There was an unusual buzz around Meyers Leonard at the Blazers’ final media availability last week. Leonard played all of 355 minutes this year and did basically nothing memorable with those minutes, so it’s strange that there would be much, if any, focus on him. Based on his stats, he is decisively a benchwarmer. But there it was.
Damian Lillard compared Leonard to a computer. Both Blazer’s Edge and the Oregonian had pieces about his development. After an entire year of being a non-entity, Leonard was back in the news.
Why? It’s pretty simple. The team is clearly talented, but also fatally shallow. It’s casting around for any possible internal improvement because help from the outside via trade or free agency potentially damages either the current team or its financial outlook. The team’s big man rotation is extremely unreliable once you get past LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez. Joel Freeland is okay, but probably not the type for a championship team to depend on. Leonard is exactly the sort of high-ceiling somewhat-unknown-quantity player for fans and media to pin their hopes to.
And then there were Leonard’s actual comments, which were fascinating. Beyond the normal stuff about needing to improve, one quote stuck out:
“I really haven’t played competitive basketball that much.”
Strange, from a professional basketball player. He doesn’t mean in his NBA career. He means in his life. He didn’t grow to his current seven feet until he was well into high school, and only played 272 minutes his freshman year at Illinois. He calls last year’s team “loose and free,” which is not a great environment to develop in. This year, again, he barely played. So he’s right, and he’s right in the interview to stress over and over the importance of playing full-speed ten-man basketball.
Want a probably-too-pessimistic comparison? He reminds me a little bit of Luke Babbitt. Like Leonard, Babbitt had something to offer the Blazers (namely shooting) which he could only ever show off in short bursts, and which never fully compensated for his terrible team defense. Similarly, Leonard has a lot to offer Portland in the way of length, shooting, and athleticism. He and Babbitt are both guys who have obviously spent thousands and thousands of hours in the gym working on their games, but eventually found that there is no way to simulate the court sense and decision-making that comes with playing in the NBA.
It didn’t work out for Babbitt. He left for Russia after going unsigned last season. Then he came back for the Pelicans as a stopgap while Ryan Anderson was hurt. He was “serviceable” in New Orleans, and will probably bounce around the league a few more times.
Leonard is different, regardless of how his career plays out. He’s got a higher upside than Babbitt, and a more valuable skillset. He was picked 11th in a strong draft, rather than 16th in a pretty okay one. He’s a legitimately special athlete. All of this will give him more slack and probably a longer career than Babbitt. But the underlying issue is the same: thanks to an experience deficit, they both have a tendency to get lost on the court, especially on defense, which makes it impossible for their teams to maximize their gifts.
Is a general disorientation and low basketball IQ a death sentence? Probably not. Gerald Green, by all accounts was the same way early in his career, and has managed to harness his athleticism and shooting for the Suns and Nets. Then again, he had to go to Russia (Russia again!) to get the experience he needed. It’s nice for him that he’s carved out an NBA career, but a fat lot of help for the Celtics, who drafted him. The only outcome for the Blazers worse than Leonard developing like Babbitt is Leonard developing like Green.
Thomas Robinson, on the other hand, in the space of this season, managed to cut out a pretty significant number of his bonehead mistakes. This let all the good stuff (which David discussed here) rise to the top. And Leonard and Robinson are an interesting comparison. They’re both great athletes with skills that make them extremely attractive and which make their dumb mistakes even more of a bummer. Robinson is a year older, which is a good sign for Leonard.
I have no idea if the structural issues in Leonard’s game are significant enough that he’ll never be able to fully use his athleticism and shooting touch. He’s clearly a hard worker and a smart person, but that guarantees nothing– everything I’ve heard suggests Babbitt was the same way. Lillard’s “computer” comment should not be confused for an indication that the Leonard is a smart player, which is all that matters. Lillard surely wouldn’t describe himself as a computer, but his processing power, so to speak, is clearly orders of magnitude better than Leonard’s.
Leonard’s development, somewhat unfortunately, is important for the Blazers. As Matt Moore pointed out after Game 5 against San Antonio, the Blazers aren’t the sort of young team that can simply be expected to improve. Leonard fulfilling some fraction of his potential would go a long way toward fixing that. But for the moment, he remains a player with limited understanding for the game. To his credit, he clearly understands that, but acknowledging an issue before the summer starts and coming back with it fixed are two very different things.