Illinois fans rejoice. As if there weren’t enough reasons to root for the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals against the back-to-back NBA champion Golden State Warriors — we now have a sincere rooting interest by backing Meyers Leonard to go to the NBA Finals.
Meyers Leonard hails from small-town Robinson, Illinois — close to Champaign and not far from the Illinois/Indiana border. In two seasons playing for the Fighting Illini from 2010-12, Leonard averaged 7.7 points, 4.7 rebounds in just under 20 minutes played per game.
Moments ago Meyers Leonard’s number was retired before kickoff between Robinson & Flora. Meyers was overcome with emotion as his banner was revealed. Afterwards Meyers announced that he & his wife are donating $10,000 to the school for all Robinson has done for him #Sports10 pic.twitter.com/ggCbkhM2Rv— Marty Ledbetter (@MartySports10) September 7, 2018
Now he serves as a backup big man for the Portland Trail Blazers. He comes off of the bench to spell starters Al-Farouq Aminu and Enes Kanter. Zach Collins from Gonzaga is another backup center on the team who the Blazers took 10th overall two years ago in the 2017 NBA Draft. Leonard competes with Collins for minutes off of the bench and depending on foul trouble and defensive matchups, Leonard can play as many as 10-12 minutes per game, or he’s doesn’t play at all, per coach’s decision.
Leonard played in three of Portland’s seven games against the Denver Nuggets, and he came up big enough with a monster dunk to land on SportsCenter’s twitter feed during Game 7 on Mother’s Day:
Meyers Leonard with the poster #SCtop10 pic.twitter.com/DvrWrQPqxz— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 12, 2019
Portland, much like the league as a whole, is a guard-dominant team. Led by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Trail Blazers don’t rely much on their big men to score. In the matchup against Denver, Leonard was primarily tasked with trying to stay in front of the Nuggets’ best player in Nikola Jokic. Leonard is still pretty raw offensively, but his lateral quickness on the defensive end is rare for a 7-footer. He plays with energy and embraces his role, and by all accounts he’s a strong presence in the locker room and a guy teammates like to be around.
Illini Fans: Be proud of what Meyers is doing; it’s rare territory
Illinois is a storied college basketball program, but it goes without saying that aside from Deron Williams’ exploits, the Fighting Illini haven’t done much when it comes to getting star players in the NBA.
Only one Illinois Fighting Illini player ever has won an NBA Championship, and that happened in mid 1970’s when backup center Steve Kuberski won two titles playing for the Boston Celtics in 1974 and 1976. Meyers Leonard could be the second, although objectively speaking of the four teams left in the NBA Playoffs — Portland, Golden State, Toronto and Milwaukee — the Trail Blazers are the biggest underdog left in the field.
Meyers Leonard loves Illinois
Meyers Leonard follows and regularly tweets about Illinois Athletics. He maintains a close relationship with his Fighting Illini teammate Brandon Paul. He supports Brad Underwood and the players currently on the Fighting Illini roster, and even though Leonard left for the NBA after his sophomore season, he’s still very much invested in the success of his college basketball team.
Meyers talked about his time and his love for the program back in September 2017 during a visit back to Ubben before the start of Underwood’s first season at the helm:
Meyers Leonard is one of the good guys in the NBA. Let’s support him in these Western Conference Finals. I-L-L!
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