One thing is for certain. Meyers Leonard of the Portland Trail Blazers doesn’t need 40 minutes to incite a crowd with a posterizing slam dunk or a big shot block.
At just 20 years of age, the former Robinson, Ill., standout who took his talents to Champaign for two years is getting his feet wet at the highest level of basketball.
Close to 300 fans, many of whom watched Leonard take the Maroons to the 2010 IHSA Class 2A state championship, rode on charter buses to watch him battle the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis last week.
Those fans filled a lower-level section of Bankers Life Fieldhouse to watch Leonard shoot around 90 minutes before the game, drawing a big smile to the 7-footer’s face. Leonard obliged by signing autographs up until the very last second his presence was required in the locker room.
“It’s very special. I had my family, best friends here. Just people that I know of in Robinson, people that have been fans for quite a while now. It was pretty awesome to have them here to be able to support me and watch me play in the NBA,” Leonard said.
Leonard is in a positive situation in Portland, playing for mild-mannered coach Terry Stotts on a team with a good mix of veterans and another talented first-round pick — point guard Damian Lillard, the early favorite for Rookie of the Year.
LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson get a majority of the minutes at center and power forward, but Leonard can spell them with production at both ends of the floor. Leonard leads NBA rookies with his shooting percentage of 53.3 percent while ranking fourth among first-year players in blocked shots at 1.0 per game.
“I came into a very good situation. I have the ability to learn, but I also have the ability to come in and impact games. LaMarcus has been an All-Star. J.J. can really rebound,” Leonard said. “Our big-man coach Kim Hughes, who I’m really close with, has taught me a lot.”
Leonard has scored in double figures three times this season, scoring 12 twice and 11 once — all during a nine-day span in late November.
“He’s already improved a month-and-a-half into the season,” Stotts said. “It’s an adjustment. He’s still a young player learning the NBA game, learning personnel. My expectations are that he competes and he plays hard and continues to improve.”
An Easten Conference scout expressed doubts about Leonard as a rebounder as the athletic big man got just one in the Blazers’ 99-92 loss at Indiana. The same scout also praised Leonard’s fearlessness on the court, meaning Leonard knows he belongs.
Leonard has skills that will be refined in time.
Against Indiana’s veteran front line, Leonard struggled to deal with the savvy veterans on the glass a couple times. The Pacers’ Tyler Hansbrough got the best of Leonard with some rugged play, but Leonard also showed he can be an excellent weakside shot blocker, swatting Gerald Green’s attempt in the lane with his left hand.
It’s plays like that — in addition to the chiseled frame and the high-flying alley-oop finishes — that have everyone raving about Leonard’s potential.
Portland veteran Jared Jeffries said Leonard’s eagerness to learn and work should equate to reaching that potential.
“His energy, man. He has a great passion for the game and I think his upside is incredible,” Jeffries said. “He’s so athletic, moves well. He’s a really good passer for his size. The biggest thing he’ll have a chance to do from here on out is improve. It’s good working with guys like that.”
Leonard made huge strides from his sophomore year to senior year in high school. His upbeat approach to improving helped him become a blue-chip recruit for former University of Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
He can see that improvement helping him earn playing time in Portland as well. The Blazers rank last in the NBA in bench scoring and 29th in the league in rebounding off the bench. So they could use a little added punch from guys like Leonard.
“He’ll grow into those minutes,” Stotts said. “We’re deep at the 4-5. LaMarcus is going to play [heavy minutes]. … There’s a lot to learn for young guys. The mental aspect of the game is underrated. The veterans that have been around a long time, know the game, know the players, they can see things happening before it happens.”
Leonard is confident his progression as a pro will be steady.
“For a rookie, I’ve made pretty good strides … certainly for a big man,” Leonard said. “It’s all about in-game situations, beginning to understand the game, the flow of the game, how to guard different things, how to score and find different angles on offense, just getting better in general, so I feel like I’ve made good progress. But there’s still a lot of hard work ahead of me. That’s something I’ve always been able to do, always work hard and continue to better myself. I hope for a positive future.”
Leonard is still getting acclimated to the grind of playing in the NBA. The game in Indiana was the last of a seven-game road trip.
“After this road trip, I would say the travel. We had a couple road games, but nothing like this,” Leonard said. “It was an 11-day road trip. It was kind of hectic, a lot of different hotel rooms. Finding good things to eat, staying hydrated, just everything. You’ve really got to take care of your body and stay mentally locked in or you’re going to wear yourself down.”
A pretty good passing big man himself, Jeffries likes Leonard’s feel for the game.
“Every player struggles with the speed of that game. The game is so much faster than college, that it takes you for a while to adjust, for the game to slow down. It’ll do that for him. He’s good enough, he’s skilled enough that eventually the game will slow down and he’ll be every to play at a very high level. He sees the court really well. He knows where to move on the court,” Jeffries said.
While Portland has some young talent, the Blazers find themselves 9-12 and in last place in the Northwest Division. On the bright side, their record was even with the L.A. Lakers through Monday’s games.
The way Lillard is playing along with Aldridge and high-upside guys like Nicolas Batum and J.J. Hickson, Portland is a team to watch for in the future.
They’ll definitely be watching in Crawford County, Illinois.
“He’s the talk of the town,” said Les Wilson, an assistant coach on Robinson’s state champion team of 2010. Wilson was among the contingent of fans who made the drive to Indianapolis.
“We’re very, very proud of him, not only as a basketball player but as a citizen and a good community person. He can’t complain. He’s playing pretty well. He’ll learn the ropes and get better every year.”