The Portland Trail Blazers might have literally hit the jackpot in the lottery this year. Landing Damian Lillard with the number six overall selection in this year’s lottery section of the NBA Draft couldn’t have worked out better for all parties involved. Lillard went to a team that desperately needed a point guard, and that’s probably an understatement. Without him, the Trail Blazers would have started the season with Nolan Smith and Ronnie Price running the point. Seriously. Think about that nightmare for just a second.
On the flip side of that coin, the Lillard pick has turned out to be even more fortuitous for the Blazers as an organization. He has been everything a franchise starving for a point guard (Smith and Price, remember?) could have asked for, plus a little more. He’s an emerging future All-Star with a clear cut and down to Earth attitude, and he has helped push Portland into a playoff picture they had no right to compete for this year. Having just recently collected his fourth straight Rookie of the Month award in February, Lillard is a virtual lock for the yearly version of the same award. And when I say lock, I mean he could be abducted by aliens tonight, and his family would still be accepting the award on his behalf at the end of the season.
Since Lillard has been enjoying so much success this year, it’s been very easy for fans to completely forget about our other lottery pick in this year’s draft: The man with two first names, Meyers Leonard. If you’re thinking, “Oh right, I forgot we drafted that center from Illinois!” you’re probably not alone. The highlight of Leonard’s season up until recently would probably have been the YouTube video where he’s reunited with his brother, who’s on leave from the military. Not to knock on the video or anything, it’s really incredible (seriously, go watch it now and don’t be afraid to cry.).
Leonard’s development has been slow to say the least, but that should come as no surprise. He was a raw, but talented prospect coming out of college where he only played one season (to contrast that, Lillard played four seasons). He had enough upside for the Blazers to use the number eleven pick on him, and he’s been lucky so far to not be thrust into the spotlight just yet. One could argue that Lillard’s emergence has meant less pressure on Leonard as he continues to learn the game and I would agree.
Coach Stotts has kept a relatively tight leash on Leonard and rightfully so. It would have been easy to throw Leonard out there immediately and let him learn with game time experience. If the Blazers season hadn’t started out so surprisingly well, we may have seen exactly that. Fortunately, we’ve able to see a competitive Portland team for most of the season and that’s meant more time for Leonard to simmer as Stotts has slowly brought him along.
For the first four and a half months, Leonard’s play has been spotty at best. He’s sprinkled in a few good offensive showings here and there, but certainly nothing you’d write home about. His defense leaves A LOT to be desired and that’s what has made it so difficult on Stotts the past few months to play him, especially when the Blazers were barely clinging to a number 8 seed. It’s tough to trust the 7’1 guy on a nightly basis when he just keeps running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
Portland’s approach with Leonard has been almost perfect. There are some players who need to start right away. Guys with crazy amounts of confidence, where a few missed shots or a couple of defensive mistakes won’t discourage them from continuing to play to their abilities. Guys like Damian Lillard, who can step right in and make a difference because they just get “it.” I don’t know what “it” is or why some guys just have “it” from the get-go and others need a little shove to get there, but the Blazers knew that Leonard wasn’t going to just step in and be that great new big man Portland fans have been craving for years now.
When I initially came up with the idea of what I was going to write for this column, Leonard was barely a blip on the every-day Blazer fans radar. And then, to put it as simply as possible, he just started to play… better. I noticed at first in the stat sheet for the Denver game on February 27th. Despite only playing 16 minutes, he was able to snag five boards and put up 13 points (a season high for him). It was nice to see him to put up some numbers, but anyone can bust out for a good game every now and again. Then Saturday rolled around and I was watching him flirt with his first double-double (12 points, 8 rebounds) against the Timberwolves. And Monday as I was writing this column, he was busy having the best game of his career thus far, putting up 15 points on 6 for 8 shooting, and 6 rebounds. He was playing the Bobcats, but a good game is a good game.
It’s such a small sample size that it’s really tough to tell if this is going to be a sign of things to come. We can’t predict that he’ll keep this going for the rest of the season, or even till the next game, but Portland fans have to be excited for the possibilities. A lot of props need to be given to Coach Stotts and the rest of his crew for their continued work in trying to improve every aspect of his game. From what I’ve read, Stotts tends to be strict and harsh with Leonard. He expects the absolute best from him every time he’s on the floor and I’ve actually seen Stotts yank him from a game he wasn’t focused on. Now that the playoffs appear to be much further out of sight (I just can’t picture Portland overtaking any of the other teams vying for that eight spot right now. Specifically the Lakers, who seem to finally putting the pieces together) Leonard should be out there every night getting a chance to learn and prove himself to the rest of the NBA.
With J.J. Hickson almost guaranteed to leave in the offseason and no other viable center on the roster, the coaching staff needs the opportunity to see if they can trust Leonard to provide them with both the offense and defense they’ll need from a big man next season. Slow and steady can only last so long and Leonard can no longer hide in the shadows. He’s in the spotlight right now and opposing teams and coaches will now have to see what makes this big man tick (and how to stop him.) I for one, think the Blazers will make a run at a center in free agency this year. Maybe a Chris Kaman type player, signed to a one year deal. A guy who can take over major minutes and keep Portland competitive. I’m hoping I’m off on this one though. I want Leonard to prove me wrong. The training wheels are officially off. You take it from here, Meyers.
Steve Emerson is on Twitter. Follow him at @stevelikesports