TUALATIN, Ore. — Meyers Leonard has the body of a fitness magazine centerfold and yet the heart of a child begging for more recess and less broccoli.
He’s the most energetic, as well as youngest, on the Trail Blazers’ roster and on Friday after practice he showed both sides.
Leonard called for a reporter’s attention and asked for his guess on the amount of times that he could bounce a basketball on his head.
“K says seven,” Leonard said about assistant coach Kaleb Canales, who might have just thrown out that number so that he could focus back on work.
When the reporter responded with another low number, Leonard began to prove them both wrong. Forty-one head dribbles later, Leonard kicked the ball into the air, a boyish grin covering his face.
“Show of my athleticism, I suppose,” said Leonard, the 7-foot-1 center who averages 4.3 points and 3.2 rebounds in his day job. “Only thing I probably can’t do is horse jockey.”
Try reconciling this happy-go-lucky young man with the growling, mean-mugging one who tries to rip down the rims inside the Rose Garden. It’s difficult to understand but at 7 p.m. on game nights, Leonard transforms into a grown-up.
“He’s coming along,” coach Terry Stotts says. “I think I’ve seen improvement over the last two to three weeks.”
On Wednesday, the day he turned 21, progress met enthusiasm. Leonard showed a command of his offensive skills, filling the lane in transition and running to the right spots in the half-court sets, and scored a career-high 13 points in just 16 minutes against the Denver Nuggets.
For a rookie who has spent time in the referee’s crosshairs as a frequent fouler and even more hours in front of a screen learning from those errors, the Wednesday performance was a revelation.
“My anticipation, my floor awareness and just my feel for the NBA game has slowly started to come along,” Leonard said. “A lot of times film and learning the game goes so unnoticed. It’s not always about being on the court. It’s about watching your mistakes and getting better from them, which I’ve been doing all season. It’s finally starting to, I believe, take a turn for the better.”
While the Blazers selected Leonard only five spots below fellow draft mate Damian Lillard, the comparison between the two rookies ends there. Lillard walked out of four years at college, then immediately walked into the Blazers’ starting lineup. Lillard won co-MVP honors at Summer League and has locked down every Western Conference Rookie of the Month trophy this season — his latest coming Thursday when he earned the February honor.
Leonard, on the other hand, made the leap to the pros after his sophomore season at Illinois and only a few months after his 20th birthday. Also unlike Lillard, Leonard experienced a setback in development due to a severe ankle sprain that sidelined him for nearly a month. When he returned in late January, something finally clicked.
“He plays stronger,” Lillard said, then repeated a question about Leonard’s sturdiness last summer. “Could I move him off the block? I probably couldn’t, but I probably had a better chance back then.”
Beyond the brute, Leonard has begun to grasp the mental angle on the game — catch-and-shoot quickness, ball-screen defense, rebounding and getting back down court, all the things pointed out to him during video sessions.
Even so, Leonard, who has been attached to the hip of Kim Hughes as the assistant coach’s pet project, focuses on the best way to please his gray-haired sensei. Play like a man.
“One of his Number 1 rules is don’t show any pain on the court,” Leonard said of Hughes, “and stand up for yourself.”
That could explain much of his celebrations on Wednesday, as Leonard recalled how he and Denver’s Andre Miller exchanged words in the game. So by the time, Leonard caught Miller in transition for a booming dunk, he stopped chirping and began howling.
“It’s a competitor’s game,” Leonard said. “I’m certainly not going to step down for someone, but it is what it is.”
Tough talk but Leonard’s still not too far removed from his goofy side. After practices, Leonard has enjoyed overtaking a reporter’s live Internet stream and crashing Lillard’s sound bites for the cameras. So in many ways, Leonard still acts like a big kid — but one who’s maturing on the court.
“Play focused,” Leonard said, about his main goal. “It’s easy to lose track. It’s easy to have highs and lows … I’m still learning.”