. If he wants it, he has to show it. Then we can begin speculating on his potential. If he doesn't put in the work his rookie contract will be a long and frustrating process for him, the coaches, and everybody who has to watch him struggle on the court. That'll hold true no matter how fancy the offense gets.
Victor Claver's main asset right now is that he's pretty tall considering the number of things he's able to do. He has good quickness from Points A to B, though not the best lateral quickness in the world. He can dribble. He adapted to Portland's offense fairly quickly and showed decent court sense for a rookie. He's not a complete lump of putty on defense. You look at him play and say, "Well, he's 6'9" or so with a little mobility, a few skills, and some dipsy-doodle to his game. Maybe you can get an all-around player out of that."
Without a doubt the most frustrating and tantalizing part of Claver's game is his infamous Wax Fruit Jumper. It looks pretty every time he releases it. He needs a little more height, a slightly more consistent release point, but you'd swear that thing was real. But don't try to eat it cuz...yuck. When the ball actually gets to the rim you realize the "J" was artificial, just for show. Claver barely topped 39% from the field, didn't clear 28% from the arc, and didn't draw any fouls.
Looking at Claver's advanced percentages is interesting. They measure the percentage of available rebounds a player garnered or the percentage of the steals, assists, and blocks the team registered while the player was on the floor were attributable to that player. Claver was a non-entity across the board. He did commit 17.5 turnovers per 100 plays though.
Claver's biggest tasks going forward involve cashing in his pretty jumper for actual results and getting more experience on the floor in general. As with Will Barton, he'll also have to answer the question of position. He's stuck in the infamous "too slow to be a three, too weak to be a four" zone. Developing a bankable long-range shot could allow him to slip into the stretch four role. Otherwise he'll be hoping for bench minutes as a jack-of-all-trades small forward.
Claver's future isn't exactly bleak. He's got enough skills to be worth a second look. But as we keep saying when discussing Nicolas Batum, being an all-around player in this league doesn't mean being mediocre at everything. Claver isn't anywhere near being mediocre at anything yet. He'll need to up his entire game, prove he can play, then develop one or two skills upon which his coaching staff and teammates can rely. It's a long road from here to there but he's under contract until 2015. He'll get the chance to show he belongs somewhere.
Do you see Leonard or Claver making an impact in the league? If so, how and when? Discuss below.
Next Up: Your chance to weigh in on everybody else.