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.
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