Expanding on a previous topic of discussion, I’d like to take a moment to address the strengths and weaknesses of rookie center, Meyers Leonard. He is a tremendous athlete, but he could (and should) be so much more.
The Blazers selected Meyers as the 11th pick of the 2012 NBA draft. Portland was in desperate need of a center. Kurt Thomas was by no means a long term option, Hasheem Thabeet was not worth his height, and the Blazers had not yet reached an agreement with J.J. Hickson. Were there better players than Meyers available when we made our selection? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the right choice.
Remember, a rookie is an investment, not an instantaneous game changer. We have been spoiled with Damian Lillard this season and can lose sight of the journey that is adapting to professional basketball. I will readily admit that Leonard is slow on the path, but he is not without proficiencies to match his stumbling blocks.
- Strength: Mid-range shooting. Leonard has a somewhat rare touch for a center. It’s not often I see someone of that size with an open 18 footer and find myself telling them to shoot it. He’s particularly good from the side of the basket. Either side in fact. He shoots above 40% from between 16ft and the 3 point line. The smooth arc is ideal for free throw shooting too, and he boasts and impressive 80% from the line. This will come in handy as he learns to be more aggressive. Many big men are 4th quarter handicaps because of poor free throw shooting, but no team will want to hack Leonard down the stretch.
- Weakness: Confidence. For Pete’s sake, don’t just stand there! When Meyers receives the ball outside the post he hesitates on open shots. Portland needs him to be a willing scorer. He reminds me of the kid on every rec team that gets plenty of open looks but would rather pass the ball than risk letting his teammates down with a missed shot. Of course, he shouldn’t be shooting every time, that’s not how the offense is designed, but I can feel the tension of wasted opportunities every time he waits for his defender to approach.
- Strength: Height/Athleticism. These have to be combined. Meyers Leonard is 7’1” and can run like a gazelle. He is in great shape and gets back on defense in a flash. This also works to his advantage offensively. When you are of towering height and have springs in your legs, you better believe the rim is your friend. Of course, a center that couldn’t dunk wouldn’t be a real center, but for Leonard there is a degree of ease that bodes well for his scoring potential.
- Weakness: Defense. Regrettably, there has been a bit of a learning curve in this department. With the aforementioned physical attributes I would expect Leonard to be more formidable on D. His positioning isn’t terrible, but it seems to always be a half second behind the play. Hopefully this will change as he plays heavier minutes, but I wanted to see more improvement from him by this point in the season. It doesn’t help that he is undersized for his height. 245 pounds on a 7+ foot frame isn’t great for muscling with the big boys. This often results in bad fouls.
- Strength: Temperament. Meyers is level headed, coachable, and smart. He is Head Coach Terry Stotts’ to mold. This is essential for situations where you can’t afford to lose your cool. Blazer’s fans have spent many years pulling their hair out over the hostile antics of ‘Dirty Thirty’ (Rasheed Wallace) and ‘the Vanilla Gorilla’ (Joel Przybilla), not that they weren’t loved. Sometimes it’s good to have a little ‘Mild Sauce’.
- Weakness: Temperament. Then again, sometimes it isn’t. Leonard gets rag-dolled around more than he should allow and it would be nice to see him stand up for himself. Maybe if he would respond with a hard foul and a stare down, he would get a little more respect. As of right now, his authority is minimal and that works to his detriment.
The upcoming off-season will be the most important of Meyers Leonard’s young career. He must gather his rookie experiences and determine what kind of player he will be. Right now he is downy soft, but with some intensive training, a little more weight, and the right attitude, he could be a true asset to the Portland Trail Blazers. I would like to see him put on about 20 lbs and come back meaner. He’s got a naturally jolly disposition, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be aggressive when it counts. The way in which he proceeds may determine the difference between being a Brook Lopez or a Robin Lopez. I believe that he could average 15 points/8 rebounds his first year starting if he is willing to put in the proper work and make adjustments beforehand. With J.J. Hickson entering free agency at season’s end, Portland may need it.