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Behind Meyers Leonard’s Breakout Year

I’ve been watching Meyers Leonard play basketball for five years now. It started during his freshman season at the University of Illinois, which also happened to be my freshman year in Champaign. Heck, we even lived on the same floor (shoutout to Scott Hall Floor Three!). Having watched all 65 career collegiate games of his and countless highlights during his first two years in the league, I never–NEVER–saw a season like this coming from the former lottery pick.

Leonard is shooting 50-40-90 this season. Actually, 51.4 from the field, 43.8 from three and 92.9 from the free throw line to be exact. In NBA history, only Leonard and Steve Nash have shot 51 percent from he floor, 43 percent from downtown, and 92 percent from the line in a season, per Basketball Reference (min. 763 MP, the number Leonard has reached this season).

Of course, Leonard is nowhere near qualifying in each category, preventing him from joining the vaunted 5o-40-90 club, but nonetheless this season has been a mini leap for the third-year center to say the least.

LEONARD 2013-14 SHOT CHART         LEONARD 2014-15 SHOT CHART

Shotchart_1428708220663 Shotchart_1428703904539

Miraculously, Leonard shot just 4-for-25 from behind the 3-point line over the last four seasons (two in college, two in the NBA). Now, he’s shooting 43.8 percent from behind the arc at a prolific rate. Leonard’s percentage of field goal attempts from 3-point range this season (45.7 percent) is higher than Stephen Curry’s career percentage (40.9). Leonard always had a decent looking stroke at the line, but he never showed potential to become this deadly from behind the arc. Leonard’s become one of the best shooting bigs in the league.

According to SportVu, Leonard ranks ninth in the NBA in field goal percentage on catch and shoots at 46.5 percent (min. 50 GP and two catch and shoot attempts per game). He’s also shooting 42.5 percent on catch and shoot 3-pointers, helping increase his catch and shoot effective field goal percentage to a whopping 62.7. Leonard’s fire 3-point shooting has also made him one of the most efficient pick and roll big men in the league.

The first two 3-pointers Leonard hits in the above clip are out of pick and roll sets. On the first play, Leonard sets a screen for Nicolas Batum, who is then met by Dwight Howard. Leonard is left wide open at the top of the arc, where he drains a 3-pointer. On the following play, Leonard utilizes a pick and pop with Damian Lillard, when Howard once again leaves Leonard wide open in the same spot. Same results. Leonard is scoring 1.30 points per possession as the roll man, ranking in the 94 percentile in the league, per Synergy. Leonard is also an adept roll man thanks to his underrated athleticism and outstanding finishing skills, traits that he displayed during his brief career at Illinois.

I had the benefit of watching Leonard play in person on several occasions during his two seasons in Champaign. Leonard was a man among boys in college, easily able to finish over smaller defenders. Leonard seldom played his freshman year, but exploded during his sophomore season when he averaged 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Leonard shot 58.4 percent from the field that season with his points almost exclusively coming in the paint.

NBA: MAR 13 Pistons at Trail Blazers

Leonard has always been athletic, but his game is expanding beyond that athleticism.

 

Leonard was raw offensively in college, but his size and athleticism helped him dominate in the Big Ten. Leonard was also an outstanding shot blocker that season, leading the conference with 1.9 blocks per game. I was in the stands when he swatted a career-high six shots against Loyola. Oddly enough, Leonard has been a non-existent shot blocker in his NBA career so far.

Leonard blocked 60 shots during his breakout sophomore campaign at Illinois. In his three seasons and over 2,000 minutes played in the NBA, Leonard has blocked just 54 shots. That’s unacceptable for a 7-foot-1 player who can jump out of the gym like Leonard. Perhaps that number would increase with starter’s minutes, but that’s probably wishful thinking. Although Leonard possesses the athleticism and size to block shots, he lacks the discipline and timing that is necessary to consistently swat away balls in the NBA. Even with the lack of shot-blocking skills, Leonard has improved defensively this season.

The Blazer’s have allowed 99.7 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor this season, which is 1.8 points better than when he’s on the bench (101.5), according to NBA.com. Leonard’s DRPM is also 1.76, showing that he can hold his own defensively. Despite being an absent shot blocker, Leonard has been among the best rim protectors in the league this season in limited minutes. Leonard’s 42.8 opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim is the sixth lowest mark in the league, per SportVu (min. 50 GP and 3.3 opponent’s FGA at rim per game). Playing against bench players and a small sample size go a long way in that low number, but Leonard is also adept at playing big and altering shots at the rim. Leonard is also mobile for his size and runs the floor consistently on both ends. If Leonard can continue to be a plus on the defensive end, his potential is unlimited. That is, if Leonard can become a positive on the offensive end first.

NBA: JAN 05 Lakers at Trail Blazers

Leonard’s offensive rating of 1o1.1 is among the worst marks on the team. His ORPM of -1.88 is also disappointing for a player who has the fourth best true shooting percentage in the league (63.9 percent). Leonard is passive offensively and can’t create his own shot. He’ll often stand around on the perimeter waiting for a player to drive and kick to him. Leonard only shoots when he’s open, so sometimes he does nothing offensively for long stretches if his defender stays attached to him.

If Leonard ever becomes a starter he’ll need to expand his offensive game even further. At 7-foot-1 and 245 pounds, Leonard should be playing in the post much more often. LaMarcus Aldridge is the perfect player to learn from in that regard. Leonard might not be positively impacting the Blazers offense just yet, but his season has still been something to behold.

Yes, Leonard has almost exclusively played against bench players this season. And yes, Leonard is averaging just 14.7 minutes per game this season. But nonetheless, how can you not be impressed by what Leonard has done this season? Shooting 50-40-90 isn’t easy, even if you’re coming off the bench. This feat is especially impressive for a player that didn’t even shoot 3-pointers before this season.

The Blazers have already exercised Leonard’s fourth-year team option, so the former Illini will have next season to further display his potential before hitting free agency. Considering his efficient shooting and solid 13.4 points and 11.0 rebounds per 36 minute numbers,  Leonard has a chance to finally live up to his No. 11 draft position. Now it’s Portland’s turn to give him a chance.

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