Quick! Let’s play one of Bill Simmons’ favorite games. Take a look at these two, full-season stat-lines from different players:
- Player A: 69 games played, 1206 minutes, 151 for 277 shooting (54.5%), 71 for 89 on free throws (81%), 255 rebounds, 377 points
- Player B: 70 games played, 1009 minutes, 198 for 420 shooting (47.1%), 98 for 147 on free throws (67%), 243 rebounds, 494 points.
Pretty similar, no? Look at the All-Star center who currently has his team up in a bruising conference semifinals series, and then at the Blazers’ “other” rookie. Now back to Roy Hibbert. Now back to Meyers Leonard. Now back to me.
Still not sure? Player A is Leonard this past season. Player B is Hibbert as a rookie.
A few days ago, as I was pouring over the Blazers roster while bemoaning the lack of interior presence, Leonard’s listed height of 7’1” jumped out at me. If you actually stop to look, you will see that there are just not that many true seven-footers currently in the league. At least in this respect, size, Leonard is already among the elite. Hibbert is another, and the more I thought about it, I saw a lot of parallels between him and Leonard.
While Leonard is no athletic slouch (Golden State game dunks say hello), let’s just say he will never be a David Robinson in terms of quickness and agility, and Hibbert sure won’t be either. In fact, the article that was the inspiration for many of these thoughts details just how much work Hibbert has had to put in to overcome his lack of athleticism. There were not athletic shortcuts for him (coughD12cough). He’s truly had to work his way into becoming an All-Star center.
But wow, has that work paid off.. Watching the Pacers/Knicks series, I am salivating over Hibbert’s post game. It’s just so smooth, fluid, and ambidextrous that he’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite players to watch, especially now that he has his wrist fixed.
I digress, though. The point to pay attention to is Hibbert’s development in the league. I was shocked to see that he averaged LESS THAN 15 minutes a game as a rookie. He was a project in every sense of the word, but his slow, hard work and the patience by the Pacers has paid off in full, and then some – scoring an All-Star big man with the 17th pick of the draft is the type of move that can turn an entire franchise around. Additionally, Hibbert had a full four-year college career during which to develop. Despite this, the process was still a lengthy one.
Lost among all the clamoring that the Blazers pursue a veteran center this offseason (and I have certainly been in that camp) is the fact that they have a first round center already waiting in the wings. On one hand, I can get behind the idea of young players learning from vets, and if the Blazers do end up bringing a veteran center in, it could be great for Leonard’s future if the situation is utilized properly (that’s a pretty big ‘if’, though).
At the same time, young players need minutes to develop. That’s just a fact. There is no shortcut for this either, and something that I think should be kept in mind regarding Leonard. If the Blazers invested the 11th overall pick in him, they have a plan for him. It’s that straightforward – there was a reason for it.
The Blazers had a specific vision for Leonard (or so we hope), and it is nearing time to start allowing this vision to come to fruition. As I have heard suggested, he could very well be destined for being a career bench player, but that’s utterly irrelevant at this point. Seventeen minutes a game is not enough to tell either way. If the Pacers had written off Hibbert after his first season (when he couldn’t grab more than 15 minutes a game away from Jeff Foster / Rasho Nesterovic [but seriously, Nesterovic played more minutes than Hibbert]), they wouldn’t be where they are now.
Here is where it would be prudent to acknowledge Hibbert’s defensive prowess and Leonard’s lack thereof. It’s true: Hibbert has been the lynchpin of one of the league’s best defenses these past couple seasons, and Leonard’s defense leaves much to be desired. With that being said, if we again look at their rookie stats, Hibbert posted a defensive rating of 107 (a middling number), while Leonard posted an unacceptable 110. As a quick primer, a player’s defensive rating is a statistic that estimates the number of points a player gave up per 100 possessions that he individually faced while playing. As a baseline, a number in the mid-90s is elite.
While they may seem close, that three point differential is actually large enough to take note of, and clearly indicates Leonard has a ways to go. What I would focus more on, though, is that Hibbert started out as anything but a defensive stalwart. Just like every aspect of his game, he slowly worked on it, until this past regular season he posted a defensive rating of 97. In five years he improved by 10 points, so what’s to say that Leonard couldn’t do the same?
That brings us back to the crux of it all, though: It’s easy for me to sit here and preach patience. The reality is that from top to bottom, professional teams are under immense pressure to win. This is especially true when your owner has very vocally discussed wanting to win a championship before he dies.
Despite understanding this “win now” mentality (also amplified by the fact that Lamarcus Aldridge’s contract is up in two years), I think it would be foolish to completely disregard Leonard’s future in the pursuit of a high profile veteran center. In fairness, if such an acquisition takes place, it in no way indicates that the team is giving up on Leonard. As mentioned above, some sort of mentoring / tutoring system could work fantastically in his development.
However, I would find it curious, very curious, though, if such a move did bury Leonard on the bench, especially since such a large resource (the 11th pick) was invested on him.
Whatever the case, we shall soon see what the future holds. As a bottom line, I think Meyers is capable of going the Hibbert route, but he needs the support of the team behind him.