From the 11th-overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to averaging 7.7 minutes per game with the Portland Trail Blazers this past season, former Illinois center Meyers Leonard’s NBA career has not taken off like the former lottery pick must’ve hoped.
And it hasn’t been for a lack of opportunity either. Leonard has been in and out of Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts’ rotation in his six-year NBA career. The most consistent minutes Leonard saw was in his fourth season when he was playing 21.2 minutes per game and averaging career-highs in nearly every category.
However, Leonard sustained a shoulder injury that led to him eventually being shut down for the rest of the season. After that year, Leonard’s minutes declined substantially, and in the 2017-18 year, he played in only 33 games.
With two years left on his four-year/$41 million contract, Leonard’s opportunity to live up to his favorable deal is dwindling.
To find out what the former Illinois standout has to do to break back into an NBA rotation, I talked to Danny Marang, the host of Blazers Outsiders on NBC Sports Northwest as well as serving as an analyst, podcast host and producer at SB Nation’s Blazer’s Edge.
Erich Fisher: Through your time covering the Trail Blazers and watching Meyers Leonard play, what is the general consensus from the coaching staff and fanbase about where he is at in his career?
Danny Marang: The general consensus about where he is at has changed over the course of the last couple of years. At the beginning where he was drafted in the same class as Andre Drummond, I know a lot people thought Drummond was the pick that made a lot more sense for Portland to take because they needed another big alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. Even then when they drafted Leonard and Drummond went to Detroit, people were pretty excited about the pick and they liked the idea of what Leonard could bring. Coming out of high school and Illinois, he had been tagged as a physical player. NBADraft.net had him tagged as Tiago Splitter. I mean, that’s as insulting as a player comparison can get to what he ended out to be.
In part with his relationship with the fans, it has been up and down tremendously. It’s down right now because of past performances. He’s a whipping boy for all their problems. There was a time here in Portland where Leonard’s stock was through the roof. The end of the Memphis series in 2014-15 and Aldridge left, they were selling that they were going to have a Big Three with Damien Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Leonard. There was a significant and immediate push by the Trail Blazers for that Big Three. And today, it’s difficult to even see Leonard on the court. It’s been a really crazy ride for Leonard throughout his six years.
EF: What would say the current relationship is like between Leonard and the Portland fanbase?
DM: It’s really, really weird. I’ve interacted with Leonard plenty of times. He’s the only player I’ve ever sang Happy Birthday to — and that was actually a thing that happened on our TV show. He was a really good sport about it. The way I explain it to people about Leonard — or that thinks the Leonard hate is reflective on who he is as a person — is that if I had a daughter, I would want her to marry him. He is a fantastic human-being, which is insight of everything Portland has been as franchise. They absolutely love these guys. They have their cult heroes. But for some reason, they have turned so toxic on Leonard where every time he makes a mistake they started booing him! I’ve never heard a Blazer booed, even in the history of the franchise! It’s the wildest thing I have ever seen…
I almost factor it to Tim Tebow, and I know how religious Tebow is makes some people uncomfortable, but I don’t think people believe that Leonard, like Tebow, is as good of a guy as he seems he is, so they tear him down.
EF: What have been some of the reasons why Leonard fell out of the Stotts’ rotation these last couple of seasons?
DM: For Meyers Leonard right now, it’s more about his performance than anything else and his inability to just play basketball. He has the skillset, he has the ability, but it somehow comes out a step too slow, it comes out with hesitation, or it comes out rushed. It’s the wrong place at the wrong time and you can see it. It’s hard to figure out what caused this because when you see a 7-foot-1, 270-pounder step into a secondary break three-pointer, you’re like, “Oh okay, there’s some skill here,” or when you see him run the floor and catch an alley-oop and dunk it, you see that there’s something here.
There’s just a hesitation or a breakdown. When the ball swings around the perimeter and he’s open, but he missed his last shot, now he’s not shooting because he doesn’t want the crowd to boo him, or he doesn’t want to upset his coaches, and that compounds the mistakes.
EF: With that said, what can Leonard bring to the Trail Blazers when he does get minutes?
DM: On paper, he brings exactly what this team needs, and that’s a floor spacer. Outside of Lillard, there isn’t a consistent shooter on this team.
I don’t think anybody, even the people who boo, question Leonard’s ability to shoot the ball. He’s the best midrange shooter on this team pure shooting-wise, which is a crazy statement to make with C.J. McCollum being one of the best overall shooters in the entire league from midrange. But Leonard’s ability to shoot on the run, at the elbows, down the middle from the midrange is second to none for a seven-foot dude that big.
I’ve sat there in practice and watched him shoot and just think, “good god, this man can shoot the lights out.”
EF: What kind of effect did Leonard’s shoulder injury that he sustained in 2016 have on his career?
DM: That was massive. He played through an injury he shouldn’t have been playing through. Following his successful season before that, he gets to play and tried to play with a dislocated shoulder. And he was remarkably bad out there because he couldn’t get his arm above his shoulder and you could see it. He was trying to be a good teammate because they needed a big body out there. I think he wanted to show he was a team guy because he was up for a contract and betting on himself because he had just turned down an offer the year before.
That season is the season that started to bring Leonard down this path with the fans because he began to not be productive. I bet if you ask Leonard if he could have that decision back over again, he would have surgery much earlier.
EF: On paper, does Leonard’s game match what Stotts is looking for out of his big men?
DM: Oh absolutely! I think Leonard is exactly what they want out of big men with his ability to stretch the floor. He can just flat out shoot the ball. I mean, absolutely shoot the hell out of the rock.
And here’s a guy that, because of his desire to please people, the crowd and the team can get that energy. When he makes those plays, it’s electric. He wants to show that emotion. And again, I also think that’s what fills into what Stotts is looking for. This is a team that shows up to do what they do. Lillard, with how much of a big-time player he is, is not a real emotional dude until when he starts tapping the wrist for Lillard Time. When Leonard does get going, there’s something energetic there. He lights up the room, and I think something like that is important, especially with a guy like Ed Davis gone.
They need the emotion, they need the floor spacing and they need the size. Leonard has the ability to do all those things, but “will he?” has been the big question.
EF: Do you feel like there are some defensive issues that are holding Leonard back, with today’s NBA being very perimetered and pick-and-roll based?
DM: I feel like people are quick to forget just how massive Leonard is. Since he is pretty ripped physically, and he is a cut-up dude, they expect him to be able to move better, especially on the perimeter, but he is a massive, massive, massive human-being. One of the biggest dudes in the league. And I see things where he is so athletic, he should be able to “move like an Anthony Davis,” and they are just two different players there and that’s not the case.
I trust Leonard on base-line drive help out on the perimeter or outside the paint, or occasionally, he will be able to alter a shot closing out to the corner, but he’s not the guy you want on a premier wing. And that’s something I think Portland is okay with. I don’t think Leonard’s size or lack of flexibility defensively is what is keeping him from getting on the floor. It’s more about the regular execution and trusting his judgement
EF: What kind of offseason does Leonard need to have if he is going to get off the bench and onto the court?
DM: Leonard is in this weird realm of basketball. He has his skillset, he has the support and love of his teammates, he works his butt off and he checks off everything in the box except for production on the floor, and that’s the thing that matters the most. I think the reason we see the kind of reaction we get from the fans and the coaching staff is because that kind of thing just doesn’t happen. When you have somebody that works his butt off, you have somebody that is loved by the team like this, who spends the extra time, the extra effort in the summer working on developing his game, all those things, you normally see that translate into something on the floor, but because of his hang-ups from everything else, it doesn’t.
It’s all about production at this point. Staying late after practice to work with the coaches or whatever won’t do anything for him. It’s make-or-break time for him.
EF: What is your prediction for the type of season Leonard is going to have?
DM: I’m going to try to be optimistic because I like the guy so much. I hope he goes out there and he delivers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: His production can easily be 10 points, seven boards in 20 minutes of action a night stretching the floor, rebounding and defending at the rim. I have no problem seeing him be able to obtain that, skill-wise.
If he gets over that mental hurdle, he’s a hell of a basketball player. He’s got a unique skillset. He’s a massive human being that can do things other guys can’t do and Portland needs a big body that stretch the floor and shoot. I think Portland needs to add that to its roster and I think he’ll be effective this year.
EF: With the relationship Leonard has with the fanbase in Portland and the inability to find consistent success with this team, do you feel like it should be in Leonard’s best interest to move on from the organization?
DM: Personally, I don’t want to see him go because I like the guy so much. I like him as a person and I want to be there when it all comes together for him, but for his own sanity, I would like to see him go somewhere else to get a fresh start. A lot of success in the NBA is built around fit and for whatever reason things aren’t clicking here, so a fresh start could be really good for him.
A big thanks to Danny Marang for talking to us again, and make sure to read his stuff at Blazer’s Edge.