Almost seven years to the date, the Portland Trail Blazers selected a 20-year-old center from the University of Illinois named Meyers Leonard with the No. 11 pick in the NBA Draft. This was in the same draft that Portland grabbed Damian Lillard with the sixth pick, a franchise-altering move (for the better, as we’ve seen).
Seven years later, Lillard is the only player remaining from that 2012 draft on the Blazers’ roster — Will Barton, a second-round pick, was also part of Portland’s draft class that year — as the team agreed to send Leonard to the Miami Heat in a package for Hassan Whiteside.
Moe Harkless was also part of the package to acquire Whiteside, but seeing Leonard depart invokes a different, more emotional feeling. That’s no slight at Harkless, either, who’s actually played more total minutes (6,359) in a Blazers uniform than Leonard (6,095). It’s more that Leonard was a Portland guy, through and through. The team drafted him, developed him, grew with him, went through his struggles with him, celebrated his moments with him, extended him in 2016 — and now, traded him.
Leonard, simply, represents change over time. Physically, we’ve seen Leonard evolve from a 20-year-old pup from Illinois...
...to a 27-year-old sculpture of a man.
On the court, we saw Leonard go from attempting 13 combined 3-pointers in his first two seasons to making 14 threes in this year’s playoffs alone. There was both a 50/40/90 season and a fair share of struggles along the way, too.
Personally, though, is where Leonard’s evolution in Portland is immeasurable. Leonard got married to his wife, Elle, three seasons into playing for the Blazers. He lost his dog, Bella, in December of 2017, who featured in his wedding and even once crashed Terry Stotts’ exit interview.
He held a tenuous relationship with Blazer fans, especially after his four-year extension in the summer of 2016. The big man became an outlet for fans to take out their frustrations on. One air ball in a double-digit loss to the Bucks prompted boos from the home crowd. After the game, teammates Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard both came to his defense, saying that the fans should boo the whole team when things are bad, not just one player.
Becoming a scapegoat wasn’t easy on Leonard. Every move, every play being scrutinized under a microscope would be no fun for any player/person. Leonard talked about his struggle with anxiety and depression at his most recent exit interview, saying: “I didn’t want to go in public for fear of what people thought of me.”
It’s poetic, then, that Leonard’s last game was a joyous occasion, as he was celebrated by fans chanting his name. He scored 30 points that night against the defending NBA champions, proving a spark that Portland needed. He was called upon and he stepped up to the occasion, despite previous grief he had to endure. That speaks to the professionalism that Leonard carried himself with throughout his tenure in Portland. He never threatened to fight fans. He never bad-mouthed teammates or the coaching staff or the front office. He showed up to do his job night in, night out, for seven straight years.