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Meyers Leonard Follows A Familiar Path For Big Men

04/26/13
  1. Written by: erikgundersen  / avg. rating: 5.0


    Often times, crazy things happen when you're trying to solve a problem or figure something out.

    That something, in the case Meyers Leonard, was NBA defense. There have been a great deal of young big men who effectively protect the rim upon arrival, but for the majority of NBA bigs, even the greats, it's a puzzle which had to be solved.

    "You know, I had my ups and downs, there's no doubt about that," Leonard said.

    It's something Terry Stotts has experienced first hand for years in the NBA. It's something that Andrew Bogut, the other rookie center Stotts inherited at a new job, had to go through, too.

    The 2012-13 Trail Blazers season came and went without Portland finding a defensive anchor to effectively execute Terry Stotts' defensive schemes. Leonard was drafted with the 11th pick and was brought to Portland with the hope of being that player eventually.

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    "Learning defense is probably the hardest thing," said Andrew Bogut, reflecting on his early NBA days.

    Bogut and Leonard, although different in skill sets on the offense end, are very alike in the task that confronted them upon arrival.  They also entered the NBA at the same age: 20.

    "I was the number one pick so I started. You've got to have confidence in your big but you have to teach him the game at the same time," remembers Bogut from his first year in Milwaukee.

    "In college, all I  could do was stand in the middle of the paint and try to block shots, rebound and run," said Leonard. "Whereas here, you got to show on the ball screen, be able to guard really good guys in the post one-on-one, rebound, run, try to block shots. There's so many things that go into it in the NBA, the game's so much faster, you have to anticipate faster."

    Bogut came into the league after being the National Player of The Year in College during his sophomore season in Utah. Eventually, Bogut evolved into the anchor of Milwaukee's top-flight defenses that were ranked (using Defensive Rating which is points given up per 100 possessions) 2nd (2009-10) and 4th (2010-11) in back-to-back years. Right now, a less-than 100 percent Bogut is patrolling the paint for the Warriors who've stolen home court in the playoffs, showing shades of his dominant Milwaukee days. But, as our memories always deceive, it's easy to forget once upon a time that Bogut wasn't always one-step ahead, changing shots and protecting the paint.  

    "I mean, I put pretty good numbers up," said Bogut. "My rookie year, it wasn't great and then I put good numbers up but I still wasn't adjusted defensively probably til' my third year, where you really start to figure out the three-second rule, blocking shots, taking charges. Once I figured that out, it was much easier."

    Over the last 10 to 15 years, there haven't been many big men who have come into the league as a force on both ends instantly. Defenses have gotten increasingly complicated over thanks in part to the increased level of sophistication in NBA offenses. The days of hulking big men who only protect the paint doesn't exist. They do more than their predecessors ever had to do.

    "You know big guys, it's different," said Nicolas Batum, who just finished his fifth season. "Big guys it takes a little more time to develop. But you see all those big guys get mature, it takes longer to mature. You know, like Dwight (Howard), Yao Ming, all those guys."

    As Batum has witnessed in the league and as Bogut has experienced, the big man experience is almost always a rough one, with more growing pains.

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    In his first season, Leonard has developed some solid NBA skills despite the fact that he is still trying to put the puzzle pieces together on defense. He's shown an understanding of spacing and has a balance between knowing when to dive to the rim and when to float on the outside to knock down a midrange or three-point shot.

    Towards the end of the season the chatter began to come from all of the media that Portland needed a "rim protector," after acknowledging General Manager Neil Olshey's concern with starting a 6-9 power forward, JJ Hickson, at center. The 13-game losing streak served as  "exhibit A," even if it had been a problem even when the Trail Blazers were winning.

    "I do think I can be that guy," said Leonard when asked if he could be the "rim protector" missing from Portland's defense. "It's (Olshey's) job, it's what he has to do, but right now I'm on a five to six month mission to come in and be that guy. Hopefully I will be, it's my goal and I do think I can be that guy. I know I have a lot of hard work ahead of me this offseason, this summer but it's something I'm willing to do."

    Stotts said the biggest thing he took from coaching Bogut, which has been valuable in his dealing with Leonard, was that a coach must have patience.  

    Bogut talked about how helpful it was to have veterans like Joe Smith and Ervin Johnson who were willing to teach, just as Meyers has spoken about how much Jared Jeffries has been helpful by telling him that he'd been through during his early days in the NBA. It may not be an easy thing to swallow for fans who crave a winner as much as Portland does, but what we are seeing with Leonard has happened to all most of the league's best bigs whether we choose to remember or not.

    Bogut says he wasn't adjusted to defense until his third season and is now regarded as one of the league's smartest defenders and, when healthy, one of the most disruptive forces in the paint. This is no guarantee that Leonard will be the type of force Bogut has been, only an example of how difficult and most likely long the process of reaching that level is.

    "It came over time. It takes time. I know Meyers has struggled with defense in the league a little bit but it takes a little bit of time," says Bogut. "It's a quicker game than college. It's much more of a wider space with the three pushed out. You've got to figure that out."

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    Being a rookie on the same team as Damian Lillard has probably, paradoxically enough, shielded Leonard from some of the expectations that he be ready to contribute right away. But even without that pressure, which dominated the careers of his predecessors, Leonard posses a desire to be great.

    Throughout his rookie season, Leonard had the ability to amaze with his soft touch and athleticism just as he's shown the ability to frustrate. But this is unfortunately the process that faces all modern big men, a reality that can be hard to accept. More complicated schemes, more responsibilities, more film study, more skilled finishers around the basket than there's ever been. One second late and, as Bogut says, "you get dunked on."

    Leonard plans to add up to 10 pounds to his frame and will also play in Summer League for the Trail Blazers as well as going to the well-regarded Tim Grguirich camp.

    "I would say the only expectation for myself is to try to be a starter. I'm not going to put any stats out there or I'm not going to try and say I'm going to be a top defensive center in the league, nothing like that. Nothing like that is ever going to be accurate, sitting here today," Leonard said wisely.

    The margin for error on defense is as slim as it has every been, which is what makes defense so difficult for a young big man. It requires near perfection between five men moving in concert, believing in their scheme, but at the heart of every defense is an anchor. It just takes more time than many realize for the anchor to settle. Hopefully for the Trail Blazers, Leonard is able to settle sooner rather than later and he is on a mission to try and do that as fast as possible.


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