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NBA PM: Meyers Leonard Aims for Lottery
Posted By Alex Raskin On June 12, 2012 @ 5:00 pm In All,Main Page,NBA,NBA Draft | No Comments
We’ve all witnessed a few failed big men in our time. Even someone in their early 20s has seen centers like Kwame Brown and Hasheem Thabeet go from can’t-miss prospects to captains of the DNP-CD club.
The symptoms are intoxicating to any NBA general manager—size, athleticism, youth—so it’s no wonder why the league’s talent evaluators have occasionally overrated centers in hopes of finding the next Shaquille O’Neal or Dikembe Mutombo.
This year’s draft is starting to feel different though. Yes, Connecticut center Andre Drummond is expected to go in the top six picks and that’s mostly the product of upside—an intangible quality that has been at the root of many failed big men.
But there are a handful of centers in this year’s draft that, for one reason or another, won’t be picked in the lottery in spite of their size, athleticism and strength.
Those qualities were enough to make Michael Olowokandi the top pick of the 1998 NBA Draft even though he had barely played the game before attending the University of Pacific.
Now, though, centers are sprinkled throughout mock drafts, with more than a few projected to fall out of the first round completely. Is this an overreaction on the part of NBA scouts and the media or have we all improved the process of evaluating young talent?
The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but whatever the reasons behind this trend are, here are two centers that could outperform their draft position.
Illinois center Meyers Leonard
About a week ago Illinois center Meyers Leonard was being pegged to come off the board anywhere from the middle of the first round to the 20th overall pick. But that was before everyone got a good look at the seven-footer at the Chicago pre-draft combine.
“It started off first round, top 20, and recently there’s been a lot of buzz but it all lies in the work I’ve put in,” Leonard told the media, adding, “The ultimate goal is to be a lottery pick.”
That goal is definitely attainable.
A few things jump out about Leonard right away. First, the guy looks healthy. DraftExpress.com lists his body fat at 5.7 percent. He has a 7-3 wingspan and a standing reach of nine feet.
But Leonard isn’t just naturally athletic. He’s someone who has worked hard to build his strength and athleticism and he’s also abstained from a lot of the temptations of college life.
Leonard averaged only 8.2 minutes per game as a freshman, but beginning in his sophomore season he became more disciplined and subsequently averaged 31.8 minutes, 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.
“I think just focus and determination and just knowing that I have a chance to be pretty good at this sport,” Leonard said, when asked what turned him into an NBA prospect. “I was very determined, like I said. I was doing everything right, or trying to anyway. I was eating right, sleeping, I don’t go out, I don’t party, I don’t drink. I’m in the gym all the time. I do truly enjoy being in the gym and getting better. Not only that, I love to lift and do everything to make myself a better player. Not only that, but being a good person is just as important because nobody wants to be around a jerk. It brings everyone down.”
Leonard began working with Team USA Basketball’s under-19 squad overseas, and that’s when he really began to notice his development.
His vertical moved over 30 inches and as he began to become more of an NBA prospect in the eyes of scouts, Leonard started focusing on how the professionals played and how he could improve his own game.
Soon Leonard began absorbing some of the attributes of his favorite big men.
“I kind of take different intangibles from other people’s games,” he said. “The way Joakim Noah plays with passion and lot of energy and some tenacity out there, I think can model my game around that a little bit. I think (I’m) drawing comparisons to Tyson Chandler—his ability to be a backstop to the defense, block shots and be a good on-the-ball defender is something I strive to do; as well as finishing around the rim, he’s pretty solid. I think a good goal for me in the future is to be as skilled as Pau Gasol in the post—footwork, back to the basket, being able to pull up and shoot a little bit. I kind of just take different pieces of people’s games and the way they play and just try to model myself after that.”
Of course, that’s all stuff he thinks he’ll have the potential to do in the NBA. But Leonard isn’t just some project with big upside. He sees himself as someone who can step onto an NBA floor and immediately make an impact in his own way.
“Coming in, I understand my role is more to be a defensive presence, impact the game with my athleticism, block shots, run the floor, get people open, finish around the rim on the offensive end,” he said, adding, “Every place is different and every coach is different so I’m just going to respect wherever I land.”
The truth is, every team can use a seven-foot center that plays with energy and hits nearly 60 percent of his field goals, as Leonard did with the Illini last season.
And while Gasol’s back-to-the-basket game is something he’ll have to work on, Leonard feels he’s shown what he can do for NBA teams next season throughout the pre-draft process.
“First of all, I think, going out there and competing and showing everyone how much I love to play the game, the passion, and I want to learn every chance I get,” Leonard said when asked what he’s shown. “But not only that. I think I showed some versatility—my ability to step out and shoot the ball a little bit, my ability to run the floor and be a little more agile than most guys my size. You know, my athleticism has shown a little bit in these workouts. I’ve been getting after it and I’m feeling good about these last couple of days.”
ESPN’s Chad Ford recently put Leonard’s ceiling at the ninth overall pick, which currently belongs to the Pistons. Of course, they already have a young center in Greg Monroe, but if Leonard really is a top-10 talent, that’s likely where he’ll land. Don’t be surprised to see a team trade up to get Leonard.
Duke center Miles Plumlee
Quick, name the most-athletic center in this draft class… If you’ve answered “Miles Plumlee” then you’re capable of reading the bold print above this paragraph.
It might shock some people to find out, but Plumlee—a 6-11 Warsaw, Indiana native who only played 20.5 minutes per game as a senior at Duke—had his vertical measured at 41 inches. That’s the highest anyone Plumlee’s size has jumped in the 11-plus years that ESPN’s Chad Ford has been recording this data.
“I don’t think there’s a guy that’s as athletic as me in the draft,” Plumlee told the media at the Chicago pre-draft camp. “I can run faster and jump higher than anybody that’s my height. My strength as well, I think that’s what I bring to the table.”
What Plumlee might not bring to the table-and this is why he’s probably going to be drafted in the second round—is a lot of polish. He never averaged more than 4.9 rebounds per game until his senior season, when he reached 7.1 rpg. Plumlee has never blocked over a shot per game in any season and he still turned the ball over 1.2 times per game last season even though he wasn’t touching the ball very often.
The other side of that coin—and the reason he might do better in the NBA—is that coach Mike Krzyzewski was running a very guard-oriented attack in Durham over the last few years and Plumlee believes his game is more suited for the NBA.
“This transition I feel a lot more comfortable playing my game, going out there and using my athleticism,” he said. “I feel like you’re able to play a little more and not worrying about knocking people over and having it be a charge. You can just get after it and I feel like my athleticism just takes off.”
Plumlee insists he’s not upset about his modest college numbers. Instead, he said he was purely focused on how to make the Blue Devils a better team and that’s an attitude he’ll take to the NBA.
“I’m not the kind of person that likes to think about my situation and what might be holding me back if there is anything,” he said. “I just knew what my role was on the team. I wanted to win, I did what coach told me and I loved playing there. One of the best times of my life and now I know what I need to do to play at the next level. I’m showing people stuff I’ve been working on my whole life and it just so happens there’s more stuff to be seen.”
Plumlee, who likes Kevin Garnett’s game but doesn’t put himself in KG’s class, thinks he’s done well in the pre-draft workouts. He’s not sure what that will mean for him on draft day, but as long as he ends up in the NBA, he’ll be okay with that.
“I definitely feel like I’ve moved my draft stock up a lot,” he said. “But in terms of where exactly, I’m not worried about that until draft day. I’m just working as hard as I can and (I’ll) keep moving up the ladder.
“Yeah, I’m out here to show I can play and I think I can do more than what they’ve seen from me in my four years of college,” he continued. “You know, I’m proud of what I did at Duke, but this is the next step in my life and I’m ready to play.”
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