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Leonard shoots for his chance

Blazers' center prospect wants to erase DNP/CD notations from his memory


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Little-used, second-year big man Meyers Leonard has been in a Catch-22 with the Trail Blazers during their run to an NBA playoff berth.It’s 3:45 p.m., nearly 3 1/2 hours before the Trail

Blazers’ recent game against Phoenix at the Moda Center.

Only one player is already out shooting — Portland center Meyers Leonard.

Working with assistant coach Nate Tibbetts, Leonard roams the perimeter, taking jump shot after jump shot. The 7-1 second-year pro sinks 10 in a row from the corner. He knocks down 12 straight from the elbow. He makes 15 consecutive shots from the free throw line. Then he drains 20 of 25 3-point attempts.

Forty-five minutes later, as players from both teams begin to join him on the court for pre-game workouts, Leonard is finished. It’s a refrain played over and over throughout the course of a long NBA season.

“There’s a misnomer going around that Meyers doesn’t work hard,” says Kim Hughes, the assistant coach who spends the most time with Leonard. “He puts in as much time as anybody.”

Another refrain: Leonard doesn’t play in the Blazers’ loss to the Suns. Forty-one times this season going into Wednesday night’s game versus Sacramento, the Robinson, Ill., native had sat the bench for an entire game while healthy. Just another DNP/CD — did not play, coach’s decision. Leonard played four first-half minutes Sunday against New Orleans, sinking his only shot on a soft floater and grabbing two rebounds, but it was only a short taste of action.

It’s been a come-down for Leonard, a member of Terry Stotts’ rotation as a rookie last season. In 17 1/2 minute a game, Leonard averaged 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds and showed glimpses of enough promise that he might become a starter at some point in the not too distant future.

But with Joel Freeland’s development, the acquisition of Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson and through his own inconsistent play, Leonard has been banished to a ride-the-bench role this season. Injuries to an Achilles’ tendon and ankle slowed him during training camp and the preseason, and by the time Portland opened the regular season Oct. 30 versus Phoenix, Leonard was sitting and watching.

Twice Stotts has given him an opportunity in the rotation — during a 10-game stretch from late December to early January, then for a 12-game period in March. Neither time was Leonard’s play solid enough to merit a continuance.

“It’s a combination of several things,” says the 6-11 Hughes, whose pro career included four teams and six seasons in the NBA and old American Basketball Association. “Meyers hasn’t played to the level the coaches want him to, but he isn’t getting the number of minutes he needs to grow as a big man. We’re not in the position to give him minutes, because we’re in a playoff run.

“He has to deal with it and work through it, because it’s not going to change. We’re not practicing much this time of year, so he’s not going to get minutes on the practice floor to show anybody he’s better than the guys playing ahead of him.”

That hasn’t stopped Leonard from putting in the time before practice and games, just in case.

“It’s important to stay ready, mentally and physically,” says Leonard, averaging 2.4 points and 2.7 rebounds in 8.9 minutes a game. “Not only being a young player but a young big. It’s been tough.

“Last year, I had a few more minutes than what I maybe deserved. The minutes were just there for me. This year, I got hurt early, Joel played well and I was out of the rotation. That was tough from the get-go.”

“He has handled it well,” Stotts says. “He continues to work hard. He’d like to play. Like we’ve told all the young guys, you never know when your number will be called. He’s staying ready, but there are certain times when frustration sets in. That’s human nature.”

It’s at the defensive end where Leonard needs the most work. At times, he is a foul machine during his limited time on the court. His instincts with help defense are lacking. Part of it is his youth (he turned 22 in February) and dearth of experience. Leonard didn’t play organized basketball until his freshman year in high school. He averaged five minutes a game as a freshman at Illinois before blossoming into a star as a sophomore, warranting the Blazers taking him with the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft.

“There are a lot of things defensively,” Stotts says. “You rely on your big guys to help, whether in pick-and-roll situations or penetration, discouraging shots at the rim. The goal is that

he’s able to react without thinking. That takes time; it takes experience.”

So it’s a Catch-22. Leonard needs time on the court during games to get better. He can’t get time unless he shows improvement.

All the while, Leonard has become a whipping boy for the Blazer faithful, who have belittled him on social media and sports talk shows and through website posts.

Asked how he feels he has been treated by Portland fans this season, Leonard pauses for a long time, searching for the right word.

Mixed?

Short pause. “Mixed,” he agrees, seemingly reluctantly.

Another pause.

“I’ve shut down social media for a reason,” he says. Before he did that, “I heard it all (on Twitter). I’ve heard, ‘F you, I hope you tear your ACL.’ I’ve heard, ‘You’re a bust.’ That’s the reason I don’t look at that stuff anymore, and I probably won’t during a season. It’s just not worth it. I don’t ever listen to that stuff or buy into it, because mentally I have to stay locked in and confident in myself, or that will just kill me.”

Leonard deleted the Twitter app on his phone and says he doesn’t get on his computer to see what’s out there.

“I don’t read any more articles, either,” he says. “I don’t listen to talk radio. You should never get too high or too low. Social media and people talking about you will do it.”

He means bring on the lows.

Leonard doesn’t want to sound as if he has a thin skin. He admits, though, that he resents some of the implications of his critics.

“It’s only been two years (in the NBA),” he says. “I really only played one year of college. I played some as a rookie but very little this year. What do people really know about me?

“It’s tough to really say what I want to say, because I still respect people’s opinion and what they have to say. But they don’t know me. They don’t where I come from. They don’t know what I’ve been through. They have no idea how hard this game is. I just want to remain confident, and in a good way, prove those people wrong.”

Leonard takes a deep breath and continues.

“I’ve always tried to find the best in people,” he says. “I was hated in high school because people were jealous. Fans from opposing colleges are going to try to get at you. There are always going to be people at my college who didn’t think I was good enough. Same thing now.

“I don’t ever try to disrespect people, or say they don’t know what they’re talking about. But in some ways, they don’t. They’re not in my shoes.”

Leonard doesn’t contend he is getting screwed. He understands his body of work so far has been disappointing.

“I was the 11th pick,” he says. “I know 100 percent I haven’t had the year or, so far, the career people wanted me to have. That will fuel me this summer and through the rest of my career, to be the best I can be.

“I’ve always been able to overcome things. It’s going to be on me to prove to the coaching staff I want to improve, that I want to get better, that I’m willing to work as hard as I can. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s not like people think — I put my work in. For me to get better, I have to experience things and be on the court. I have to be a good teammate, be a good person, keep working hard.”

Leonard is aware of his major shortcomings.

“My defense is something I wish was more improved and better — like Robin’s,” he says.

Leonard hopes the process will begin in earnest this summer. Immediately after the season, he’ll stop off at the home he bought for his mother in Robinson, but his time spent there and at his Lake Oswego condo will be short. He’ll play for Portland’s entry in the Las Vegas Summer League, stay for Tim Grgurich’s five-day camp there, then spend most of late July and August in Los Angeles, scrimmaging in NBA pick-up games at the Clippers’ training facility.

Hughes will be dispatched to L.A. to spend time with Leonard there.

“We can put him in a scenario where two guards are coming at him at once for three to four seconds, in pseudo-transition, and at him full speed,” Hughes says. “Meyers must contain him without getting beat off the dribble. He needs a lot of work on that. He knows that.”

At any time during the pickup games at the Clippers’ facility, Leonard might face a James Harden or a Carmelo Anthony or a Darren Collison.

“If he can (help) guard those guys, he can guard anybody,” Hughes says. “You can’t hide any weaknesses there. You get exposed as a player, but it makes you better. It’s take-no-prisoner ball. You either stand your ground or you get embarrassed.”

Leonard knows a good attitude will be essential to his growth.

“I have to keep my head up,” he says. “This year has been humbling for me. This league is a monster. There’s a reason there are only 375 players. It’s the best league in the world.

“I’ve had to learn positioning on the court, how to guard in the post, how to use my body and bump people to score. It’s been a hard transition for me. It’s not as easy as what people think. They say, ‘He’s 7 feet and athletic.’ Well, that doesn’t do the trick.

“But I believe in myself. I know the coaches do, and my teammates do. I just have to continue to work and try to prove to these guys I can be a help. I’m still young, which isn’t an excuse, but I have to learn. I have to understand the game better.”

Leonard tells a story about his best friend’s cousin back in Robinson, who recently was rushed to the hospital emergency room with bleeding on the brain, the result of a tumor.

“He’s had 70 percent of the tumor cut out of his brain stem, which was blocking spinal fluid,” Leonard says. “But he’s doing better. It’s a miracle. And I think, ‘Look at the life you have right now. Even through the tough times you’ve had, what a blessed position to be in.’ ”

Hughes still thinks Portland’s gamble on Leonard will pay off.

“The reality is, the kid was drafted on potential, as a young, athletic, good-shooting big man,” the Blazer assistant says. “Nobody knew what his talent level would be in the NBA. They didn’t know how it carried over. There was a risk involved.

“I thought it was good value, and I think he’s going to be good. He’ll work hard enough, he’ll accrue the information and he’ll develop. It may not be as fast as he wants, or the public wants, or as I want. But as long as he has the heart and drive, which I think he does, and given the chance, he’ll be fine.”

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