NBA

Leonard Ready to Put ‘Nightmare Year’ Behind Him

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Meyers Leonard hasn’t been able to catch a break since being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers. As a 7-foot-1 center who can shoot the three and spread the floor, you’d think his transition from Illinois to the NBA would’ve been smoother. But it’s been difficult overcoming the high expectations of being a lottery pick (11th), along with being in a city housing only two major professional sports teams.

Coming into last season, Leonard was approaching his biggest year yet. In a contract year with a chance to prove himself as the Trail Blazers’ starting center, Leonard decided to bet on himself in hopes of landing a big contract.

However, it would only be nine games into the season before Leonard’s bet would start to look like a mistake. Against the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard dislocated his left shoulder, causing him to miss seven crucial games. So early into the season, the Blazers turned to other front-court options as Leonard received treatment on the shoulder.

Leonard would eventually lose his starting role to Noah Vonleh. His emotional state was clearly rattled, his overall mindset diminished.

“It was a complete nightmare last year,” Leonard said at Portland’s Media Day. “Last year was the hardest year of my life, not even close. I lied to my entire family the whole year. I told them I was okay, I wasn’t. I came from nothing and I turned down $40 million.”

Leonard was clearly in a bad place and ended up suffering a second shoulder injury that ended his season.

Now, after a full offseason of re-evaluation both mentally and physically, Leonard is feeling better than ever. He appeared reinvigorated and thrilled to be back with the Trail Blazers. After signing an extension for four years and $41 million this offseason, Leonard stated he’d be back in five-on-five drills starting October 8.

“Physically, I’m good,” Leonard said. “Mentally, I’m in the best place of my life.

“[The injury has] been a bit of a blessing in disguise. My mind is much clearer, I do a mind solitude every morning. My focus is aligned with what I know I need to do to be successful – on and off the court, with relationship to my wife, everything. So like I said, I’m in a very good spot in my life. I believe everything happens for a reason and I’m flat out excited for what the future holds.”

Leonard is a player who can help this Blazers team. His versatility and skill set can provide the Blazers with outside shooting, court spacing and a defensive mismatch for opposing teams. While Leonard’s defense has been up and down throughout his career, he’s had a lot of defensive responsibility placed on his shoulders early in his career. Playing against some of the most dominant bigs in the game like Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, you can imagine why it was hard for the young center to hold his own on some nights.

When healthy, Leonard averaged 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in 21.9 minutes per game last season. Everyone knows he’s capable of more, both offensively and defensively, and he’s on the right path to regaining his form and potential.

His injury will set him back a few weeks, but the fact that he feels good about his rehabilitation and life is promising. He’s arguably the most versatile big man, with the highest ceiling, on Portland’s roster. It’s important to note that Leonard is only 24 years old and believes he hasn’t hit his peak.

“I think it’ll be fair to judge me when I’m 27,” Leonard said. “That’s just a random number, maybe. But I think that’s where I’ll finally figure everything out.”

Leonard must get back into basketball shape before he can be effective, but all signals point to his return coming sooner rather than later. His versatility and personality will help this team throughout the season – on and off the court.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts made a point of saying in his Media Day press conference that not all offseason additions are for October. That goes for the whole roster, but particularly for Leonard. The big man may not be ready come the first game of the season, but he could be asked to do a lot down the stretch.

Leonard is taking his recovery as well as possible, and owning up to some of the growth he needed to make. Expect him to bounce back and become an integral part of this promising Blazers team.

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About Oliver Maroney

Oliver Maroney

Oliver Maroney is an NBA writer for Basketball Insiders. He is based in Portland and covers the league as a whole.

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