Posts Tagged ‘Meyers Leonard’

Blazers’ would-be depth all in Vegas


VIDEO: The Trail Blazers’ young guns rout the Hawks in Las Vegas Summer League

LAS VEGAS – Two seasons ago the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench was remarkably young and perilously inadequate. Last season, the addition of veteran Mo Williams plus incredibly good health among the starting five limited opportunity for the Blazers’ babies.

As Summer League heats up, that banging sound you hear is opportunity knocking. Which young Blazers finally walk through that door will be an intriguing story line to monitor. The choices are all right here in Vegas. In fact, if the Blazers don’t boast the most players from their big-league team on their Summer League squad then they’re right there near the top.

Six of Portland’s 15 roster players are on its Summer League squad: Guards Will Barton, Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum, as well as frontline teammates Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson. All six players have either one or two years of league service, and all six are seeking to make a first-time impact in the Blazers’ rotation.

McCollum, Robinson and Leonard are all top 11 draft picks.

“It’s an important summer for our young bigs and and our young perimeter guys,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said as he watched Portland’s summer team beat down Atlanta, 91-76. “CJ, Will and Allen, there’s an opportunity. I can’t say how many minutes, but there’s an opportunity. Joel, Meyers and T-rob, after signing Chris [Kaman], there’s some competition.”

Kaman was granted a two-year, $9.8 million contract coming off two subpar seasons with Dallas and then the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet Portland felt compelled to sign him up as backup to starter Robin Lopez because they’ve haven’t been able to count on Leonard or Freeland.

The young guards won’t have to contend with Williams, who remains on the market as an unrestricted free agent, however the Blazers signed steady veteran in Steve Blake.

“In my rookie year everyone talked about the bench,” said Leonard, who took a step back last season, partly due to injury. “Last year was a much better year for us, young guys stepped up. Now we need to have even more of a deep bench, confidence from coach to put us in there and know the score isn’t  going to down, we’re going to keep it there or we’re going to increase the lead. It’s confidence in the starters and coaches that when we come in we’re going to do a good job and they can know we’re going to be all right.”

Self-confidence is a big pat of it, too. The leader in that category could be Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick two years ago by Sacramento, who was traded by the Kings and then the Rockets. He played in 70 games for Portland last season, averaging 4.8 ppg and 4.4 rpg in 12.5 mpg. He provided some high energy moments off the bench during the playoffs and now the 23-year-old says he’s discovered what it takes to be a productive NBA player.

“I am where I was supposed to be after my rookie year, making that leap to knowing what type of player you are in this league and knowing what you’re going to do for your team,” Robinson said. “That’s where I am now, where I should have been last year.”

Few expected the Blazers to end up where they did last season, winning 54 games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in the last 14 years. They have a dynamic starting five with All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, streak-shooter Wes Matthews, stat-stuffer small forward Nicolas Batum and Lopez, their lunchpail center.

Bench parts at every position are on the roster. Now, with another year under the belts, the question is which ones walk through that door.

Leonard Ready For New Expectations

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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.

summer-league-logoLeonard 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.”

Hickson’s Sacrifice Has Him Well-Positioned For July

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DALLAS – Portland’s energetic J.J. Hickson has played himself into a great position even while playing out of position.

At 6-foot-9, Hickson is the Blazers’ undersized center who’s putting up double-doubles at a higher rate than even his All-Star teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. Hickson’s 14 points and 10 rebounds in Wednesday’s loss at Dallas was his 27th double-double, tied for third-most in the league.

It’s the kind of production that will put Hickson, 24, atop many teams’ offseason shopping lists when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July.

“I’d be lying if I wasn’t looking forward to it, but that’s something I’ll get more excited about when that period hits,” Hickson said. “It’s something that me and my agent will talk about, but right now I’m just worried about playing basketball and trying to make these playoffs.”

Hickson is averaging nearly 30 minutes a game, 12.9 ppg and a career-best 10.7 rpg to help a Blazers team with little depth to stay in playoff contention.

He’s been a steal for Portland at $4 million this season. The Blazers signed him off the waiver wire last March after Sacramento released him. The Kings acquired Hickson in a trade earlier in the season from Cleveland, the team that drafted him 19th overall in 2008 out of North Carolina State, but moved him out to make room for rookie Tristan Thompson.

Portland attempted to go the more traditional route at center last offseason, making an offer to restricted free agent Roy Hibbert, but Indiana matched to hold onto the promising big man. The Blazers also eyed Chris Kaman, who chose to sign with Dallas. Portland signed Hickson to a one-year deal.

“Nah,” Hickson said when asked if he imagined himself playing center on a daily basis. “But, you know, it’s what my team needs me to do and it’s what my teammates and coaches have asked me to do, so it’s something I’m willing to sacrifice for the team.

“I’ve just been strong mentally, I think, all season. I’m a physical player so that’s not a problem, but mentally I think I’ve been locked in and I’ve just been consistent with my play.”

He and Aldridge complement each other well. In first-year coach Terry Stotts‘ offense, Aldridge is extended out of the low block more often with Hickson occupying the weakside.

“L.A.’s the kind of player that can mix it up so I’m just playing off him,” Hickson said. “He knows my situation and we all know he hates to be called a ‘5,’ so we make it work and we’re doing a good at it.”

At 6-11 and equipped with a solid post game, Aldridge is closer to a traditional 5 than Hickson will ever be.

“Sometimes we get too concerned in pigeon-holing players in what he is or what he isn’t,” Stotts said. “I think [Hickson] is a frontline player, whether you want to say he’s a 4 or a 5, he’s an effective frontline player. He can score, he can run, he can rebound and I’m a little reluctant to pigeon-hole him as he’s this or that.”

Even if Hickson does feel pigeon-holed as a pseudo-center.

“Yeah, I do,” Hickson said, frankly. “But like I say, that’s something I sacrifice for the team. The NBA world knows what my true position is and they know I’m sacrificing for my team and I think that helps us even more knowing that I’m willing to play the 5 to help us get wins.”

So what’s next for Hickson? Aldridge isn’t going anywhere, so big minutes at the 4 wouldn’t seem to exist in Portland, which drafted 7-foot center Meyers Leonard last June and could make a run in free agency (or through trades) at legit centers that potentially will hit the market such as Al Jefferson, Nikola Pekovic, perhaps Andrew Bynum or even Kaman again.

Suitors and a handsome payday won’t be in short supply come July, and Hickson certainly sounded as if he’d look long and hard at a starting power forward gig elsewhere. Which could make it difficult for Portland to retain him.

“Well,” Stotts said, “we’ll worry about that later.”

Aldridge Skepticism Starting To Fade

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The early season controversy that swirled around LaMarcus Aldridge and his shot selection has cooled over the last six weeks, to no coincidence, as the Portland Trail Blazers have reversed a rough start into a 14-5 record since Dec. 1.

Terry Stotts imported his “flow” offense from his Dallas assistant days and it requires Aldridge to often begin offensive sets at the elbow, a la Dirk Nowitzki, and to shoot a lot of mid-range jumpers. 

In previous seasons under former Blazers coach Nate McMillan, Aldridge was the primary post man and McMillan ran loads of isolation sets through him, the kind that grinded away at Nowitzki when Avery Johnson called the plays, and eventually led Dallas to trade for point guard Jason Kidd and fire Johnson and hire Rick Carlisle.

J.J. Hickson or Meyers Leonard serve as the primary post man in Stotts’ scheme, giving Aldridge more freedom to roam and and pull his defender out and, yes, take far more shots from outside of the paint, where Aldridge does possess one of the prettier fadeaways.

Still, initially, the result was a drastically lowered shooting percentage and plenty of skepticism.

“In some ways they’re similar, obviously their size, they both have a great touch, they’re unique for their position,” Stotts said earlier this season, comparing Aldridge to Nowitzki. “LaMarcus is a great block player, but if I can get him on the elbow a little bit more — it will probably take time to get him as comfortable as Dirk is up there — but that’s one way, utilizing him in spacing the floor a little bit, not necessarily to the 3-point line, but he’s a good 18- to 20-foot shooter.

“So LaMarcus is his own player and he’s his own man, but I think there are some similarities that we can take advantage of.”

Through 33 games, according to NBA.com advanced stats, Aldridge has attempted 352 mid-range shots. In 55 games last season, he took 494 and in 81 games in 2010-11, he shot 564. On pace to put up 875 in 82 games this season, it is obviously a steep rise and a significant change to his game that has required time to adjust.

Overall, Aldridge’s shooting percentage continues to rise from the lower 40s of the early season. He’s still at a career-low 46.4 percent (he was at 50 percent or better the last two seasons and never below 48.4 percent), but Aldridge actually is making the mid-range jumper at the same rate he has the last two seasons, right at about 41 percent.  This season, he’s down a few percentage points on shots in the restricted area under the rim and in the paint, contributing to his lower overall shooting percentage.

And, the Blazers just keep winning, their latest conquest being Thursday’s come-from-behind victory over Miami.

With point guard Damian Lillard putting a stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year Award, the Blazers have put together a four-game win streak, including road wins over the Knicks and Grizzlies, to improve to a season-best five games over .500 at 20-15.

They’re doing it primarily with a starting five that all averages double-digit scoring and with little help from arguably the lightest bench in the league.

Aldridge is on an All-Star pace once again, leading the Blazers in scoring at 20.6 points a game, about a one-point dropoff from the past two seasons, and is second in rebounding at 8.6.

Portland’s schedule isn’t terribly unmanageable moving through January, but things get trickier starting tonight with another road game at Golden State followed by Oklahoma City at home and Denver on the road. Two games against the Clippers come later this month.

For now, skepticism has cooled as Aldridge and the Blazers have grown more comfortable in Stotts’ system.

Blazers Face The Aldridge Question

It’s getting late early in Portland.

Of course, the shadows can’t get much longer and the outlook much bleaker than when you’ve become the first team all season to lose to the Wizards.

Still, these things happen. If it were a one-game pratfall, it would be easier for the Trail Blazers to move on up the road and try to work out their frustrations on the soon-to-be-Rondo-less Celtics.

But the trouble is that 15 games into this season, it is already beginning to look a lot like last season. And the one before. And the one before.

“Inexcusable,” is the way guard Wesley Matthews described the loss at Washington and nobody was really sure if he was talking about the way the Blazers shot the ball, rebounded, defended or got off the bus.

Intolerable for their fans is the knowledge that over the past decade, the Blazers have done more rebuilding than FEMA and still have little to show for it. They have the longest current Western Conference drought without winning a playoff series (13 seasons and counting) and are giving little indication that it’s about to end. Enthusiasm for new coach Terry Stotts’ up-tempo, move-the-ball offense is leaking like air from a flat tire.

All of which quickly brings up the question of what to do with LaMarcus Aldridge?

The Blazers official stance is: nothing. That’s what general manager Neil Olshey told Aldridge in an October meeting, asking for patience and promising that the power forward would not be traded.

But how wise is that from both sides?

Aldridge is 27 going on who knows what. He’s previously had a heart condition, was sidelined last season by a hip injury and is now bothered an achy back, probably from having to carry so much of the load. He’s averaging a team-high 38.2 minutes per game and a career-low shooting percentage of 43.9.

On one hand the Blazers need their best player on the floor for his lion’s share of time in order to even dream of competing for one of the lower rung spots on the playoff ladder. But if this is a team that isn’t really going anywhere until rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard develop, Nicolas Batum gets a real clue and then significant free agent additions are made next summer, does it make sense to wear Aldridge out?

The Blazers, with Greg Oden and Brandon Roy as cautionary tales in their recent past, are quite familiar with players that simply break down physically. If it’s going to take Olshey’s two-year window to get Aldridge the help he needs, what state will he be in physically, not to mention mentally? Might there come a time, even this season, when L.A. is ready to flee to L.A. or OKC or any other playoff contender with a need for the kind of firepower he brings? In this NBA era that we live, players are far less likely to commit themselves to a franchise for an entire career. How much longer before those around him, or Aldridge himself, conclude it’s time to start inching him toward the door?

If you’re the Blazers and have seen Aldridge’s game deteriorate into mostly jumpers and fadeaways this season, it could be easy to conclude that he’s past the point — if he ever was — of being a No. 1 option on a championship contender. If you’re already thinking about the next remodeling of the roster, wouldn’t it make sense to move the process along with a deal that could bring in young talent to grow at the same pace with Lillard, Leonard and Batum?

Of course, the trade deadline isn’t till February. But it’s already gotten late early in Portland.

Hickson Rebounding In Many Ways

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Tuesday night at Sleep Train Arena, there was J.J. Hickson grabbing 13 boards against the Kings, which was after 18 rebounds a day earlier against the Hawks and 14 rebounds two days before that against the Spurs. After everything.

Hickson has gone from the Cavaliers giving up on him … to the Kings really giving up on him … to the Trail Blazers spending the No. 11 pick on a center to eventually replace him … to being impossible to pull from the starting lineup. That’s impressive enough. That it has all happened in 16 ½ months is more like unbelievable.

June 2011: The player Cleveland once refused to include in an Amar’e Stoudemire trade package with the Suns, causing the deal to collapse, is traded from the Cavaliers to Kings for backup forward Omri Casspi and a first-round choice.

March 2012: Hickson is cut by Sacramento less than three months into the season, then signed by the Trail Blazers to help the Portland roster limp across the finish line.

October/November 2012: Hickson, re-signed as a free agent during the summer, is averaging 11.9 rebounds a game and has five double-doubles, tops on the team.

“It was tough,” he said of the path. “I’m glad I’m in the position I’m in now. It shows that hard work does pay off. For me, it’s all about being consistent and finding a home in this league. And I think I found my home with the Blazers.”

Meyers Leonard, the lottery-pick center out of Illinois, would have been at least a year away from real impact anyway, maybe two. Hickson, though, has played well enough to end any debate over the opening lineup before it started. Coach Terry Stotts gave the informal nod to Hickson heading into camp, as the closest thing the Trail Blazers had to an incumbent there, and hasn’t had to adjust.

We’ve Got Our Eyes On You

 

On opening night everybody is undefeated and optimistic. But that doesn’t mean some players — young and old — aren’t more under the gun to step forward and establish their place in the league. So we present a couple of fistfuls of guys who need to hit the ground running:

Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers – It’s been four seasons now of occasional flashes and teases. Now that Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are simply yellowed pages in the history books, it is time for Batum to be the twin support along with LaMarcus Aldridge that is a bridge to the future. Rookie of the Year candidate Damian Lillard might draw a lot of attention in the backcourt along with fellow newbie Meyers Leonard in the middle, but after getting his big paycheck, Batum must deliver the goods every night.

Michael Beasley, Suns — As Bob Dylan might have sung, how many roads does a man walk down before he’s considered a bust? This is already the third stop on the reclamation tour of the former No. 2 overall pick, and if he can’t succeed in coach Alvin Gentry’s offense-friendly atmosphere in Phoenix, what’s left? Beasley can score. He can rebound. What he has to prove is an ability to keep his head in the game and with the program.

Andrew Bogut, Warriors — There’s virtually nobody in the league that questions his ability as a passer, scorer and defender in the middle. The only question is his durability. It’s been four years since Bogut played more than 69 games in a season and twice he’s managed only 36 and 12. Coming back from a fractured ankle, he missed the entire preseason schedule and only practiced for the first time on Monday. The Warriors need him on the floor to even think of making a run at the playoffs. (more…)

Aldridge At Center Of Trail Blazers’ Attention … But For How Long?




HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – For all of the excitement and trepidation that comes with rebuilding and relying on youngsters like Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard to help revitalize the situation in Portland, there is one man, and one man only, in the middle of the mix out there.

LaMarcus Aldridge holds the key to the team’s (immediate) future. His leadership, on and off the court, will have to serve as the main catalyst for a team searching for a new identity with a new coach (Terry Stotts), new young pieces and a brand new sole headliner in the All-Star power forward.

Aldridge showed last season that he was up to task of being the front man for the franchise, taking over a role that had rested largely on the shoulders of Brandon Roy before he retired prior to the start of an abbreviated training camp. Aldridge made his first All-Team and served notice that Kevin Love and Blake Griffin would have company in their quest to claim the crown as next in line in the Western Conference’s proud power forward lineage.

Just how long Aldridge remains alone at the center of all things for the Trail Blazers, however, remains to be seen. He has quality help in HT fave Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum, two of the survivors from the latest franchise restart. Aldridge is completely healed from offseason hip surgery and eager to get this season started.

But he only has two years remaining on his current contract and at 27 at the stage of his career where his physical powers should plateau for at least the next three or four seasons. In a day and age when superstars are aligning themselves in search of championship glory, the Los Angeles Lakers will be on the season-long rock tour this year after Miami did it the previous two years and Boston before them, it’s not unreasonable to ask just how long Aldridge will want to remain the leader of a start-up band.

Our main man Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune broached that very subject with Aldridge as the Trail Blazers opened camp, hunting answers for very pertinent questions:

Will Aldridge stay motivated as the young, inexperienced Blazers fall out of the playoff picture sometime after the All-Star break?

Will he tire of the constant double-teams that will dog his every move in the post?

Will he get frustrated as most of his West teammates in the 2012 All-Star Game — guys such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love — play into the postseason?

Might he desire a trade at some point soon?

Maybe he’ll be fine with another rebuilding team.

“I’m here,” he told me after Tuesday’s opening training-camp session. “I’m here to try to win, to try to compete, to get better every night.”

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Las Vegas Summer League: Day 2 Recap

By Drew Packham, NBA.com



Vegas, Baby: Fans in Las Vegas apparently missed their Summer League action.

Saturday’s action at Cox Pavilion sold out midway through the day, with officials cutting off ticket sales for the day.

“This is the strongest start we’ve ever had,” said Gail Hunter, the NBA’s Sr. Vice President of Events. “Usually it builds, but we started really well.”

Hunter says the lack of a Summer League last year (due to the lockout) could be a reason for the increased excitement.

“There’s nothing like the intimate feel,” Hunter said. “The fact fans can see players in the stands and get so close to the game is so unique.”

Fans shouldn’t have a problem Sunday, with seven games throughout the day going simultaneously in both Thomas & Mack and Cox Pavilion. The arenas are connected and fans can alternate freely between the two venues.

Non-rookie of the day: Golden State’s Charles Jenkins was impressive, racking up 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting and had three steals in the Warriors’ 95-74 win over the Nuggets. “I love Charles’ game,” said teammate Klay Thompson, who had 17 points himself. “He’s one of the best mid-range shooters I’ve seen, and that’s no fabrication. He’s automatic and he’s developing into a great point guard. He’s gonna be a great player in this league for a long time.”

(more…)

Draft Comparisons: Leonard, Marshall, Zeller and Rivers





HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – As Draft time rolls around and we learn about the next class of NBA rookies, there’s a desire to compare each to players we’re already familiar with.

No two players are exactly alike and some players are more unique than others. But you can find comparisons by watching video, crunching stats or matching measurements. For this exercise, we did the latter two.

Listed below are four of the top picks, along with the current NBA players they compare with most. For this exercise, we looked at 10 stats from each player’s last season in college, and eight measurements taken at the annual pre-draft combine.

Because we used college numbers and combine numbers, the only current players we could compare this year’s prospects to were the ones who played in college (so no LeBron James or Dwight Howard) and participated in the combine since 2000 (Rajon Rondo is one notable name missing in that respect).

The following comparisons aren’t gospel, of course, but they’re one way to get ready for the Draft on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). (more…)