Even though Chris Kaman is on his fifth time in five seasons, it didn’t take long for him to come off the market. He joins a crowded center rotation in Portland with Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland, which doesn’t leave much room for Meyers Leonard, the No. 11 pick in 2012. Leonard has averaged only 4 points and 3 rebounds in his first two seasons, but he would still be an interesting gamble for a rebuilding team who could afford to give him minutes.
Despite his lack of production, it would be unfair to call Leonard a bust. The Blazers knew he was a project when they drafted him. Two years later, after their unexpected rise in the conference hierarchy, they no longer have the time to bring a young 7'0 along. Leonard's career path is the perfect example of why it takes big men so long to develop - they enter the league much earlier than perimeter players, so they have much more room to grow as players.
There aren't many human beings in the world, much less professional basketball players, with Leonard's size and athleticism. At 7'1 250 with a 7'3 wingspan, Leonard has a 33' max vertical and can play far above the rim. In a given draft, there are only a handful of centers with his tools. In 2012, Leonard and Andre Drummond. In 2013, Nerlens Noel, Alex Len and Steven Adams. In 2014, Joel Embiid. It's no coincidence all six were under 20 on draft night.
The demand for NBA-caliber center far outstrips the supply. As a result, they are snatched up as soon as they can enter the league, usually before they are ready. Leonard and Drummond were both fairly inconsistent players on average teams in their last season in college - Leonard averaged 13 points and 8 rebounds a game while Drummond was at 10 and 7. They were both drafted in the lottery based on their physical tools, not their ability to contribute right away.
Drummond looks like a future star, but his physical gifts are so absurd it's unfair to compare anyone to him. He also benefitted from a rebuilding team that could feed him as many minutes as he could handle. Leonard has been reasonably productive in Portland, with per-36 minute averages of 11 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block on 52% shooting. He hasn't been able to handle defensive rotations on a playoff contender, but that's to be expected from such a raw player.
Brandon Paul was the leading scorer on Illinois two seasons ago. Paul averaged almost 34 minutes a night and was more dependable than Leonard, who had averaged only 2 points a game the year before. Paul even scored 43 in a game against Ohio State. The difference was that Paul, who wound up undrafted, was a 6'4 shooting guard, so the list of guys at his position with NBA tools was much, much longer, making the competition far more intense.
Leonard, in contrast, was only really competing with himself. Were it not for family issues, he might have stayed in school an extra two years, allowing him to develop on both sides of the ball. His ideal career path would have looked something like Adreian Payne at Michigan State, the No. 15 pick in this year's draft. When the two were sophomores in the Big Ten two years ago, Payne had much worse statistics, averaging 7 points and 4 rebounds a game.
Payne turned himself into an elite three-point shooter in college, averaging 42% as a senior. Leonard may never develop that type of range, but he's bigger, just as athletic and has shown some promise as a shooter. He's a career 80% free-throw shooter in the NBA, so he could develop into a credible pick-and-pop player who can open up driving lanes to the rim. There's always room in the league for a 7'1 player with size, athleticism and shooting ability.
Even if it doesn't happen with Portland, Leonard will get plenty more chances. In terms of career development, that's really what separates big men from guards. Every professional basketball player is going to improve from 21 to 28. The difference is that a 7'0 has much more margin for error, since there will always be room on a roster for them. A guard with Leonard's production might already be out of the league - there are always more where they came from.
The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's. Tyson Chandler is their patron saint - after entering the league at 18, he didn't turn a corner until his 6th season and his second team. And while Chandler is close to Leonard's ceiling as a player, he will have a long and productive career if he can just turn into Miles Plumlee. At Leonard's age, Plumlee was a fourth-year junior at Duke who was averaging 5 points and 5 rebounds a game.
Length and athleticism are necessary components for being an elite rim protector, but they aren't sufficient. It’s like a goalie in soccer - they have to orchestrate the players in front of them and cover up their mistakes as the second line of defense. They have to anticipate what the offense will do instead of just reacting to it. Those are things only experience can provide. Leonard may never fully acquire those skills, but he won't be 28 until 2020, so there is time.
Buying low on young players who need a second chance is one of the best ways to acquire value. If Leonard had stayed in school the last two seasons while dominating younger players, he would have been a Top 15 pick in 2014. You don't want to hold what was essentially a two-year apprenticeship under LaMarcus Aldridge against him. Leonard hasn't done anything in the NBA, but guys like him are why it takes such a long time before you can judge a draft.