LAS VEGAS – He was wrapped in a protective layer of patience last season. That cannot be the case anymore.
Now the Trail Blazers need Meyers Leonard. Not to be a star, because he remains as it was in the 2012-13 rookie season, a work in progress. Maybe not even to be the starter, because they acquired Robin Lopez from the Pelicans. But Leonard is an X-factor for the team that showed admirable progress before being dragged under down the stretch by a lack of depth.
Leonard plays center, remains the biggest hope for the future there even after the Lopez arrival, and center is the one position uncertainty among the Portland starters. Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews at guard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum at forward – they are proven. The fifth spot remains what could be.
There is no pressure to flourish this season. But there is an increased level of expectations after a rookie season of 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 17.5 minutes playing behind J.J. Hickson, who has joined the Nuggets as a free agent.
“Of course,” Leonard said Saturday after the Trail Blazers lost to the Suns 83-69 at Thomas & Mack Center. “As a competitor, I always want to be in there. Last year, it was a little hard, I think, for the coaches sometimes to stick me in there. It was kind of a whirlwind season for me. This year, I think I really have a chance to have a bigger impact. We brought in Robin Lopez. I really think his NBA-center body, practicing against him will definitely help my maturation. I just have to continue to work hard to get better.
“(I am a) ton more confident, especially in my skills and just in the sense that the game is slowing down for me. Physically, I’ve always been able to keep up. But mentally I’m just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. There’s so many things going on. We’re going up and down, I’m guarding the ball screen, I’m getting back, rebounding, running the play.’ It was just so much more fast-paced than it was in college for me. Different rules, different concepts. It was tough for me. But I definitely think this year I can excel more and help our team.”