Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard joined John Canzano on 750 AM The Game to discuss his offseason plans, his thoughts on the playoffs and his just-completed rookie season.
Getting more minutes at the end of the season
It felt good for me. I put a lot of hard work in, sat behind, watched some of the older guys. Learned from them, learned from the coaches, learned from film throughout the year by myself and whatnot, I really just sat back and waited for my opportunity. Obviously I have so much room for improvement, even when I did get more minutes, there was a lot of things I could do better. I was happy when I was on the court for longer periods of time to get an actual feel for the flow of the game, how we were playing, who we were playing against, things like that. I was happy that towards the end of the year [I was able] to get some good minutes in.
NBA adjustment -- Were you overwhelmed initially or did you think you were alright?
A little bit of both to be honest with you. Physically I felt alright. I didn't feel like guys were pushing me around or that I was slower or less athletic by a large margin. At the same time, the mental part of it and the speed of the game, in that sense, was so much faster. You have to think quicker, guys are so much more athletic, there's more rules. The three-second rule, I go over to tag my defender and I turn back and here comes a guy on the weakside. Just finding myself in the right place at the right time on offense. There's so many things that go into being successful on both ends of the court.
Early in the year, it was not easy for me. It was all, in essence, kind of new because the style of game I played in the Big 10, compared to the NBA, fast-paced, explosive, high-scoring guys. It's a lot different.
Strong game against Golden State, felt as good as anything during the season?
It did. I enjoyed winning more than... we got stomped against Golden State that night. There were different times throughout the year where I would come in and just be solid and affect the game positively and not have any negative effects on the game and we would win, which made me feel just as good.
When you have a so-called 'breakout' game it feels good, but I just have to continue to build on games like that. Understand that I can do things like that but it's going to take a lot more hard work and focus, and teams will [eventually] key on you. Obviously we have Damian [Lillard], LaMarcus [Aldridge], different guys, Nic [Batum], that teams are going to scout harder and tweak their defenses towards their tendencies. That's just something I have to continue and get better.
What areas focusing on this summer?
My rebounding, I have to learn to get lower, read angles off the backboard, rebounding in total. Not only that, my weakside defense, blocking shots, being able to protect the paint is something we're really trying to key in on. When I'm open, more likely than not I'm going to make it when I shoot it on offense, but the defensive end is where I really have to focus and get better. I think that's really how I can help this team, in the paint.
If you look at all the teams right now having success in the playoffs, it's all about having an anchor. Look at Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol before they went spiraling downhill, Tim Duncan and how good the Spurs are on defense. There's so many things that a defense works around but having an anchor in the paint puts a little fear in the other team's offense, it changes how they move the ball when the other team has a big man in the middle to protect the paint.
Does it bother you when people say the Blazers need a center?
No, not necessarily. Honestly I need a guy like Jared [Jeffries] last year, he helped me a lot. Whether or not he comes back, however they go about doing it, it's out of my control. A veteran big would help me understand the game more and more, and not only that but follow behind [them], hopefully. It's always been my goal to be the starting center but if I have to continue to learn and get better, that's what it's going to take. But I truly believe in the future I can be the starting center.
Would you work out at a big man's camp?
I do a lot of stuff with [assistant coach] Kim [Hughes], who I'm very close with, as most people know. And coach [Terry] Stotts steps in and gives his pointers and what not. Not that [Tim] Grgurich's is specialized for big men but it will be good to go out there in August, get some more instruction from him, use the coaches in Portland to my full advantage, that will help me along.
When did you know Damian Lillard was the Rookie of the Year?
When did I know? Summer league. I mean the guy is unbelievable. We kind of bonded and were friends early on. He's very humble, hard-working, comes from a good family, he understands the community and what that's like. So did I. We both didn't really grow up with a lot, had it rough growing up. He's really, really good. I can't wait to see what the future holds for him. I know he's going to continue to work harder and harder and harder to improve every part of his game.
What's the latest with your mother [serious health problems] and brother [in the Marines]? Did they move out to Portland?
No. Bailey got out of the Marines and my mom decided to stay back home [in Illionis] because Bailey had just gotten back home. In a sense they took care of each other. When people get off a tour of duty, a lot of times they need people to lean on and get back to civilian life. My mom can use help with groceries, mowing the lawn, and things like that. I think that was good for both of them. Even to this day my brother does stuff for mom and my mom helps my brother with whatever he needs. We'll continue to be a strong family. It's always been good for me to have him around. Even with the rough upbringing, we stuck close.
What have you done to help your mom? Get her a new house?
Not yet. That's in the process. Not only that but getting really good neurosurgeons and back specialists to look at her has started to make progress. She's starting to feel better but she's always been a trooper. She's always been someone to fight through pain and unfortunate circumstances. She's tough. Besides that, I help her out financially with whatever she needs, everything is still in the process of finding her a new home where she can get around and get her life back on track.
He's a very good coach. Very smart. Extremely smart on the offensive end and offensive sets, setting up different things. This year he was trying to preach defense, improving our defense, being a solid defensive team. I fully expect this coming year that we'll be a better defensive team because I know he cares about it. Hopefully with the combination of both we'll become a better team, a playoff team, win some more games and find ourselves in the playoffs. I think he's a really good coach, nice guy off the court, he's a really good guy.
Weird to be so young in the NBA?
It is kind of surreal. When I was growing up I was watching some of the guys that are superstars now. I watched Tim Duncan when I was little, Dirk [Nowitzki], LeBron [James], Kobe [Bryant], Tyson Chandler, just on and on. Now I'm going into games and playing against them. It's kind of funny but I enjoy it at the same time. To be able to play and compete at the highest level is what I've always wanted to do. I try to take full advantage of it every opportunity I get.
He seemed mild-mannered [on the court] like he seems in general. He can really create his own shot at this age which is unbelievable, because he's so smart. He doesn't get too over-worked about calls on the court. Sometimes he'll use his veteran pull, like, 'I don't think I fouled him there.' He seems like a good guy. I don't know him personally whatsoever. Definitely has worked very hard, that's very clear. He's still, at this age, somewhat dominates games, which is very impressive. He's had games where he's had 25/13/5, or 20/12/6, he's had games that are unbelievable for his age.
Can Tim Duncan and the Spurs beat the Heat?
I doubt it. They're high-powered and I'm pretty vocal about it: LeBron is the best player in the world. He has been for a few years now. But now it's to a whole other level. Watching him in person and up-close, he's a physical freak of nature and he knows the game so well. The one thing I like about him is that he generally makes the right basketball play. Other guys might shoot more. If LeBron gets double-teamed, he can make a pass with his right or left hand if they're open, great defender, he does it on both ends, I think he's an incredible basketball player.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter