Former Illini big man Leonard still adjusting in NBA

CHICAGO -- Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard has been fighting with himself to stay positive this season.

Leonard, who is in second year with the Trail Blazers since leaving Illinois after his sophomore season, is a member of a team seemingly bound for the playoffs, but he hasn’t factored much into its success. Entering the Blazers' meeting Friday with the Chicago Bulls, his playing opportunities have been limited for much of the season, and he’s averaged 2.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 9.7 minutes in 34 games.

He didn’t see any playing time against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday.

“The second year has been all right,” Leonard said before Friday's game. “Definitely have my ups and downs. I haven’t been in the rotation as much. This next summer is going to be huge for me. I fully anticipate to push my way back into it by next year. But just have to remain positive. I’ve always been a big team guy. I’m happy for the team as far as the success. Coming into the playoffs, got to stay strong and stay together as a team.”

Leonard was hoping for more in his second season, but he understands his defensive game isn’t where Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts wants it to be. Leonard has been learning to think the game rather than just rely on what made him successful in college.

“I was always able to use my athleticism and speed and quickness to block shots and be in the right positions,” Leonard said. “Whereas now, everyone is that athletic. Now you've got to be quick with your mind. Not that I can’t do it, but it’s just been an adjustment.

“This year has been hard for me. I have to learn to play defense. I’ve rebounded the ball a lot better. But my defense has to continue to improve.”

Stotts compared Leonard’s progression to that of a lot of young NBA big men.

“You know he works really hard,” Stotts said. “I think it’s a very difficult position for young big men to adapt to the NBA just particularly at the defensive end. He’s made improvements. It just takes young big men a little while to make that next step.”

Leonard expects to make that next step this summer. He’s planning to work out in Portland, play in the NBA summer league and spend August in Los Angeles getting into some high-level pickup games.

“Playing, that’s the main thing,” Leonard said. “I can go and kill individual workouts any time. You can’t really do defense in an individual workout. It’s all about offense. I can knock down open shots, be athletic, run, jump, dunk, all that.

“But the playing and understanding the game and how to use those moves and how to use your athleticism, how to be in the right rotation to block a shot, things like that, is hard the part. It comes with experience. It comes with time and playing.”

Leonard remains in touch with his former Illinois coach, Bruce Weber, now at Kansas State, about once a month, and still follows Illini basketball. He said he hopes to make a trip to Champaign, Ill., this summer.

Leonard knew coming out of college early and finding NBA success wouldn’t be easy. He would have been a senior this season. At 22, he understands he has a lot to learn at the pro level, even if it is sometimes frustrating.

“Obviously everyone wants to play,” said Leonard, who is from Robinson, Ill., and expected to have about 20 friends at Friday's game. “But at the end of the day, it’s not your decision. But it’s hard. As a competitor, you always want to be out there. Just have to continue to battle through it. As a young player, I have to realize it’s a process and keep working at it.”