Trail Blazers' Meyers Leonard Deals With Free Agency and Rehabilatation


Meyers Leonard of the Portland Trail Blazers at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., on Dec. 27, 2015. He will be a restricted free agent as of July 1, 2016.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It appears that Meyers Leonard’s recovery from a torn labrum in his left shoulder is right on target. A few days ago he tweeted out that he was cleared to run and did not want to “waste this summer.”

Leonard is sure not to squander this summer away. He’s been eager to work his way from what was described as a 6 to 8 months return to the basketball court. First it was the injury, the surgery that followed, and now it’s the rehabilitation stage of the process.

While the 7-foot-1 forward-center from the University of Illinois slowly works his way back to NBA shape, he’ll also have a clear understanding where he stands with the Portland Trail Blazers, team that plucked Leonard with the 11th overall pick of the 2012 NBA draft.

When the clock moves past 12:01 a.m. on Friday, July 1, Leonard will be a restricted free agent to start his fifth year in the league. A dislocated shoulder with torn ligaments that occurred on March 24 shortened his fourth year. Leonard has never played more than 69 games in an NBA season.

When the free agency doors swing open, Leonard probably won’t be mentioned in the same breathe as the Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City), Dwight Howard (Houston), Al Horford (Atlanta), Mike Conley (Memphis), or Detroit’s Andre Drummond, who also will be a restricted free agent from the class of 2012.

In 61 games for the Trail Blazers, Leonard averaged 8.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 21.9 minutes per game for the 2015-2016 season. He also shot 38 percent behind the the 3-point line. Those figures are his best in four years, which he says is a “building block” for the future.

“I felt like I did a pretty good job. I definitely could have done some things better, but you live and you learn,” Leonard said, looking back at his time on the court this past season. “I watch my film to understand what I could do better. But going forward, I’ll rehab and come back stronger. I know I bring a lot to the table. We’ll just see what happens this summer.”

Meyers Leonard, right, has a friendly discussion with Rapid Ramen Cooker inventor Chris Johnson, center, and his wife, left. Sacramento, Calif., April 9, 2016.

Leonard left Illinois after his sophomore year, but yes, he has shown where he can sit at the table in the NBA. The league has quickly transformed into a guard-driven consortium with numerous small-ball strategies employed by coaches who must keep up with the formula.

For those reasons, and a few more, there is still plenty of room in the game for the big men. No doubt, they still have to defend and rebound or they don’t need to be on the court. However, centers and power forwards must be able to glide up and down the court with the offensive guards and small forwards and vice-versa on the defensive end.

Not as frequently as he would like, Leonard has shown that ability to Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, who could have used his services against the Golden State Warriors in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Portland was ousted 4-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Leonard’s skill set also comes with a nice shooting range from the perimeter. He takes 3-point shots at will and he is encouraged to do so. He had a season high of 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting against Dallas on Dec. 1.

Thirty days later, in six attempts, Leonard connected on a career-high five three-pointers at Utah and registered 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting at Washington on Jan. 18. From Dec. 23 to Dec. 31, he scored in double figures in five consecutive games.

Significantly, Leonard recorded his first double-double of the season when he scored 16 points, made 4-of-7 treys, and pulled down 11 rebounds in a 98-94 road victory against DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 27.

The battle is always on when Meyers Leonard faces Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. Sacramento, Calif., Dec. 27, 2015.

Leonard was effective in keeping the Kings’ All-Star center out of the paint while Sacramento was on defense. After that game, Cousins, who had 36 points but only six rebounds, admitted that he “should’ve did a better job” on Leonard.

After Cousins rolled into Portland on Jan. 27, averaging 52.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in his previous two games, Leonard was in the mix again. Cousins scored 17 points off of 4-of-17 shots from the floor and had only five rebounds in 31.5 minutes.

Leonard had nine points, seven rebounds, and made 3-of-5 shots beyond the arc. Cousins’ offensive terror before arriving in Portland was a concern. It was a group effort defending him, but Leonard was mainly credited with Cousins’ low output.

“He was very good on Cousins,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of Leonard’s defensive work. “He banged with him and he took the challenge.”

What may have sparked a rivalry between the two big men, Cousins is not giving Leonard any credit at all. He indirectly voiced his displeasure with expletives toward the Trail Blazers’ specialized stretch-four when Leonard was in street clothes while Portland played Sacramento on the road April 5.

Cousins didn’t like the way Leonard, seated on the bench, was encouraging and coaching Portland center Mason Plumlee how to play him while the game was in progress. Leonard shrugged his shoulders in a so-what gesture and then told a Sacramento fan seated next to him — Chris Johnson, the inventor of the Rapid Ramen bowl — his thoughts about the banter.

“I could say something back...but it wouldn’t do any good,” Leonard said of refraining to get into a verbal sparring match with Cousins.

Damian Lillard didn't play against the Sacramento Kings in December 2015. But he was cheerleading Leonard on during the game. Sacramento, Calif., Dec. 27, 2015.

Whatever happens in free agency, the Trail Blazers know they are in the driver’s seat and Leonard is the passenger. He’s a restricted free agent, meaning they could match any offer sheet presented to Leonard or sign him to a one-year deal. If it goes beyond those conditions, Portland can do a sign-and-trade move with a team that desire Leonards’ talents

Antonio Harvey, a former television and radio analyst for Portland Trail Blazers Broadcasting said the team did “offer” Leonard more money, but the center wanted to wait until the end of the season.

“But now his injury changes the landscape,” Harvey said of Leonard’s current market value. “I think he might get a one-year contract and that’s good too.”

The Trail Blazers’ sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, point guard Damian Lillard, is one of the players that would like to see Leonard back in a Rip City uniform.

Lillard said it’s been a “pleasure” to see Leonard’s growth in the league and he understands that his type of big-man play on the court is effective as well as necessary.

“We came into the league together. So we’re pretty much attached to each other as far as him following what I do and me following what he does and me wanting him to succeed,” Lillard said. “To see his role increase (last season), us depending on him more, and to see him grow has been fun. He’s young and he can get a lot better. Hopefully, we can look for big things from him next season. I’m pretty sure this is where he wants to be.”

Due to the league’s rules, coach Stotts couldn’t say too much or practically anything about Leonard’s restricted free agent situation. But he was pleased with his progress and ability to make himself a key player in the rotation.

“He was really starting to round into form. We made a run in January and February and he was a big part of that,” Stotts said. “He’s an unique player, strong, physical and has gotten better every year. The way the NBA is, and the way we like to play, being able to space the floor and shoot threes, add another dimension.”

Portland can provide a qualifying offer around $4.21 million and Leonard will have a “cap hold of $7.69 million” counting against the Blazers salary cap when free agency starts in July 1, Mike Richman from The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

Leonard had surgery on his left shoulder in April. He should be fully ready to go no sooner than year 2017 kicks if he has no setbacks in his rehabilitation within the next six to eight months.

“I have so much more to offer when it comes to working on my post game, becoming a better rebounder, and shot blocker,” Leonard said. “It may have gone unnoticed, but contributed a lot (last season). I want to contribute a lot more and as much as I can.”

Leonard looked calm and cool after playing the Sacramento Kings. He had his first double-double of the season. Sacramento, Calif., Dec. 27, 2015.

PA PRESS INFORMATION:

Meyers Leonard keeps his ears open to the surroundings of the University of Illinois’ men’s basketball program. Since last August, four players were arrested for a variety of charges.

The Fighting Illini head coach John Groce was under fire because the of the off court incidents involving the program. The new athletic director, Josh Whitman, has already said Groce will be on the sidelines at the beginning of the 2016-2017 season.

One of the players, junior point guard Kendrick Nunn, was dismissed from the team following a guilty plea to a misdemeanor domestic battery.

Leonard played under Bruce Weber for two seasons. Weber is now at Kansas State University. He didn’t play for Groce, but the fiery coach has Leonard support.

Leonard: “I do know John fairly well. He’s detail-oriented, energetic, and likes to stay up late nights watching film. He wants to be the best person and best coach he can be. He’ll text me to let me know I had a good game and I text him after (Illinois) had a few big wins (last season). There’s a mutual respect. All of the guys, the assistants, and players are good guys and I am excited to see them play next season. They have some good recruits on the way. I think they’ll have a much better season and much better chance of winning games.”

Photo Art and Report by T. Ray Harvey | PA Press Information Officer

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