Many weren’t surprised by the fact that Meyers Leonard was demoted to the third string after a disappointing preseason effort that saw him lack progress in spatial awareness, defensive positioning, and screening. During games, Portland fans have been especially critical of Leonard’s play and across comment sections and forums some are even calling for Neil Olshey to trade him. Should Portland turn their back on a 21-year-old with less than 82 games played in his short career?
It would be highly unorthodox for a team to move a player they drafted in the lottery the next year. As we’ve seen in recent years, the valuation of draft picks has become paramount to the decision-making process in planning, trading, and re-signing players. Draft picks are high-value commodities, and unless there appears to be a disastrous mistake, teams see them as a sunk cost once they are signed to their rookie deal.
However, Portland’s new GM Neil Olshey doesn’t have a personal attachment to Leonard. He’s shown a propensity to make the right decision for the team, whether it’s keeping Sasha Pavlovic because the Celtics are paying his salary or whether it’s signing half of this year’s roster in one summer. And while it might be an anomaly for a lottery pick to get traded in the first two seasons, Portland is no stranger to the concept — just ask Thomas Robinson.
For Leonard, he benefits from the fact that centers are typically slow to develop, especially ones so young both in age and in the developmental process. Leonard has only been playing in the post for six years — since he was 15 — due to a growth spurt in high school where before he played on the wing. Saying that six years is a short amount of time to be able to learn to play center at an NBA level would be a monumental understatement.
So just how far behind is Meyers Leonard? Take a look at these rookie year numbers from six centers whose rookie seasons were at the age of 20 or younger.
Leonard doesn’t really stick out from the pack either way. His numbers are most similar to Robin Lopez, especially considering their rebounding abilities. Lopez is and will most likely remain a better shot blocker as Leonard’s arms aren’t very long and his vision, at the moment, remains suspect along with his positioning and footwork.
What Leonard lacks in shot blocking prowess he makes up for with natural talent on the offensive end of the floor. Meyers runs the floor extremely well on the break, and is a good leaper and finisher at the rim on lobs. He shows a good touch around the basket even with his wonky, elbow-out shot. And, despite his dropped passes, I’m inclined to believe he has soft hands that are sabotaged by his panicky demeanor. He can shoot from mid to long range. There’s lots to like about Leonard’s game.
That is perhaps the best reason for patience with Meyers Leonard. His natural upside isn’t on the defensive end of the floor, but as Blazer fans have seen this year with Joel Freeland, defensive prowess is learnable. Along with his mistakes, Leonard shows promise of being an offensive weapon capable of contributing reasonably at the defensive end of the floor. While popular opinion may be to punish the young center for losing his position, he still has some time yet to grow into a viable rotation player for Portland through 2015-2016.
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