The big man in the middle, Meyers Leonard has had some interesting talk from the media this off-season. John Canzano, columnist for the Oregonian, has said Leonard is the key to the Blazers return to the playoffs and a deep run at that. Leonard is still pretty far out from being the player the Blazers need in the middle, but that’s why GM Neil Olshey went out and grabbed Robin Lopez. With time and wisdom, Leonard will become the Blazers answer at the five spot.
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After only two years at the University of Illinois, Leonard was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. The 21 year old from Robinson Illinois was a highly touted center. His freshman year he averaged only 8.2 minutes getting 2.1 points and 1.2 rebounds. However, his sophomore year he came on strong averaging 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He had six games where he scored 20 or more points. He was named an Honorable Mention for the All Big-10 team that year.
An intriguing stat is he averaged 1.9 blocks per game his sophomore year. He had four games with five or more blocks. He had a total of 60 blocks that season and 73 for his career at Illinois. Defensively he is exactly what the Blazers need, or will need. Leonard is far from being the best center, but he is fighting for his chance to be the starter. I think by next year he will be starting and by his fourth year (at the latest) he will be the center the Blazers need.
During his first season he played in 69 games, starting 9. He played an average of 17.5 minutes and scored 5.5 points a game. He also showed some promise on the boards grabbing 3.7 a game. He recorded 12 games where he grabbed seven or more rebounds. His best game to date was the March 30th game against Golden State. In the loss to the Warriors, Leonard played 41 minutes, shot 52.9% from the field scoring 22 points, all while grabbing 10 rebounds.
One of the biggest reasons Leonard hasn’t been able to be the center everyone wants him to be is because he is still getting used to his body. Now some of you will think that’s an excuse, but did you know that Leonard was a guard until his sophomore year of high school? That’s right, he gained six inches to his height between his freshman and sophomore years. Add the years now, three from high school and two from college. Coming into last year, he had only played FIVE years as a center! Give the kid a break, he is still not used to looking down and seeing seven feet worth of human. Most centers in the league have played years at the five spot, not five total years. This coming year will be his seventh year as a center, so the learning curve is still pretty steep, but he can handle it.
Leonard will be the reason the Blazers are successful in the future, it just depends on when that future will come. The Blazers went out and got Robin Lopez because they needed a legitimate big man. As much as I loved J.J. Hickson, he was undersized and overmatched against the 7-footers. However, Leonard will provide that length and that ability to play strong in the post on both offense and defense. He has one of (if not) the best PF in the game today to learn from in L.A. He can learn to post up, fade away, take 10-12 foot jumpers, and more. Lopez is a good Band-Aid until Leonard is ready, but Lopez is not the Blazers long term answer at center.
I see Leonard as the primary backup and biggest threat to Lopez’s starting title. With more practice and polishing, he can be a great center. Lopez even mentioned that Leonard has been asking lots of questions of everyone on the team. Leonard wants to learn and wants to show Portland fans he loves it here and will do whatever he can to bring them a championship. Leonard will have to compete with Joel Freeland, but right now it looks like Leonard has the edge, let’s look for him to keep it that way.
Out of the future players, Leonard is the player I’m looking forward to the most. He has the most upside because he still has such a high ceiling and he showed that he can produce and that he has some tools to help him now. Just imagine what will happen when he can hone his skills and get comfortable in his own skin. He could be dominant.