The 2016-17 NBA season was a blotch of disappointment for Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard. His most productive season one year prior signaled what many had hoped would be a true leap forward, but ultimately wasn’t. Instead, he regressed in a major way.
There is no denying it. Leonard doesn’t.
His numbers were abysmal, he was often out of sync with his teammates on the floor, and the oddly silky shot that had rallied the most optimistic fans behind him abandoned him—as did a large swath of the fans themselves.
A fifth-year big man is supposed to shoot above 40 percent from the floor. A 7’1” athletic wonder is supposed to reel in rebounds with regularity. An agile center is supposed to pose a defensive threat.
Leonard did not do those things, and in the first season of a brand-new four-year contract, drew scrutiny from critics and ire from social media users, emboldened by separation and empowered by access.
But for all his shortcomings on the court, Leonard has always been proactive. Over the summer, he sought guidance from a proven skills coach—Pure Sweat CEO Drew Hanlen—and on Portland Trail Blazers Media Day, Leonard told Blazer’s Edge all about what, and who, motivated him to make changes.
I was not good last year, and it was hard for me as an individual, it was hard for me as a player, I’m sure it was hard on my family—you know, because it’s stressful. But, I went to All-Star and I was there and I knew that Wes Matthews was going to be doing the 3-point contest, so of course we got in contact. We were going to have lunch.
We went to lunch and we started talking and he wanted me to come back to Dallas with him because Wes cares about me, he wants me to do well, and kind of looks out for me.
“So you’re going to come back to Dallas, we’re going to talk about a few things, then you go back to Portland and we’ll do our own thing,” and he said “What are you going to do this summer?”
I’m like “What are you talking about? We’re in the middle of the season.” He’s like “No, no. It’s very important. You need to focus on your season, but you need to, like, you got to figure something out. Have you ever heard of Drew Hanlen?”
I was like, “Well, the name sounds familiar. I feel like I’ve—” of course, with the Instagram and social media boom that is currently the way things are, I was like “Yeah, I should look him up.”
So I looked him up and, you know, he’s worked with [Joel] Embiid, he’s worked with Jordan Clarkson, Zach LaVine; David Lee was his first guy. He’s worked with Dwight Howard. He’s worked with numerous bigs, numerous wings, guards—everybody.
I kind of reach out and said “Hey, would you be interested?” He said “Let’s do a week and we’ll go from there.”
And so, my thought is he probably wanted to see was I a worker, was I willing to put the work in every day, and I knew that he had a great knowledge for teaching the game and I needed to learn.
One thing I know about myself is that I guess I have a natural shooting touch, I’m tall, I’m fairly athletic, but sometimes I don’t always know how to use that athleticism or I don’t know how to be in the right place to have Dame [Lillard] or CJ [McCollum] kind of be able to find that window of opportunity.
And so I needed to learn. I crave being taught, so that’s why I went to L.A. and that’s why I focused every single day. It didn’t matter how tired I was; I was ready to go at 6:20 a.m. when that alarm went off. It didn’t matter what the day before was, I was ready to go again because he was teaching me, he cared about me, he was giving me something to fall back on—a plan, a foundation.
Leonard returned to Portland with a refurbished jump shot and renewed vigor. We’ve heard this story before, but it feels real this time. Leonard speaks of his time under Hanlen’s tutelage with a palpable energy and a passion that seemed extinguished in his darkest hours.
How far that takes him on the court will be tested over the course of the coming year, as he battles for playing time in a crowded frontcourt. There is nowhere to go but up. His body is healthy, his mind is healthy, and he, as an individual, appears to have no immediate reason not to find a degree of success befitting his role on the team.
That is what makes this “new” Leonard so fascinating. It is not that he’s saying what people want to hear—he’s done that before—he’s removed all personal obstacles. His head is on straight and filled with helpful advice, he’s shut out all the social media vitriol, and his merit can be determined purely; without excuse or misgiving.
This season, Leonard will be what Leonard will be—unshielded by hindrance or alibi, for better or worse. It would seem he is out of his own way.
It’s time for him to prove what he’s really made of.