Portland has a relatively short bench, but one surprise for the Blazers in the first five games has been rookie center Meyers Leonard. He’s been able to do what he was unable to do in the preseason by staying out of foul trouble. Terry Stotts has given him increased minutes over the last three games and it has Portland fans wondering if the 20 year old shouldn’t be starting in front of JJ Hickson.
This topic has come up before. Hardwood Paroxysm’s Sean Highkin and I spoke about it on a post here on AYS last week. Sean contested that their play has been fairly even, and the Blazer second unit would do well with Hickson’s offensive spark off the bench:
“Hickson would be more effective in a reserve role. Look at Portland’s bench—is there one guy on there that you can comfortably say can be counted on for five points a game consistently, let alone ten? I’ve got nothing. Hickson has a lot of flaws as a basketball player, but one thing he can do pretty well is score.”
My counterpoint was that Leonard blows more basic defensive rotations than Hickson as he has a tendency to ball-watch. And at some point in time, he’s going to get made to look like a rookie due to inexperience. I’d rather he get time against opponents second line for his own development. Now, comparing Leonard’s numbers against Hickson’s, I think that’s probably still true.
JJ Hickson has seen only 22 minutes more of floor time than Meyers Leonard. They have similar numbers in rebounding, blocks, and defensive rating. However, two things stand out to me.
First, Hickson is better at defending the post right now. He’s allowing less points per possession despite having to defend the post more frequently than Leonard. He’s also forcing more turnovers in the post. Second, Leonard is pretty awful at defending the pick-and-roll, allowing teams to score 80% of the time.
Perhaps most important is the caveat that comes with looking at these numbers – JJ Hickson is playing against NBA starters. Leonard has seen most of his time against a second line of NBA talent. Looking back at the play-by-play of the last five games, Leonard is checking in with 4-7 minutes left in the quarter in every game. He’s spent most of his time checking the likes of Ryan Hollins rather than DeAndre Jordan.
The argument Highkin made still comes back to the question of giving the Blazers a bench lift, rather than moving Meyers Leonard into the front line. After looking at the numbers, I still think the counter argument holds more weight. The only reason to move Hickson into the bench to provide scoring is to try and lessen the drop-off of the second unit. But even with Hickson coming off the bench, the Blazers aren’t a good team. They’re going to lose games. Leonard has been an emotional player his entire college career. For his confidence, a move into the starting lineup would need to be permanent. That’s not something Terry Stotts could guarantee after five games.
The play of Meyers Leonard has far surpassed anything Portland has expected this early. But it’s fair to say his efficiency would drop against front-line NBA talent. You have to play your best players, and on weight, Hickson takes that role for the Blazers right now. The idea of Hickson providing a bench spark for the is a good one. In time, Leonard may provide that spark of play himself. But the starting lineup? The Blazers need to give it some time.
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