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What Happened to Meyers Leonard?

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The Blazers big man’s once promising career trajectory is flat-lining.

Portland Trail Blazers v New York Knicks Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Looking at Meyers Leonard’s evolution over the last several seasons has been interesting, to say the least. As an over-matched rookie, Leonard struggled but showed glimpses of raw athleticism. After a disappointing second season that saw him fall behind Joel Freeland as the back up center to Robin Lopez, Leonard transformed his game, adding a 3-point shot and transitioning to a perimeter oriented big.

Leonard’s third season was a revelation, one in which he put up a coveted 50/40/90 season, shooting 51 percent from the floor, 42 percent from three, and nearly 94 percent from the line. Skeptical Blazer fans embraced the new Leonard as a “basketball unicorn” who could only get better as the rest of the game slowed down for him. Having an athletic seven-footer that can shoot that well from the outside posed all sorts of match-up problems for opponents.

But then something happened; he didn’t perform nearly as well in 2015-16. Though Leonard averaged career-highs with 8.4 points and 21 minutes per game, his percentages dropped nearly across the board, shooting 45 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three. Some of this can be written off as regression to the mean, not to mention opponents actually game planning to defend him on the arc, but it was a bit of a let down season, considering Leonard’s opportunity for an expanded role.

After season-ending surgery to repair a separated shoulder and prevent further occurrence of injury, Leonard was poised to bounce back after his slight down tick in production. Unfortunately, this season has been a further disappointment, with his shooting percentages continuing to drop across the board. Take a look at Leonard’s shooting percentages since he reinvented his game as a perimeter-oriented player (All stats through 1/15/17).

Shooting Table
% of FGA by Distance FG% by Distance
Season G FG% Dist. 2P 0-3 3-10 10-16 16 <3 3P 2P 0-3 3-10 10-16 16 <3 3P
2014-15 55 .510 15.7 .543 .212 .147 .082 .102 .457 .586 .731 .528 .450 .480 .420
2015-16 61 .448 18.0 .476 .103 .097 .124 .149 .524 .527 .533 .548 .500 .523 .377
2016-17 36 .362 19.2 .404 .096 .080 .085 .149 .596 .395 .667 .400 .250 .286 .339
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/15/2017.

This season, Leonard is shooting a paltry 36 percent from the field, and 34 percent from the arc, despite getting nearly 60 percent of his looks from the 3-point line. That’s not regression to the mean, that’s just regression.

So what happened?

While the drop in 3-point shooting is concerning, looking at how he has shot from 10 feet out to the 3-point line is downright jaw-dropping. Leonard is shooting 25 percent from 10 to 16 feet and just under 29 percent from 16 feet out to the 3-point line. Granted, this accounts for just under a quarter of his looks, but if we examine his previous two seasons, we can see that his mid-range jumper has fallen off a cliff. In fact, according to Synergy Sports, Leonard ranked in the ninety-second percentile for jump shots from 17 feet out to the 3-point line, with 0.978 points per possession. This season? The second percentile, with a miserable 0.348 points per possession.

This has unsurprisingly caused Leonard to fall further in the rotation, receiving five DNP-CDs, and another 11 games with fewer than 10 minutes of court time. What’s particularly difficult to swallow about this situation is the fact the Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh haven’t exactly been playing lights out this season. If Leonard were playing well, there are minutes for the taking.

Leonard has done well this season in the limited times that he has been found cutting to the basket. While he doesn’t particularly bring much in terms of post moves, there are some effective big men in the league who aren’t exactly dancing ballet out there— instead physically over-matching their opponent. Leonard has the size and athleticism to be effective around the rim, but will he ever get there? Without making a comparison in terms of skill level, being able to mix up the inside/outside game is the difference between players like Brook Lopez and Kristaps Porzingis, and someone like Andrea Bargnani or Mehmet Okur.

Portland desperately needs Leonard to make some sort of jump. He was a project coming out of college, but now, in his fifth year in the NBA, he isn’t able to contribute effectively if the one thing he does well isn’t working anymore.

Without taking potential trades into account, there is a very real chance the Leonard is going to be relied upon even more heavily in the future. Portland’s lack of cap space has been discussed ad nauseum, but consider this: Festus Ezeli is all but guaranteed to never suit up for Portland, and Mason Plumlee is about to head into restricted free agency and become a very rich man, with Portland possibly priced out of retaining his services.

Plumlee is a solid young center, but, say he earns a contract averaging $16 million per year— likely the going rate for someone of his ilk. If Portland hasn’t shed significant salary before then, Portland will be well into luxury tax territory, and $16 million is a tough but fair pill to swallow for Plumlee’s services. Up to $32 million dollars (once the luxury tax is factored in) is probably a lot more difficult to justify, even for Paul Allen. So while it’s likely that Portland would pivot somewhere else in the above scenario, there is a non-zero chance that Leonard is, at the very least, going to be a major player in Portland’s frontcourt next season, even if still as a reserve.

Hopefully Leonard is able to get himself going at some point this season. Unfortunately, with his offensive game having not developed in a significant way inside of the 3-point line, the odds aren’t with him. He doesn’t need to be the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwan, or even to be a serious threat in the post. But the willingness to bang and utilize his superior size and athleticism would take Leonard a long way when the outside shot isn’t falling. Here’s to holding out hope.