The preseason likely caries more significance for the Trail Blazers than it does for most other teams in the NBA, at least this season. With new coaching and front office staffs, eight new players and five rookies, the number of unknowns facing the Trail Blazers less than two weeks before the start of the regular season are many. And while it would be foolish to draw too many hard conclusions from games that only loosely recreate the realities of an NBA regular season tilt, there are trends snapping into focus., one of those being that Meyers Leonard, while young and still very prone to mistakes, looks to have what it takes to be a starting center in the NBA.
Leonard is likely the biggest question mark of Portland's rookies this season. Damian Lillard, after an impressive performance in the Las Vegas Summer League, is already drawing praise for being one of the most NBA-ready players in the 2012 draft class. There's already a familiarity with Joel Freeland and Victor Claver due to their respective years playing overseas in Spain, and while there may be questions about their ability to transition to the NBA game, both are low-risk prospects playing at positions in which the Trail Blazers have some depth. And while Will Barton is somewhat of a wildcard, he's also is a low-risk, high-reward player whose maturation into a quality NBA player would be welcomed, but not necessarily relied upon.
Leonard, however, is a different story. A relative unknown after playing only two seasons at Illinois, Leonard's draft projection went from late first-round to lottery thanks to his posting stellar measurables at the predraft combine. Some questioned if the Trail Blazers took Leonard too high with the No. 11 pick, but due to the entire world knowing of Portland's need for a center, it was generally considered a decent decision. Leonard's performance in Summer League was encouraging, as he showed flashes of the athleticism
and instincts that made him such an interesting prospect, though he didn't exactly distinguish himself the in the same fashion as Lillard.
But as is the case with Lillard, Portland's long-term prospects rely heavily on Leonard maturing into an NBA starter. Through four preseason games, Leonard has shown glimpses of talents tailor-made for the NBA in between moments of looking very much like a 20 year-old rookie.
"He continues to improve," said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. "He has a lot of energy, gives a lot of effort. He learns from his mistakes. Sometimes he over-thinks things, which is understandable. The NBA game is so much faster than the European game or the college game, so there's a lot of things going on the fly that you have to react to. I think the more he's out there, the more he sees, the more he'll understand."
That growth can be seen not only from game to game, but from quarter to quarter. Sometimes Leonard's lessons are learned through mistakes, such as in the first quarter of Wednesday night's victory against the Nuggets when he passed the ball to the opposing team under the basket instead of going to the rim ("I thought LaMarcus was right there" said Leonard after the game). And there are other times when his understanding of Stotts' system is evident, like when he corrected Barton's position of the court in the fourth quarter of Wednesday night's game.
"I've got to continue to learn. I feel like I've done a pretty good job but every game is just a chance to get better and learn and play hard," said Leonard. "So that's what I'm going to do every time I go out on the court."
The instances in which Leonard looks most like an NBA player are those times he completely forgets everything about basketball and simply uses his athleticism to make plays, as was the case against the Nuggets. On numerous occasions, the 7-1 center was on the receiving end of alley-oop pass that could have easily resulted in turnovers if thrown to a less gifted athlete.
"Obviously the (dunk) in the first half
was a pretty exciting dunk," said Leonard of his alley-oop finishes on Wednesday night. "And then the second one, when I came off the court, Coach Stotts was mad at me because I actually ran the play wrong then I caught a lob."
Leonard using his athleticism to make up for mental mistakes is something we'll likely see on many occasions this season, and that's okay, especially considering that the Trail Blazers drafted Leonard knowing he would be more project that perfection. But between being able to cancel out mistakes with uncommon physical ability and a willingness to learn along with an aptitude to do so quickly, Leonard is on his way to being the center the Trail Blazers have coveted for years.
"Sometimes I try to think to much and try to be perfect when in reality, I know I'm going to make mistakes," said Leonard. "But one thing that will remain constant is I'll continue to play hard. I've just got to let the game come to me instead of trying to be perfect. So I feel like I've done a fairly good job until now, but it's just the beginning."