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Blazers’ Meyers Leonard Talks Expectations

Meyers Leonard talks to Basketball Insiders about his game and the difficulty of meeting high expectations.

Oliver Maroney

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Realizing your true potential in the NBA is an extremely difficult task. Nowadays, players are drafted at 19 or 20 years old and oftentimes are expected to perform at a high level right away. Even so, the pressure from fans, media and others can be overwhelming at a young age, especially when you are falling short of expectations. Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard has realized this and is starting to focus on what’s really important.

“I’ve realized I can’t try to please everyone anymore,” Leonard told Basketball Insiders. “For whatever reason, I’m very polarizing. A lot of times, people either really like me or they really don’t. I can say true down to my roots that it’s frustrating for me because I want everyone to like me, that’s just the guy I am. I’m a people-pleaser and it’s frustrating.”

Leonard’s father, James, passed away when Leonard was six years old. That left his mother to raise Meyers and his brother by herself. They moved from house to house, enduring power and water shut-offs, living on what they could afford (which was close to nothing). Leonard’s mother, Tracie, was victimized with crippling back pain that left her housebound after her husband’s death. In the second grade, Leonard would find a surrogate family to help him in a time of need. Brian Siler, an insurance agent in Robinson, Illinois, knew of the family’s situation and became Leonard’s surrogate father.

From there, Leonard became a top-ranked prospect in high-school basketball. A five-star player who was recruited by many schools, Leonard decided to stay close to home and attend the University of Illinois. Playing two seasons at Illinois, Leonard achieved some of the highest honors, such as becoming an All Big-10 honorable mention in his sophomore season. After his second season at Illinois, Leonard declared for the 2012 NBA Draft.

“With the 11th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Portland Trail Blazers select Meyers Leonard out of the University of Illinois.”

Those were the words that would take Leonard from a small-town prospect to an NBA player. Leonard was 20 years old at that time. The expectations were high for Leonard. Fans saw this skilled, 20-year old seven-footer who was selected in the lottery and believed he had the potential to be a franchise cornerstone. But everything takes time. Unfortunately, fans typically can be impatient when it comes to the development process and that’s where things can become difficult for the players.

The Blazers drafted Leonard because of his potential; it wasn’t necessarily going to be a “plug-and-play” situation. In his rookie year, Leonard would sit behind LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson, playing about 17 minutes per game. The next two seasons would be much of the same.

However, this past offseason, Leonard had a big decision to make. He was offered a $40 million contract extension with the Blazers, but he opted to decline the offer to test free agency at the end of the 2015-16 campaign.  As Portland had lost four of five starters, he considered himself a front-runner for a starting position. It looked like a smart play, as the Blazers had cap space and Leonard looked to be healthy. But because of injuries and an unexpectedly good start for the team, he would lose his chance. Leonard would eventually be shut down in March of last season, as he would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.

By that point, it looked like Leonard may go elsewhere since he’d declined the extension and still hadn’t fully tapped into that potential everyone spoke of when he was drafted.

“It was a complete nightmare last year,” Leonard said. “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.”

Despite turning down the big contract, Leonard remained with the Blazers. Now at age 24, Leonard did a lot of reflecting last offseason. Coming into media day, he was outspoken about his summer and just how grateful he was to be back in Portland.

“It’s insane, man,” Leonard said about his changes in the offseason. “I feel so much more comfortable out there. I didn’t play at the end of the year. I didn’t even get to train this summer and I didn’t get to play this summer. I just feel so much better out there. I know now that I’m no longer a defensive liability at all. I’m feeling better at the rim, I’m feeling better at my rebounding. Offensively, I feel like I’m doing more. Rather than just shooting, I can cut to the rim. I’m just feeling comfortable and confident. I know that I can be a very effective player and someone that can help this team win.”

He seemed relieved that he could be honest about the situation and finally turn to the next chapter in his life.

Beyond just how he feels, Leonard looks like he’s added some muscle and gained some agility. His ability to hit the three-point shot while being a seven-footer gives him an extreme advantage over many NBA big men. This is just one aspect of his overall game, which he is continuing to improve.

“It’s coming, I can feel it,” Leonard said regarding reaching his potential.

But it’s not just basketball that Leonard feels revitalized in, it’s his life. He has multiple journals where he logs what he’s thankful for and why. He’s managed to ignore the negativity and the critics while getting back to his roots.

“I don’t have time for people who are negative,” Leonard said. “My wife knows that. The number one thing I hate about anything is negativity. That has become something that’s had less and less an effect on me. It is what it is. I just wish everyone would like me, but I know that’s just not going to be the case. I feel that I’ve improved drastically since I’ve gotten here and I’ll continue to improve. [Reaching my potential], it’s coming. I said that this summer. I know that I can be a very effective player. I have to continue to have the right mindset, the right approach to every single game and continue to battle to show people what I’m capable of doing.”

Leonard’s attitude and perspective are refreshing and he genuinely seems happy with where he’s at. However, he did state that he is concerned about the world and what’s happening in the country as far as social injustice.

“It’s really, really bad what’s going on in our country, and it’s sad too,” Leonard told Basketball Insiders. “I feel blessed that my mother and my surrounding family who took care of me growing up raised me to love everyone no matter who they are: tall, short, white, black, religious and political views. Everyone’s going to have an opinion about something in life and a lot of times people disagree on things. That’s just the way it is and I can’t comprehend all the hatred and just everything that’s going on. I don’t know enough of the facts about everything that’s going on in the world, but it’s sad what the world is right now. There is a lot of great people in this world. Particularly for us [in the U.S.], we’re very blessed. I know in my position it’s very easy for me to say, ‘Wow, I’m so blessed. I’m not on the streets or homeless.’ But there are so many people in the world working like crazy for so much less money. We’re all just so blessed and I just wish everyone loved each other.”

This season, the Blazers need Leonard to be effective more than ever. They sit at 11-10 on the season, which is not where they expected to be. They went out and added veteran leadership in Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli while retaining all their key contributors who were free agents like C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Leonard. Essentially, the Blazers brought back everyone in hopes of building on their success from last season. But it hasn’t worked out as they’d planned yet.

“It’s been up and down obviously,” Leonard said. “That’s the easy answer. It’s just little things here and there. I’m a big time believer in watching film and understanding film. Sometimes it might be a big that didn’t box out or sometimes it might be a guard that didn’t get the ball enough on a pick-and-roll. Maybe we as a group didn’t talk in defensive transition or we didn’t execute on the offensive end. There’s just one little thing on every play by an individual, but it all adds up when you’re at a game. So it’s not like our foundation defensively has changed. It’s proven. We’ve shown that it works. Just something like a missed box out or a missed dunk contest—there’s something every play – not every play, but a lot of the plays.

“It’s just something small that ends up adding up over the game, which adds up over a road trip, which adds up for the entire season so far. That’s why we show flashes where people are like, ‘Holy crap. Why can’t they be like this all the time?’ It’s just turning a notch up on our mental focus because our effort is there, it really is. Every now and then, we don’t get a runback in defensive transition or something happens, but mainly it’s just something little here and there. Once we shore it up and continue to build chemistry, we’re going to be just fine.”

So far, Leonard is averaging six points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game. But statistics don’t show everything with Leonard. His ability to spread the floor for a team with many traditional big men is unique and something the Blazers can utilize.

“I feel that I have the ability to affect the game statistically and outside of statistics,” Leonard said. “I really feel that I have a major effect offensively, even if it doesn’t show up in a stat book, because teams’ bigs struggle to guard me at the three-point line. A lot of people talk about, ‘Well if they started switching pick-and-rolls could you go to the block and score?’ Yeah, I’m working on that. But we have [Damian Lillard] and C.J. My thought process is either space the floor or try and get a rebound because they (Dame and C.J.) can score on every big in the NBA. So that’s the mismatch. Some people say, ‘Oh they will just switch the pick-and-rolls on you.’ Okay great, then watch Dame and C.J. go to work. I feel like the effect of how easy the game flows on the offensive end when I’m out there is noticeable.

“Defensively, I feel like I am much improved. The game is way slower on the defensive end of the court. I could care less about statistics, but they want me to rebound out of my area, they want me to go after more. Sometimes I get boxed out and I could go get it or I could let the ball drop and let the guard grab it. I do need to be more assertive. Like I’ve said, I need to be aggressive, assert myself and make my presence more known on the floor. Truthfully, all I care about is winning. So if I have a guy that I need to keep off the glass and someone else gets [the rebound], then we’re fine and I’m good with that.”

Leonard isn’t selfish, upset or complaining about his role. He’s fitting in with this team and understands that he can give this team more. His new video ‘Built To Rise‘ really captures what he’s gone through and shows some of the hardships he’s overcome.

Sometimes fans forget that basketball players are also human beings. In the social media age, we have more access to players and with that, they see more negativity than ever. That’s especially true if they’re not living up to collective expectations. In the case of Leonard, he’s been called all sorts of names and has been criticized in many ways. He’s had many obstacles to overcome. But he’s found a way to block it out, leading to his most comfortable season yet – both on and off the court.

 

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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NBA AM: LeBron James’ Quest For Eighth Straight Finals

Despite playing 30 minutes in preseason, LeBron James dazzled in the season opener with an impressive stat line.

Lang Greene

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Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star forward LeBron James has been known for his durability ever since entering the league in 2003. Despite an annual heavy workload, James has played less than 70 games just twice in 14 seasons. One of those campaigns was the strike shortened 2012 season, in which in he appeared in 62 out of 66 contests.

Heading into the season opener on Tuesday there were concerns that James wouldn’t be able to lace them up due to an ankle injury suffered during a preseason in which he logged only 30 minutes. However, James not only suited up but he was the primary driving force in the team’s 102-99 victory over the Boston Celtics.

James finished the contest with 29 points, 16 rebounds and 9 assists on 12-of-19 shooting from the floor. Yet, after the game James was transparent about his physical conditioning – or lack thereof.

“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told the press after the Cavaliers’ defeated the Celtics in Tuesday’s season opener. “Rightfully so. I haven’t been able to play during the preseason. I played one game [and] reinjured my ankle. I don’t like where I’m at right now.”

James has a reputation for going to extreme lengths to keep his body in tip-top shape, but Tuesday night’s performance didn’t appear to be the work of a man struggling to keep up.

While the Golden State Warriors are the favorites to once again hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end, the Cavaliers are expected to make their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals – representing the Eastern Conference.

But Cleveland has plenty of question marks to start the season.

The Cavaliers are still integrating former league MVP Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green into the rotation. Two starters from previous seasons, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, are now adjusting to roles off the bench and presumably reduced minutes. This doesn’t even take into consideration the impending unrestricted free agency status of James, Rose and Thomas next summer which will become a daily outlet of speculation.

James acknowledged the team is still adjusting on the fly and building chemistry where possible.

“The most important thing is we got the win,” James said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us because we got seven new guys, putting in a new system and every game is going to be a learning experience.

James has been able to avoid serious injury throughout his career and the preseason ankle injury appears to be a thing of the past.

“It’s a little sore,” James said about his tweaked ankle. “But I’d figured that much.”

“We don’t play again until Friday, so I get a couple of days. But I have to get some conditioning in as well. So it’s going to be a fine line for me [Do I] rest my ankle trying to get in healthy or do I continue to get some conditioning in because I need it. We have a great support staff and I’ll be fine.

Other Opening Night Observations

Boston Celtics (99) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (102)

  • Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, one of the team’s marquee offseason acquisitions, suffered a fractured ankle early in the first quarter
  • Celtics forwards Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum combined for 39 points and 16 rebounds
  • Celtics guard Kyrie Irving recorded 10 assists in his Boston debut. Last season with the Cavaliers he posted eight games of 10+ assists
  • Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson played 20 minutes off the bench. Last season the forward averaged 29,9 per contest

Houston Rockets (122) vs. Golden State Warriors (121)

 

  • The Rockets outscored the Warriors 34-20 in the fourth quarter to steal a victory at Oracle Arena on ring ceremony night
  • Rockets role players P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon combined for 44 points on 15-of-25 shooting from the floor in the victory
  • Rockets guard Chris Paul recorded 11 assists in his debut, but shot just 2-of-9 from the floor and totaled four points
  • Warriors forward Draymond Green left the game in the second half due to a knee sprain. At the time of his departure, Green had posted 9 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists
  • Veteran guard Nick Young led the Warriors in scoring with 23 points on 6-of-7 shooting from three-point range in the opener

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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