When Jimmy Butler joined the Miami Heat this season, he knew exactly what he was doing. Now his plan is bearing fruit beyond preseason expectations, and it started with Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro turning heads. Next in line comes the evolution of Meyers Leonard to give the Heat a fearsome front court.
Per a scouting report Leonard’s biggest enemy is himself, “Where Leonard may need to improve the most, as he’s admitted himself, is on the mental part of the game. He seemed to lose his confidence quickly last season, looking tentative, getting easily frustrated and not showing the type of toughness you hope to see from a top-shelf prospect. For him to take the next step in his career, he’s going to have overcome that.”
With Butler around self-confidence isn’t an issue. Adebayo is on track for a breakout season in part due to Butler’s characteristic bluntness. Can Butler do the same for the NBA’s Leonard not named Kawhi? Looking at Meyers’ college highlights, we see an agile player who traded that quickness to bulk up for the center position: he needs to ditch the hammer to become a forward.
The NBA Combine Measurements show his impressive physical measurements at 20 years of age - a 7’3” wingspan, 7’ height, 9’ standing reach, 11” hand width, and weight of 250 lbs. Pairing him with Adebayo up front might give teams such as the Indiana Pacers with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis a hard time in coming match-ups. With the addition either 6’7” forward Duncan Robinson or Derrick Jones Jr. the Heat have a front court ready to do battle with other playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
As mentioned in the article The evolution of Meyers Leonard and the Trail Blazers: No more deer-in-headlights for big man, slow reflexes are issues Leonard has to deal with the best he can.
“He was, Meyers Leonard admits, like a deer in the headlights his first two NBA seasons. He was young. He was unsure of himself. And on top of it all, he was being asked to do something he wasn’t very good at: be a traditional back-to-the-basket center.
“No longer pigeon-holed as a center, Leonard on Saturday started at power forward in place of an ill LaMarcus Aldridge, and was part of the equation that helped the Blazers beat Brooklyn 97-87 at the Moda Center.
“Leonard had seven points, a career-high 12 rebounds and didn’t turn the ball over in 30 minutes. In the process, the threat of his outside shooting drew Kevin Garnett away from the basket, allowing Damian Lillard to slash through the Nets’ defense for 28 points and 10 assists. His ability to space the court also played Robin Lopez get a string of easy baskets.
“And all the while, there wasn’t even a hint of that young fawn that looked so awkward and confused during his first two seasons, which led to Leonard being probably the most ridiculed and ripped-on player on the Blazers.”
None other than Aldridge himself believed Leonard was a power forward, “Meyers is a center? I thought he was a power forward.”
Unfortunately for Leonard, Aldridge had the power forward spot locked up in Portland during Leonard’s first three seasons after he was drafted 11th in the 2012 lottery. Working as a center he bulked up to 260 lbs, at the cost of losing the bounce he displayed in college hoops. Perhaps if Leonard traded pumping iron for skipping rope like a boxer he could get his feet moving again and blossom as the true power forward he’s meant to be.
Surprising stats from his college career show Leonard can adapt to what’s asked of him and works tirelessly to perfect his craft. In two years at Illinois he made only a single basket out of 12 attempts from beyond the shorter college 3-point line. And on defense he was first in the Big Ten with 60 blocked shots. Leonard shows the ability to learn the skills necessary to fit the role NBA coaches ask for: of course within reason.
“That’s what he is,” All-Star point guard Damian Lillard said. “He’s a guy that can really shoot the ball. I think we should accept the fact that Meyers is a guy that can shoot the ball, a guy who can really jump, who can really run the floor, and has good hands. I think that’s what he’s really good at. I don’t think you should force him to get in the paint and dunk every time and stuff like that. If that’s not who you are, that’s not who you are. He’s really good at a lot of things and the sooner he can get comfortable and be confident in being who he is, I think that’s when he’ll be really good for us.”
Now can the Heat eliminate Leonard’s “deer in the headlights” tendencies altogether? Not really, but Butler and Erik Spoelstra won’t hold back on giving Leonard the tough love he needs to reach his potential. Especially if rebounds are involved.