Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard has long been an enigma amongst the Rip City faithful. The 26-year old was drafted the same year as franchise icon Damian Lillard, but their careers have taken very different paths. While Lillard has flourished, Leonard has struggled to have a meaningful impact on the team, despite numerous opportunities.
However, with the departure of Ed Davis this past summer, Leonard entered this season with minutes open in the front court, and another chance to become part of the Blazers rotation. Early on, coach Terry Stotts opted to go small with the second unit, playing Zach Collins at center and Maurice Harkless as a stretch four. Leonard was still able to accumulate playing time when the team got in foul trouble, as illustrated in the team’s season opening win against the Lakers.
Meyers’ performance in the opener was especially encouraging, given that he was able to make an impact on the game despite not taking a single shot attempt. In eight minutes, he pulled down four rebounds, while also dishing out four assists to Portland’s second unit three-point shooters, notably newcomers Nik Stauskus and Seth Curry. He followed that up with a solid showing against the Spurs, knocking down both of his field goal attempts, including a three. He finished with five points in 10 minutes in the contest.
Against the Miami Heat, Leonard received his first substantial playing time of the season. With Harkless out for the second half due to a re-aggravation of his knee injury, Leonard was able to log 17 minutes, and was on the floor down the stretch, including during the team’s comeback effort. He knocked down a big three and set solid screens to provide Damian Lillard the space to do his thing. Despite going just 1-5 from the field, he was the only Blazer to have a positive impact in the plus-minus (+7) in the game. There was a lot to be encouraged about from his outing.
That being said, it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses for the big man in the early going. He has passed up open shots in favor of driving to the hole on multiple occasions, much to the chagrin of Stotts, and continues to be far too hesitant to pull the trigger. Against the Pacers, with Jusuf Nurkic in early foul trouble, Stotts turned to Leonard early, but he picked up three quick fouls of his own and only logged three minutes. It was certainly a missed opportunity for Leonard, but fortunately for the Blazers both Collins and Caleb Swanigan were up to the task, providing big-time minutes off the bench in the victory.
Swanigan’s breakout performance led to Leonard earning the dreaded “DNP—coach’s decision” in Tuesday’s blowout win over the Rockets. He appears to be taking it in stride, however, continuing to be a supportive teammate on the bench, while not sulking over his lack of action. It also appears that it’s more a case of Swanigan playing too well to not be on the court right now, as opposed to anything Leonard has necessarily done wrong (outside of the early foul trouble).
Things can change quickly in the NBA, Blazers fans are well aware of that. While Swanigan is the flavor of the week, and is contributing nicely, it’s important for Meyers to keep grinding. With such a lack of depth in the frontcourt, whoever has fallen out of order at any given time on this team shouldn’t necessarily panic. It seems the big man rotation this year will be fluid and situational. Leonard offers things Swanigan doesn’t (and vice versa). He’ll get the call again.
For the time being it appears that coach Stotts has an enviable problem on his hands: he has more quality players than he can realistically utilize on any given night. I don’t think anyone imagined that would be the case going into this season. Blazers fans should be encouraged by what Collins and Swanigan are doing, but don’t lose faith in Leonard. He’s been able to get the job in more obvious ways when called upon this season. He should still play a role going forward.