PORTLAND — In every cleft and angle on his action movie-hero’s body, the potential of Meyers Leonard’s career can be adored and appreciated.
That’s why the Portland Trail Blazers dedicated the 11th pick of the NBA draft to the young 7-foot-1 center from Illinois. On those broad shoulders and carved muscles, there lies the solution to the Blazers’ big problem — a big man, healthy and capable, who could one day anchor the paint.
This potential, however, also takes patience.
On Monday night with the visiting Utah Jazz and their roster of big bodies on the Rose Garden floor, the opportunity presented Leonard with the best warmup for his regular-season opener against the brawn and size of the Los Angeles Lakers. But if Utah was the dress rehearsal for the Lakers, then Leonard may want to go over his lines once again.
Leonard sat the closing minutes of the Blazers’ 120-114 win after fouling out. Then after the game, he sat in front of his stall, clearly steamed that someone had played a prank on him — his button-down shirt and blue jeans were tied tightly in knots.
It wasn’t the rookie’s night and he was not in the mood to discuss his six-foul, four-rebound, eight-point performance.
“I don’t want to talk tonight,” Leonard told a reporter who requested his time.
In the six preseason games of his young career, Leonard has collected 25 personal fouls — he’s easily the most punished Blazer of the preseason.
Coach Terry Stotts noted both Leonard and 25-year-old rookie center Joel Freeland for their low-post defensive work against Utah’s Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap (the Jazz starting front line combined for 21 points) but could not overlook the fouls.
“Young big men get into foul trouble and (Leonard’s) got to learn what he can do and what he can’t do,” Stotts said. “What’s legal and what’s not legal. Anticipate plays better. Not put himself in foul position. Being rookies, there’s a learning curve.”
Gray-haired assistant coach Kim Hughes must understand Leonard’s long learning curve more than anybody else. Since arriving in Portland, Hughes has concentrated on the Blazers bigs and has kept a dutiful eye on Leonard.
The two stayed after the Monday morning shootaround to watch clips from last weekend’s Golden State game and reunited before tipoff against the Jazz to work on post moves.
Leonard, in the form-fitting adidas workout top he loves to break out, loosely concluded the 45-minute session with an array of shots that he would never attempt in a game, including tossing up a behind-the-back scoop layup. The prodigy smiled and laughed. The old man just shook his head.
“He’s one of a kind,” assistant coach Jay Triano said to Hughes after Leonard left the court.
When Leonard checked in at the 2:55 mark of the first quarter — the second center off the bench behind Freeland — he started on Utah’s 6-11 Derrick Favors and immediately showed a commitment to defending the high screen. He also showed a sluggish foot in rotating back to his man: Favors scored twice on plays when Leonard was out of the picture.
During his second-quarter run, Leonard got active on the offensive end. The Jazz defense did not present an opportunity for one of his trick layup shots, so Leonard tried a post move but could not handle a shaky pass from Freeland. The second time Leonard floated down the middle, he lost the ball by bumping into 6-11 Enes Kanter — losing all forward momentum as if he had crashed into a brick wall made 248 pounds of Turkish flesh.
Leonard didn’t get that call but did make the most of his two trips to the foul line and showed off his shooting stroke for four perfect free throws. His turnaround hook shot with 3:42 remaining in the fourth quarter also displayed just a bit of his skill range. But it didn’t last long. Twenty-six seconds later, Leonard fouled out.
Patience over promise.