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.
NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being.
Can anyone new break in this year?
Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.
The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.
The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8.
The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris
The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.
As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21
Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.
Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.
With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.
1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)
Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.
While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.
On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.
He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.
2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)
Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.
His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.
Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.
3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)
After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.
Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.
With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.
4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)
With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.
For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.
If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.
5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)
Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.
That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.
His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.
6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)
Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.
However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.
Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.
Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.
NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises
The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.
Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.
While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.
The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.
The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.
The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.
Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.
Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.
Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.
Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.
Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.
When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.
Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.
The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.
Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.