Big Project, Big Potential

7-footer Leonard tough to project, but an intriguing prospect

(Editor’s note: True Blue Pistons continues a 14-part series leading to the June 28 draft with a look at Meyers Leonard, one of seven big men who could be on the board when the Pistons pick at No. 9. Coming Friday: Perry Jones III.)

To call Meyers Leonard’s name with the ninth pick on June 28 would be a leap of faith for Joe Dumars, one based on where the Pistons believe he will be a year or two or three from now more than where the Illinois 7-footer is today.

Yet given the leap Leonard made from freshman to sophomore seasons in college, perhaps not all that big a leap for the Pistons.

Leonard played just eight minutes a game as an Illinois freshman, but 32 as a sophomore when he averaged 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds for the traditional Big Ten power that wilted late, missing the NCAA tournament and getting Bruce Weber fired as coach. Despite the staggering finish for the Illini, Leonard continued his upward arc, averaging 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds over his final five games with a tournament bid at stake.

In an NBA where back-to-the-basket centers are becoming increasingly rare, Leonard has the size and physical makeup to evolve into a game-changing force at both ends. At 7-foot-1¼ in shoes, he was the tallest of 61 players invited to the Chicago draft combine last week. At 250 pounds, he possesses a solid yet lean frame with the ability to add considerable strength. Leonard’s body fat percentage was a mere 5.7. He looks country strong, as you might expect from someone who grew up in the small southeastern Illinois farming town of Robinson, near the Indiana border.

He runs with the easy gait of a guard and gets off his feet quickly. His agility and sprint tests in Chicago showed very well for a 7-footer. There’s a lot to like with Meyers Leonard.

But it’s no slam dunk he’ll develop into more than a quality backup or journeyman starter who struggles to stay on the floor in a league where the trend is to spread the floor and rely increasingly on shooters and athletes who can attack the basket and create their own offense.

Talk to scouts and two questions emerge with Leonard: Does he have the basketball IQ to mine his vast athletic potential? Does he have the maturity and temperament required to thrive under the demands of the NBA?

Leonard, by all accounts, helped himself with regard to the second question during the interview sessions in Chicago. He met the issue head on in talking to the media.

“I think sometimes people see my emotions on the court and think of the word immaturity or careless, but I don’t think it’s that at all,” he said. “It’s that I do care and I’m a competitor and I want the best for the people that are around me and I want to win. I don’t think the word immaturity or emotionally unstable are right at all. I’m going to prove to people, from a person-to-person basis and on the court, that I’ve matured. It’s more about caring and wanting to be the best I can be.”

Leonard might have benefited from another year at Illinois, but his family situation helped push him to the NBA. His father was killed in a bicycle accident when Leonard was 6. His brother, older by 2 years, just finished up his Marines tour of duty in Afghanistan. His mother, Tracie, has been unable to work and virtually housebound for years with chronic back trouble that requires surgery the family couldn’t afford.

A year ago, coming off his modest first year under Weber, Leonard was invited to play for the U-19 national team at the World Championship. He initially declined the offer, believing he wasn’t good enough. That speaks to the lack of confidence that doubters see in Leonard, while others speak of a lack of focus.

It will be for NBA teams to decide how much of that is the product of a small-town kid from a challenging background with limited experience – all of which would seem to allow room for growth – and how much is ingrained personality traits. Leonard, again, gave off the impression of a young adult undergoing transformation in Chicago.

He spoke of a recent conversation with former Illini teammate Brandon Paul in saying, “I told him it’s been a big whirlwind for me, but it’s also been a great experience. I’m working out three times a day, my diet is right, I don’t go out. I’m trying to do everything right. I’m so focused. It takes a different kind of person and a different kind of basketball player to be able to do this. If you’re not locked in at all times and careful about the way you carry yourself, you’re not going to make it. In every form of what’s going on, I’m just trying to be the best I can be.”

Leonard can expect to be paired with the handful of other big men in his draft range – all of them under consideration by the Pistons, including Tyler Zeller and John Henson of North Carolina – at his various predraft workouts for teams. In a recent workout in Portland, there were reports that Zeller, with a relatively polished post game and the ability to score with either hand, got the better of him. Perhaps symbolic of Leonard’s issues with feel for the game, he fouled out three times in a span of six Big Ten games last season and found himself in quick foul trouble often.

Leonard lacks go-to post moves, yet has a soft scoring touch around the basket and a potentially deadly mid-range jump shot. Combined with his size and athleticism, it’s the type of package that fits the profile of a player who makes a big jump late in the draft process. It’s more likely than not he’ll be on the board when the Pistons go to pick at No. 9, but it wouldn’t shock anyone if somebody trades up to take Leonard among the three spots ahead of them, in the same way Bismack Biyombo soared in the final days of last year’s draft, eventually being taken seventh by Charlotte, which traded ahead of the Pistons.

“It’s going to be an unbelievable feeling,” Leonard said of being picked. “I’ve thought about it, but I’m still focusing on trying to make it. I’ve been through a lot, but also been blessed in many ways. Once I make it, I know I’m not going to stop there. I’m going to continue to work hard. As far as that actual night, it’s going to be an amazing feeling.”