Meyers Leonard is perhaps Portland’s most intriguing enigma, right after Thomas Robinson, whom he has recently supplanted in Terry Stotts’ 9-man rotation. Despite incredible physical tools, the 7’1” backup center has been somehow less than the sum of his parts. If you’ve watched Leonard spend an exorbitant amount of time practicing his 3-point shot instead of his post-moves during warm-ups, you have a good idea why.
He doesn’t play like a center. Big men that shoot from further out are only assets if their range accompanies the traditional skill-set. Otherwise, they might as well be clumsier guards with significantly worse ball handling. After Leonard’s early struggles this season, I thought he fit that bill to a tee, but he’s shown some sneaky improvement that has gone largely unnoticed in limited minutes.
The time he spends on the court has been more than chopped in half since last season, but his production hasn’t. Losing 9 minutes of playing time season-to-season has only cost him 0.6 rebounds per game. He now averages 3.1 rebounds instead of 3.7. Big whoop, right? Well, maybe, but the increased rebounding rate makes him a much more palatable option at center. He’s beginning to focus his efforts where he should.
For perspective, last season he hauled in a paltry 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes of play (unremarkable for any center, much less a 7-footer), but that number has spiked to 13.1 this year. The per 36 metric is more for illustration than science, but you can see why I’m fascinated. If he targets the proper developmental niche, he could still be worth his roster slot.
Since rejoining Terry Stotts’ preferred rotation 3 games ago, Meyers Leonard has averaged 5.33 rebounds in under 13 minutes of playing time per game. Leonard is about as polished as pumice, otherwise, but I appreciate that Stotts has elected to build his confidence. Giving him a well defined role that he is naturally designed to excel at may be just what Leonard needs to get his gargantuan feet under him.
I’ll be much more forgiving of his shooting quirks if he can continue contributing more inside. His range is not at all a bad thing, but I’d rather see him wrestle for rebounds. Though, I am warming to the idea of playing him at power forward and exploiting the nearly guaranteed 3”-5” height advantage in his favor. We’ve seen how LaMarcus Aldridge matches up at 6’11” (granted, with much more talent and experience), and the prospect of relieving him with an even taller power forward is attractive.
I’m not ready to declare “bust” on Portland’s 11th overall pick of 2012 yet. It’s easy to watch him fumble the ball like he sweats butter, or foul at times that would make Mario Chalmers shake his head, but those aren’t new problems. His rebounding is a new improvement. We’d all rather he make necessary strides simultaneously, but one at a time is better than none at a time. For now, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.