By his last game with the Hoyas, Roy Hibbert had played in 136 college games. He played about 3,100 total minutes. In his final college season, he averaged 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks. His first season in the NBA, he averaged 7 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 block. He’s now an NBA All-Star.
By his last game with the Illini, Meyers Leonard had played in 65 college games. He played about 1,300 total minutes. He averaged 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks in his final college season. His first season in the NBA, he averaged 6 points, 4 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks. He’s now entering his second season.
Before this goes any further, Meyers Leonard is not and never will be Roy Hibbert. Leonard lacks the defensive instinct to be a game-changing rim protector. Playing in the West, Leonard may never be an All-Star.
Leonard will become every bit as important to the Blazers future as Hibbert is to the Pacers’, and he will do so without the benefit of developing for years shielded from the scrutiny of NBA reporters and fans.
Leonard has the athleticism and the fluidity of someone six inches shorter. Running the court, he has neither heavy-footedness nor the awkward gait of most NBA seven-footers.
He’s coordinated. He’s got an ever-more reliable shot that’s being pushed beyond the arc. He can catch alley-oops that all but the most gifted NBA athletes would watch sail over their heads. He’s also developed a flip-hook shot that releases before you can even see it coming.
You can’t teach athleticism or, to a lesser degree, coordination.
Some would argue you also can’t teach mental toughness. It’s true that Meyers Leonard avoids contact. He looks timid at times. While willing to pivot 360 degrees around a player at the top of the key to catch a lob, he can’t do it in traffic to catch a dump pass for the slam.
Those are things that need fixing. No amount of practice will teach grit. It takes experience. It takes playing against other players, bigger players, better players. It takes time
Leonard would be entering his final year of college had he not entered the draft. He also played less than 9 minutes a game in his first of two college seasons.
Portland higher-ups never expected Leonard to step into a thin and unstructured Blazers team and develop into a dominant center last year. They won’t expect Leonard to step into a much deeper and better-defined Blazers team and develop into a dominant center this year.
What they will expect–and what fans should expect–is that Leonard gets meaningful minutes against the best players in the world, making up for losing the opportunity players like Hibbert were given when they decided to stay in college.
Leonard needs time. And he’s going to get it, both on the court and over the course of seasons as he develops his weaknesses and further hones his strengths.
By the time Leonard has played as many college and NBA minutes as Hibbert entering his second year in the league, Leonard will be entering his third. Leonard also had two fewer years of dominating college-level players, two fewer years boosting his confidence. Leonard will have to develop against the best in the world.
All he needs is time. Fortunately, he has it. And what he does with it is going to make Blazer fans forget his first season very, very quickly.