Can't keep his hands up. Doesn't know how to get in position to rebound. Always leaves his feet. No go-to offensive move. He's seriously practicing three pointers this offseason?
Admit it. We have all thought or said one or more of these things about Meyers Leonard since he was drafted 11th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2012 NBA Draft. But now, after three years in the league, Blazer fans have never been higher on him. How did we get here?
It would have been tough for Leonard to perform more poorly than he did in 2013-14. If he looked over-matched during his rookie year, he appeared to have no idea how the game of basketball was played in his second season. Overthinking left him a step slow on every play, lost on both the defensive end and the glass. It's one thing to get picked off on the perimeter and rely on your team to cover your man, but if you can't keep tabs on Dwight Howard or Andrew Drummond at point blank range, your goose is cooked.
With the team's agenda of actually winning games in the 2013-14 season, Trail Blazers Coach Terry Stotts had no choice but to limit Leonard's time on the court, cutting his time from 69 to 40 games and dropping his overall minutes from 1206 to 355, a 71% reduction. During his exit interview, Leonard said that he understood the need to improve:
"I think I really have something to prove. There's not a lot of proving to be done with my individual workouts - I can make threes, I can make jump shots, I can run and jump and dunk and do all that. I can't simulate one-on-one defense in the post, defending the rim, rotating over to block a shot, guarding a ball screen, so that's what's going to come with summer league and playing in L.A. and coming back and playing here prior to training camp, training camp and obviously on through. The playing aspect for me is the biggest part."
Despite Leonard's good intentions, it seemed like more of the same early in 2014-15. He played only 13 total minutes in Portland's first 9 games. Not only were Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland returning to claim their usual minutes, center Chris Kaman was brought in as well. Leonard was clearly the odd man out.
Then, with LaMarcus Aldridge scratched with an upper respiratory illness on November 15th against the Brooklyn Nets, Leonard picked up the start at power forward, playing 29 minutes. This was the first we had really seen of Leonard at the four and he performed admirably, tallying 12 rebounds and hitting a three-pointer.
This success was to be short-lived, however, as Meyers picked up DNPs in 11 of the next 12 games . All signs pointed to another year of limited game action for Leonard.
But when Robin Lopez broke his hand going up for a rebound against the San Antonio Spurs' Boris Diaw on December 15th, Leonard got another chance to show that he deserved time on the court. His improvement was incremental, but noticeable, over the next 7 weeks. Leonard demonstrated increased court awareness, rebounding skills and, most tantalizingly, a suddenly-consistent three-point shooting stroke. In an amazing turn of events, the whipping boy slowly metamorphosed to a fan favorite over the course of three months.
At the Blazers' annual season-ticket holder event on Monday, Feb 2nd (Player Palooza), I had a chance to chat briefly with big man coach Kim Hughes about how Meyers was going to handle his expanded minutes. I asked if he had the mental toughness to stay ready and motivated even if he lost his rotation minutes once Portland's bigs were healthy. Hughes was not entirely encouraging in his response.
"Meyers has an opportunity now to show that he deserves time on the floor. How he handles anything else after that is up to him."
But Leonard's play while Lopez was out earned him time to prove himself. He only saw 6 DNPs after the turn of the New Year. Even though his minutes were reduced, he had clearly gained confidence in his game, moving through the offensive and defensive schemes with relative comfort and limited errors. By the end of the season, Leonard had produced a remarkable Steve Nash-like 50/40/90 season, shooting 51% from the field, 42% from 3, and 93% from the FT line.
Moving into the postseason, Meyers figured to be a non-factor against the Memphis Grizzlies, who sport arguably the best frontcourt in the NBA with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. As the Blazers struggled to get anything going against the Grizzlies, Leonard was one of the few bright spots, presenting himself as a newly capable post defender as well as a master floor spacer. Leonard's hot perimeter shooting forced Gasol and Randolph to defend the three point line, opening up driving lanes for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Leonard finished the five-game series shooting a scorching hot 10-13 from distance and averaging just under 7 rebounds per game.
Meyers Leonard has begun to emerge as a truly unique NBA talent, a player that many analysts point to as a prototype for future league bigs. An athletic 7-footer who can step out and hit the three pointer is a great weapon to have, but Leonard should expect teams to pay him more mind around the arc next season. He'll need to develop a counter move, whether it's a pump fake, dribble drive, or just improving at the pick and roll or pick and pop. If he can develop a semi-effective post move, he'll become a true mismatch nightmare - able to play on the perimeter against elite defensive bigs such as DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, and Dwight Howard, and able to work down low against anyone not as long or as athletic as he, which is the majority of the league.
Like so many other players on the roster, Leonard's future hinges on what happens in free-agency. While he has clearly earned himself minutes in the rotation, the quantity of those minutes could vary widely. LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez, and Joel Freeland are free agents, and the team holds an option to bring back Chris Kaman for next year. It's conceivable that Leonard plays a similar role as he played in the first round of the playoffs: a 7th man playing 15-20 minutes per game. If Aldridge leaves, Coach Stotts could decide to go all in on Meyers' development and start him in Aldridge's old spot. They have similar enough styles that the offense would only need to be retooled, not completely redesigned.
Should Aldridge walk away, the Blazers have the option to let Lopez leave as well, since a large piece of his value comes from playing a complementary role alongside LaMarcus. If this happens, Stotts could decide to play Meyers heavy minutes at center, forcing him to learn through mistakes and adopt a style more closely matching his size.
Whichever way his career goes, Meyers Leonard is one of only four players with secure contracts with the Blazers for 2015-16. Whatever direction the team decides to take (or, more accurately, whatever direction LaMarcus Aldridge takes them in), Leonard has shown enough to be part of the future.