The big story last season was the play of the Portland Trail Blazers’ sixth overall pick, Damian Lillard. Lillard was very impressive, averaging 19 points on 43% shooting and 6.5 assists en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award. However, he wasn’t the only lottery pick the Blazers had last season.
Meyers Leonard didn’t come out with nearly the same amount of production as Lillard did in his rookie season. After being drafted with the 11th pick last year, he went on to produce just 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game in a bench role behind J.J. Hickson. Per 36 minutes, that’s just 11.3 points and 7.6 rebounds.
Now, the understanding for Leonard coming in was that he was a project to develop. This was proven true during the season, as Leonard was inconsistent in practically every area of the game. His fundamentals needed work in many cases, and he clearly wasn’t ready to play big minutes against NBA competition yet.
However, he did flash the intriguing potential that made him such a high pick last year. Obviously, standing 7’1″ with an incredible wingspan, Leonard immediately strikes as a player of interest. Watching him on the court, one could then see his mobility and athleticism, both rare of someone his size. It was very clear that he wasn’t a Dwight Howard-esque player who would dominate his opponents with raw strength, but he shaped up to be a very good runner and jumper. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Leonard displayed range on his jumpshot as far out as 20 feet. With his height, a reliable jumpshot could make him a very deadly offensive weapon.
Going forward, how should Leonard continue to develop his game? It’s easy to say that he should simply work at everything, or to say that he should refine his most basic fundamentals. Certainly, both would be very fitting for him after his rookie season. Let’s be a bit more specific, however, and find the exact areas which Leonard would benefit from developing.
Offensively, where Leonard should start is to first identify what type of offensive player he should be. He wasn’t a back to the basket threat and was much more inclined to shoot the ball from midrange than your typical center. This can work in some situations (see: Chris Bosh), but it won’t work with Portland. This is because the Blazers’ offense already features multiple three-point shooters as well as a big man that sees heavy usage in the midrange in LaMarcus Aldridge. At the same time, Leonard’s relative lack of strength compared to other NBA centers makes it difficult for him to be a go-to offensive player in today’s physical post game.
What Leonard can do, however, is develop a niche for himself as a pick-and-roll option. With his mobility and athleticism, Leonard seems like a natural fit as a pick-and-roll player. His footwork will need further work, but he’s already skilled in playing above the rim. His jumpshot, if he continues to bring it along, can give him the option to go to the pick-and-pop as well. Damian Lillard proved to be strong in the pick-and-roll with LaMarcus Aldridge, and Leonard could be a change-of-pace option for the Blazers.
Additionally, Leonard should work on further refining his touch on shots in and around the paint. He flashed some appealing touch on those shots, including a nice hook shot, and his height would allow him to make the most out of them. If he can develop those finesse shots and perhaps even a post move or two, he can be a nice cog to support an offense. It’s very unlikely that he’ll be able to produce the way LaMarcus Aldridge does now, but he has legitimate potential to be a solid piece offensively.
Leonard struggled heavily defensively and on the glass last season. Certainly, it’s not an easy task for any young big man to come in to the NBA and perform well in those areas right off the bat. The bright side is, Leonard is working with some really nice tools.
With his size, length and athleticism, Leonard could realistically be good to very good as a rim protector and a help defender, but he has a lot of work to do in the mental aspect of defense. He looked lost in the Blazers’ schemes last year, and struggled to contain his man in the post, off the dribble, or without the ball. To figure it out, he’s going to have to understand where to be and when to do what. The defensive awareness was missing, and it’s something that he has to put effort into learning.
In terms of rebounding the basketball, Leonard’s 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes left a fair bit to be desired from a 7’1″ center. However, that size along with his wingspan and hops are handy tools to have as a developing rebounder, much like with defense. Leonard doesn’t establish position or box out particularly well, which is an area where some more strength as well as more fundamental understanding would come in handy. However, it stands to reason that he could get that average up next season, and hopefully continue to develop it as well.
At any rate, both defense and rebounding were extremely weak areas last season for Leonard, and there will be no sure guarantees of Leonard being even decent in either. Some improvement is very likely from last season’s standards, but for Leonard to become truly reliable for solid defense and rebounding will take a lot of time and a lot of work. The physical tools are there, but the mental aspects are where Leonard must apply himself to succeed in those areas.
Next season, expect Leonard to continue his development. He won’t be ready for the big time yet, but as a project center, the Blazers would like to see him take the next step in his progression. With a new starting center in Robin Lopez, there could be an opportunity for Leonard to earn some more minutes from his 17.5 per-game mark from last season.
I’m personally hesitant to deem Leonard as anything more than a ‘maybe’ for now in terms of becoming a quality NBA center, but just 21 years old heading into his second NBA season, Leonard can really go anywhere from here. He’s very far from a finished product, but if he puts the work in, he could really pan out to be a part of the next era Blazers alongside Damian Lillard.