Last week I delved into the Trail Blazer rookie seasons of C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe. This week the season reviews continue with the second-year guys and I’m starting with the much-maligned big man Meyers Leonard.
Leonard is only 22 years old and he might as well be 18 or 19 as far as development goes. He only played two years of NCAA basketball at the University of Illinois, but his freshman year, he only averaged 8.2 minutes per game, so really he played one meaningful college season. His sophomore year, he had a meteoric rise up draft boards as a legitimate 7-foot prospect that had NBA general managers salivating over his potential. That year his minutes jumped to 31.8 per game and he posted 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds.
That one successful season was enough to catch the eye of Neil Olshey and the Portland Trail Blazers, and they took him with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft (Damian Lillard was taken sixth overall that year). Leonard showed some promise in his rookie season, playing in 69 games and even starting nine — though he still only averaged 17.5 minutes per contest. Meyers averaged 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds along with 0.6 blocks per game in those 17 minutes, so he was certainly productive in the time given. He also showed a nice shooting touch with splits of .545/.429/.809 — though the 3-point percentage is misleading as he only went 3-for-7 from deep on the season. Expectations coming into 2013-14 were pretty high for Leonard coming off a decent rookie campaign.
Let’s get this out of the way — 2013-14 was a disaster for Meyers Leonard. Even given that statement, I don’t place 100 percent of the blame on Leonard for his poor play; Terry Stotts’ lack of a steady rotation hindered Leonard but Meyers certainly did not do himself any favors. Check out the comparison of his first two seasons:
The first thing you should notice is he only appeared in 40 games this season and his minutes were basically cut in half when he did play. The other aspect of this snapshot that should be concerning to the umpteenth degree is his foul rate — he played a little over half the minutes this season, but fouled at nearly the same rate?! It is really tough to get heavy minutes when you are constantly in foul trouble — Leonard’s per-36 rates show that he was on pace for 7.7 personal fouls if he did in fact play 36 minutes. Sheesh. Case in point; Portland played the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 7 and the young 7-footer had four fouls in only seven and a half minutes!
The other glaring discrepancy was the lack of blocks this season as compared to his rookie year. Total blocks going down is understandable due to playing in 29 fewer games at about half the minutes per game, but again we look to the per-36 numbers for clarification. In 2012-13, he blocked shots at a rate of 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes – in 2013-14 that rate dropped to only 0.5 blocks per 36. Let’s be clear, Meyers is not going to find his niche as a 20/10 guy in this league — his strong suit HAS to be blocks, rebounds and as few mistakes as possible on offense; anything above and beyond that is gravy at this point.
There are other weaknesses that could be shown here as well, but for the sake of time (and my sanity) we shall move on.
I want Meyers to succeed and I’m sure the front office does as well, but he’s already nearing that stigma of a bust — which stinks. I talked about this last week when addressing the rookies, but Stotts has to play these young players more. Leonard is still just 22 years old and has plenty of time to develop into something serviceable for this Portland franchise.
Meyers first job is to work, work, work this offseason and come back ready to win the fans back. The fans have certainly turned on Leonard and young players thrive off that home crowd and the energy they can give you (see Will Barton). You don’t have to be a superstar to be a fan favorite and once you garner that praise, your confidence can grow and grow until you become a regular rotation guy. The minutes are there for the taking as well. LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez make up the starting front court and that isn’t changing anytime soon, but the backup minutes are up for grabs! Joel Freeland took the majority of the backup center minutes this season, but he certainly does not have a stranglehold on that backup spot.
2014-15 will be a make-or-break season for Leonard. He’s signed through the end of next season but the Blazers have the team option for 2015-16, so the ball will be in their court. He will have to show some early improvement to have that team option picked up by Olshey & Co. because they have to make that decision by Sept. 30.
Freeland and Leonard will both be on the Portland summer league team in Las Vegas in July and Leonard will definitely be looking to show his worth. Will he put in the work necessary to crack the rotation or will he join the long list of seven footers that faded, sadly into obscurity — we shall know soon enough.