Meyers Leonard went #11 in the NBA Draft to Portland on Thursday night, ending a journey from small town Robinson, IL to the NBA and embarking on a new one. The 7'1 Center with great athletic ability made a name for himself with his highlight reel dunks as far back as high school and is now a Portland Trailblazer.
Being only 20 years old, it hasn't been a long process for Leonard, but he has come a long way. Just a few years ago he was a 6'4 wing heading into his sophomore year of high school. His story didn't get the hype of #1 pick Anthony Davis, but it is a bit similar in that respect. When former Illini Head Coach Bruce Weber and former assistant Jay Price found him down in Robinson following his sophomore season he was a 6'8 power forward that had grown 4 inches in the past year. Once he continued to grow, his potential was evident, according to Weber.
"It was pretty obvious right away," Weber told me on Thursday night from New York. "With some of the things he did athletically, and then it was amazing how fast he grew, while keeping his athleticism and coordination. That usually doesn't happen with big kids. He had the guard skills, the good hands and the shooting touch, and he was able to keep all of that stuff. You could see that he had the potential to do it, and then it was just catching up with his body and learning to be a post man. Then, the maturity part, which I think came between his freshman and sophomore years.
Leonard didn't really get until Wednesday night, however. Sure, he had the USA Basketball experiences, the highlight dunks, the Lebron James Camp and numerous other high profile events, but it had not sunk in completely yet. Although it had been a dream and was becoming a reality, it finally hit him as he went to sleep on the eve of the draft.
"I would say my USA basketball experience was when, at the end I turned it on," Leonard said. "Throughout the season the season I had thoughts of it, not really a dream, but a reality. With the ups and downs I continued to stay positive. Looking back now I definitely made the right decision for me and my family. But I think it really just hit me, the whole situation itself, when I was laying in bed and I was like "Wow, it's really here." It's just such and honor to be here and be a top draft pick like I was tonight."
Weber sat at the table with him in the green room and was like a proud father watching Meyers be selected, and fulfill that potential. Part one of his dream is fulfilled, now it's up to Meyers to keep growing and get to that next level.
"As a coach, you're proud to get to sit there and see your guy get drafted, and I was just happy Meyers included me, which made it a little more special," Weber said. "The thing I have talked to him a lot about is that it's one thing to get there and get drafted, but it's another thing to stay in the league. He's accomplished that major goal, and now it's a matter of continuing to work on it, and hopefully he'll have great success and a long career."
The Green Room
Throughout his workouts over the past few weeks, the Leonard stock watch was on the rise. The 7'1 Center had gone from being picked as late as the mid 20's, to possibly going in the top 10. Maturity questions that were present early were being wiped away. What precipitated that rise into the lottery for Leonard during his workouts? The big man addressed that topic during his post draft interview.
"I think I surprised some people with my ability to shoot the ball," Leonard said. "Not only that, but I think the most important thing was my willingness to work hard and compete. I think the interviews helped me a lot. I was very professional and was very straight forward with my answers. I think I came across very articulate and blew some teams away I feel like. It was a combination of things that really helped my draft stock."
Because his stock was climbing, Leonard was not in the green room long, and really didn't have a long wait to be picked. Knowing he wasn't going in the first few picks, he didn't even worry about it until the 10th pick. New Orleans chose Austin Rivers 10th, and Portland followed by taking Leonard.
"I thought I had a chance possibly with New Orleans," Leonard said. "I had a feeling that 10 to 15 would be my range, and of course I landed in there at 11."
Once his name was called, it was a reality. Meyers Leonard was a Portland Trailblazer, NBA player and millionaire, all in one moment.
"It was a really unbelievable and surreal feeling," Leonard said. "It was a mix of emotions. I was anxious. I was relieved. Overall, to share this special experience was a very happy time and a great one in my young life, with my family members and friends."
Leonard worked out for Portland early in the process, and the Blazers showed interest in the Illini big man. Leonard wasn't sure exactly when he would go, but he had a good experience with the visit in Portland.
"They certainly showed some interest," Leonard said. "Obviously, they were lacking at the Center position and that is one of the things that was apparent. I really liked their staff and I interviewed well with them. After they took Damien (Lillard) at #6, they had an opportunity to take me and they did. I'm excited to have an opportunity to play for them."
Leonard will be pairing up with Power Forward Lamarcus Aldridge in Portland, and is looking forward to learning from the All Star. Aldridge came out in 2006 and went 2nd in the Draft, and is now an impact player for the Blazers.
"He's an All Star this year and I believe he will be a great mentor for me on and off the court," Leonard said. "He handles stuff in a professional way, and so obviously I'm going to look to him for some advice and playing next to him I can learn from him."
Once an Illini, Always an Illini
Leonard plans on staying involved with Illinois basketball, and wants to keep in touch with the new staff and be a supporter of the program, despite the long distance between Champaign and Portland.
"I'm going to be around as much as I possibly can," Leonard said. "I love my Illini family and I always will. I take pride in it. I love the school. Obviously Bruce is gone now, but it was very special to have him at my table tonight. I'll always give back and be back to the University."
*Meyers was asked about former Illinois assistant Jay Price during the post draft interview. Price was the primary recruiter for Leonard and as the big man coach worked with him on an almost daily basis. Leonard gave Coach Price some love.
"Jay (Price) was great for me," Leonard said. "We talk all of the time still, and we always have. Anytime I needed something I could always talk to him. He helped me develop on the court, always pushed me and was very positive with me, and is just a great person. He believed in me being a versatile player and using all of my talents, and that's what we did."
*Leonard said he hasn't signed any endorsement deals yet, however don't feel bad for him. He will sign a contract making $1,772,100 in year 1, with a guaranteed 2nd year at $1,851,800. Not a bad wage for a 20 year old.