There have been rumblings of discontent among Blazer fans, focused on Meyers Leonard. These aren’t new, and most people understand that Leonard is a developmental project, but the latest question on the lips of Portland supporters is, “why did we send Jeff Withey to New Orleans instead of Meyers Leonard?”
This question is not unjustified, so let’s explore it. After all, Withey is considered to be an NBA ready defensive beast. I was very excited to have him aboard until the Blazers parted ways with him in the trade that brought Robin Lopez to Rip City.
However; for all the praise (including my own), his ceiling is much lower than Leonard’s. At the time Portland drafted him, they were in need of a rim protector. Now they have Robin Lopez on a two year deal. Withey could very well end up better than Lopez defensively, but in the two years of Lopez’ tenure, Withey would not grow enough to surpass him.
Coincidentally, Leonard will have finished his third NBA season by the time Lopez’ contract expires. The Blazers are anticipating that he will make the necessary improvements to become a starter in the next two seasons. This is a reasonable expectation, as big men generally take longer to develop.
Meyers Leonard’s offensive game is not only far better than Jeff Withey’s, it is better than most young centers’ in the league. It is a rarity to find any sort of seven footer than can shoot well from outside the paint. This is why Leonard was drafted 11th last year and Withey was drafted 39th last month.
It is much easier (for a big man, especially) to learn defense than become a true shooter. Both Leonard and Withey are projects in their own regard, but Leonard has a monstrous leg up. Sometimes you have to step back and look at the big picture. Although Portland needed interior defense this season (which they now have), they must also think of the future.
The Blazers are not a contender with either player this year, but when each have reached their peak, Leonard will be much, much better. I promise. So when it comes time for Portland to re-invest or pass on Lopez, there is a better chance that Leonard will be the full package, whereas Withey may have a harder time embracing both sides of the game.