Alright, it is no secret that Leonard is a project; especially on defense. Now that the Blazers have Robin Lopez there seems to be a consensus that Leonard will come off the bench for his 2nd straight season – and he should… for a while.
Though I am not sold on Lopez’s defensive prowess, he is certainly an upgrade at this point in time. Here’s the thing though, in my eyes, Leonard has greater long-term potential. Lopez has played in the NBA for five seasons, and while he could still develop, my gut says that he is hovering near ceiling; whereas Leonard is one year deep with room for much higher heights.
Most centers are about a three year project after being drafted, as players at the position tend to take longer to adjust to NBA basketball (develop post moves, add bulk, learn to body larger opponents). Lopez’s strongest rookie statistics per 36 minutes were nearly identical to Leonard’s last season. (Lopez: 11.1 points, 6.9 rebounds. Leonard: 11.3 points, 7.6 rebounds). His sophomore season, Lopez averaged 15.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per 36 after seeing a summer of development and a slight boost in minutes. It stands to reason that if Leonard is given more court time, he could make a similar leap.
I’m not saying Portland should throw Leonard from the bench’s frying pan into a starter’s fire right away, but I would like to see him gradually overtake Lopez after learning from him first. Leonard’s development interests me far more than Lopez’s at this stage of their careers.
It’s been said that the Blazers could be a playoff team this year (I agree) and that they shouldn’t jeopardize wins for development. True enough, but have you seen the West this year? The Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, and Warriors all have a shot at #1. Heck, teams will be fighting for bottom seeds with .500 records! We’re off to a great start, but we are still rebuilding. I’d rather accelerate Leonard’s progress and fight for 8th seed than stunt his growth and lose in the 1st or 2nd round.
There is, however, the concern of LaMarcus Aldridge. If the Blazers are unable to build a team he’d like to stay with by 2015, there is no guarantee that he’ll be back the following season. Perhaps this is treasonous, but now that the Blazers have Thomas Robinson I am less concerned for their future. If LMA leaves, I will mourn him appropriately then turn my eyes to T-Rob. The necessity of immediate success is less urgent than it was two weeks ago.
So here’s my proposal: Start Lopez for about 30 games, then give Leonard a couple starts to test him. I firmly believe that he is no bust. If players were judged on their rookie seasons alone, Steve Nash would be some Canadian washout and Shawn Kemp would be lost to history like the team that drafted him. We’ve been spoiled with Damian Lillard and we need to be patient.
I think that with 30 minutes a game, Leonard could be a 15 and 8 guy as soon as next February. Remember – He’s likely improved since last season already. He needs to bulk up, learn behind Lopez, and then take over. If it doesn’t work out, at least they tried. I have trouble seeing Ro-Lo as the defensive anchor on a winning team, and Leonard is still quite moldable. Defense can be learned. Don’t give up on him. We will have a better idea where he stands come Summer League, which is just two days away.