With the playoffs slipping further away after each passing day, the final chapter of the Portland Trail Blazers, version 2012-13, is all but written. A rebuilding year, sure, but lots of positives to build upon. Damian Lillard is everything management hoped for and more; Nicolas Batum, when healthy, lived up to the contract, and they may have gotten a steal with 2009 draft pick Victor Claver, who is showing signs of life late in the season.
The biggest piece of the puzzle, however, is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential, and his progress is beginning to tantalize...
Meyers Leonard is the most important cog in the Blazers wheel going forward. And if this week is any indication of things to come, Portland could be in good hands for years to come.
Somewhat forgotten with the Lillard-hype, Leonard played most of the season in relative obscurity. Struggling to find his groove, looking lost on both ends of the floor, many people it seemed had written Meyers off as a big-white-stiff, another center destined for mediocrity.
At just 20 years of age for most of the season, Leonard entered his rookie campaign with little fanfare, viewed mostly as a project -- albeit a 7'1", freakishly athletic project. With just two years of college ball under his belt, Portland drafted the young man knowing his development would be slow.
With the season bordering so closely to .500, Meyers play was often dismissed, as he found himself in and out of the rotation, behind the over-achieving JJ Hickson. A leg injury slowed the progress even more, costing Meyers a small chunk of his season.
The time away seems to have done his body -- and mind -- good, as Leonard has played by far the best ball of his career since his return. With increased playing time -- he's been consistently seeing 20-plus minutes a night -- Leonard twice set career highs in scoring this week, notching 13 against the Nuggets, then besting it for 15 against the Bobcats on Monday.
While his defense is still far below coaches standards, the work ethic and enthusiasm Meyers brings to the table has the coaches and fans dreaming big. Leonard already possesses a tremendous shooting touch for a big man, at one point hitting 87% of his free throws, and showing a pretty 15-foot jump shot.
The continued progress and growth of Leonard might in fact be the biggest factor for Portland moving forward. They have their established stars in Lamarcus Aldridge, Batum and Lillard; a dominant center could push this team over the top in a couple years. Players Leonard's size, with his athletic ability, don't come by everyday. He has the raw talent, believe it or not, as a former center here, Greg Oden. While Oden's career has been marred by injuries, when he was healthy, Oden was a dominant force.
Can Leonard reach that level? That's to be determined. He has the size, the skill set and it seems, the drive to do it. Now, he just needs the time.