Terry Stotts has his hands full juggling a roster of players who merit court time

Terry Stotts has his hands full juggling a roster of players who merit court time

Interesting opening night for the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday. It was far from pretty but there are no bad wins -- you take it and move on.

The Blazers are blessed with a lot of talent and it makes for some interesting rotations and substitution patterns for Coach Terry Stotts, particularly on a night when the starters aren't carrying the kind of load they usually handle. In Milwaukee on Saturday, he used only eight players in the first half and then Tuesday vs. New Orleans tried 11 in the first half. And he had a couple of real short bench stays that were interesting, too. Jusuf Nurkic had one 51-second trip to the bench in the third quarter and Evan Turner sat just 1:58 at one point of the fourth quarter.

Stotts has so many players who deserve playing time but then you also want to stay with the ones who are playing well. Then there's the issue of developing players. There is no doubt that Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins need playing time if they're to develop -- but not at the expense of losing a game. Rookies can be a risk in close games -- at least a lot of coaches seem to think so.

Veteran players bring problems of their own. If they don't get the playing time they think they deserve they can often become locker-room problems. It's a difficult situation to navigate for a coach. Frankly, there is nobody on the Portland bench this season just happy to be on a team and drawing a paycheck. In the past, there has been a few of those.

All in all, handing out minutes can be a complicated situation with so many capable players.

Meyers Leonard played Tuesday, which was not surprising given his success defending DeMarcus Cousins in the past. Leonard got only 6:25 but during his time on the court Cousins had a couple of turnovers, missed two shots and appeared to be his usual frustrated self when confronted by Leonard. Meanwhile, Leonard made both his shots from the floor, including a three-pointer, had two rebounds and a steal. But he got no second-half time.

After the game, Stotts praised many members of his bench:

"I thought Ed Davis, and Caleb gave us a nice spark off the bench," he said. "As did Pat."

He was asked how he felt about Leonard's work against Cousins.

"I thought he was OK for the time that he was in there," Stotts said. "Look, Cousins had a great game. He did a lot of good things. He got to the basket, got to the free-throw line, but I thought Ed, Meyers, Nurk, they all had their turn on him and you can't look at 39 (points) and 13 (rebounds) and say anybody did a great job."

I suppose not. But when you give up only three of those 39 points, you can't get a lot of the blame -- particularly when you outscore him while you're on the court. But as I said, there are a lot of players to keep track of off that Portland bench and perhaps Leonard had nothing to do with Cousins' struggles while they were on the court at the same time. Or maybe he just got lost in the shuffle. Eleven Blazers played Tuesday night, including Shabazz Napier, who got just three and a half minutes.

That's a lot to of players to use in a close game.

Bench talent is a blessing, not a curse. At some point of the season, everybody on that bench is going to have a chance to make a significant contribution.

But for right now, juggling all that talent can be a real coaching challenge.

Blazers' shootaround notes: Stotts mum on lineup, but do jerseys give answer?

Blazers' shootaround notes: Stotts mum on lineup, but do jerseys give answer?

PHOENIX – At Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Trail Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts declined to reveal his starting lineup for tonight’s game at Phoenix, but the jerseys his players wore went a long way to speaking for him.

Only five players were wearing black jerseys – the rest grey – when the media was allowed onto the court at the conclusion of the hour-long walk-through practice.

Those in black: Damian Lillard at point guard, Evan Turner at shooting guard, Maurice Harkless at small forward, Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward and Jusuf Nurkic at center.

No big surprises, as Turner will fill in for the suspended CJ McCollum and likely start the game guarding Suns’ rising star Devin Booker. Turner has set a goal to be named All-NBA Defense this season and what a way to make a statement than going against the player who scored 70 points last season at Boston.

Other news and notes about the opener:

Shabazz Napier: Stotts said he has seen enough in practice from Shabazz Napier to play him in tonight’s game. Doesn’t mean Napier will see time, but he is cleared medically and has shown enough to Stotts in three practices to give the coach comfort to call on him if needed. Napier injured his left hamstring on the second day of training camp and didn’t return to practice until Sunday.

The rookies: Of all the tough decisions ahead for Stotts, his biggest entering the season might be which rookie to play. A low-key development in the preseason has been the rapid improvement of rookie Zach Collins. While much attention has been given to fellow rookie Caleb Swanigan, who started the preseason with a bang, Collins has quietly impressed to the point where he could command playing time over Swanigan.

Meyers Leonard: The Blazers' big man said he understands that he will not be in the rotation to open the season, and says he has adopted a “be ready” mentality.

“I thought I had a really good training camp, and for the most part in the preseason I thought I was solid,'' Leonard said.  "I didn’t like the Toronto game, but outside of that, I felt I was very focused and shot the ball well and definitely improved with defensive rebounding.

“But it’s an uphill battle. I can say that I didn’t give them a reason last year to have trust  me … so I’m going to take it day by day,’’ Leonard said.

Stotts and Leonard chatted briefly this week about his role and Leonard says he is in a good place mentally.

“That’s one thing I’ve come to understand after this summer, and coming into my 6th year is understanding the true, true professional side of things. That no matter what happens I have to stay in shape, keep working … because when number is called, you have to be ready.’’

Suns injury update: Leonard’s chances of playing Wednesday probably lessened after it appears Suns backup center Alex Len will miss the game with a sprained ankle. Len told Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic that he is “probably out” for tonight’s game beause of the left ankle sprain, but that he hopes to play Friday.

Extra work for CJ: CJ McCollum, who is suspended for tonight’s game after leaving the bench during an altercation in last week’s preseason game against the Suns, stayed after Wednesday’s shootaround to get in more court work. He is not allowed to be in the arena up to two hours before the game. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

PHOENIX – Meyers Leonard knows it was only one game, and he knows it was only preseason, so he wasn’t ready Wednesday to proclaim his arrival back into Trail Blazers’ relevance.

But after his encouraging 17-point, 8-rebound effort in the Blazers’ 113-104 win over at Phoenix, the embattled Blazers’ big man could confidently say he took another step in his development.

“I knew coming into the year it was going to take some time, that there would be ups and downs,’’ Leonard said. “It’s day-by-day … but tonight felt good.’’

Leonard hit his first five three-pointers and was an aggressive rebounder in compiling his most complete preseason performance to date. Through five preseason games, the 7-foot-1 center is averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds in 15.5 minutes, during which he has made 8-of-12 three pointers.

Leonard’s performance Wednesday tickled his teammates, who know what a lightening rod Leonard has become with the fan base, who feel as a sixth-year pro has not lived up to expectations as a former lottery pick and recipient of a $41 million contract. The players have long said that Leonard has shown the talent in practices, but for whatever reason hasn’t been able to transfer it to the games consistently.

“It’s exciting; you have to be happy for him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He’s doing what everybody knows he can do. For him, it’s just a confidence thing, and having a game like tonight, it just builds that confidence. We need that from him going into the season.’’

When the season opens for real on Oct. 18 at Phoenix, Leonard doesn’t figure to be in coach Terry Stotts’ rotation judging from his preseason playing time. Jusuf Nurkic will start at center and Ed Davis appears to have locked down the backup role. Also, rookie Caleb Swanigan appears to have played his way into the rotation, and rookie Zach Collins is improving with each week.

That leaves the question of  where that leaves Leonard?

“I don’t know. I don’t have a clear answer for you,’’ Leonard said. “I am really trying to take it day-by-day. I knew coming in that it would be an uphill battle, and I’m OK with that. I have to play well in order to gain that trust. And I think tonight was definitely a step in the right direction.’’

Leonard this summer moved to Los Angeles and worked out with renowned basketball trainer Drew Hanlen, who tweaked his shot, worked on his mobility and added to his offensive repertoire. Teammates say Leonard in training camp has looked as good as he has since he arrived in Portland as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft.

On Wednesday, people outside of the Blazers’ practice gym got to see the improvement.

“He’s played like that in camp this entire time,’’ Damian Lillard said. “In September, he was making shots and pushing Nurk on the defensive end. It seemed like he was making every shot in camp. But it’s really good to see him get out there in action and him not hesitating … that’s what you want to see from him.’’

His shot isn’t the only thing that has improved. He has been a much more aggressive and confident rebounder – he grabbed 11 rebounds in 11 minutes on Sunday against the Clippers – and he is fouling less and moving his feet more on defense.

“I was really glad to see him hit some shots,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after Wednesday’s game. “I’m always the first to say that your game isn’t determined by whether you make or miss shots, but he had a good rhythm. And he certainly had an impact on the game.’’

The next step, of course, is to do it again. Leonard said he will attack his Thursday workout with the same enthusiasm and same consistency, then look to take another step forward in the preseason finale on Friday against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

“It’s a long season, and I know I have made big strides,’’ Leonard said. “And I know I can impact the game on both sides of the ball. I’m going to keep doing my best to be ready when my number is called.’’

Today's Blazers' Links:

A look at what got Caleb Swanigan ejected against the Suns.

An inbounds play paid dividends again for the Blazers on Wednesday.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers writes how three's and defense led Wednesday's win.

Exhibition season a time for observations, but not judgments -- yet

Exhibition season a time for observations, but not judgments -- yet

For me, as someone covering an NBA team, training camp is the most frustrating part of the season.

I'm supposed to comment on or analyze changes the team is making, update people on new players and, in general, talk about how things are looking for the upcoming season. And I have to tell you, the way things are today, that's very close to impossible to accomplish.

We don't get to watch more than a few minutes of each day's practice and what we do watch isn't enough to draw conclusions. Hence, the frustration. That's why the exhibition season is a lot more fun.

And, of course, it begins tonight with a Moda Center game vs. Phoenix that you can watch at NBCS beginning with Rip City Live at 6:30.

What will I be watching tonight?

For me, it's about player development. I never worry about that with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum because we've seen their off-season work ethic and assume they will come into each season better than they were the previous season. But here are a few other players I'll be anxious to see:

  • Jusuf Nurkic -- We already know he's lost weight but what about his game? We've heard he has improved his shooting range but I want to see what we're going to get on the defensive end. How is his rim protection going to be? His rebounding?
  • Zach Collins -- Certainly Caleb Swanigan got all the early rookie attention with his play in the summer league, but lately, there is a buzz about Collins. He's looking comfortable and confident, we hear. I want to see where he is in his development.
  • Caleb Swanigan -- This team is looking for a starter at power forward, could a rookie claim that job? I wouldn't be surprised.
  • Meyers Leonard -- Well, you know -- confidence.
  • Evan Turner -- Where will he fit? He can be a valuable contributor in the right role and I'm interested in what that will be.

Obviously, there are other players of interest but these will be my main focus for the first few games. And let me add, it's real dangerous to make snap judgments at this time of year. To the veterans, these games are just a chance to get loose and work on specific things. Don't go overboard either way on performance.

It's time for observations, not judgments.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Fan Fest scrimmage observations

Breakfast with the Blazers: Fan Fest scrimmage observations

Some observations after the Trail Blazers’ Fan Fest scrimmage Sunday at the Moda Center, keeping in mind that is was just a intra-squad workout:

CJ’s ‘target practice’

As crazy as it sounds, it looks like CJ McCollum is primed for an even better season than last, when he averaged 23 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 42.1 percent from three-point range and an NBA-best 91.2 percent from the line.

Some of the shots McCollum made Sunday had Neil Olshey, the team’s top executive, shifting in his seat and chuckling at the absurd ease in which McCollum scored over blanket coverage. All night -- be it with his ball handling, court vision or shot making --  it seemed as if McCollum was toying with the competition.

All told, he hit 6-of-9 shots and all three of his three-pointers and finished with 15 points and the MVP trophy.

“Pretty good target practice,’’ McCollum quipped afterward.

This training camp, McCollum seems more at ease. Confidence has never, ever, been a problem for him, but in the past, it seemed like he carried an angry confidence, like he was in a rush to get recognized, or in a hurry to prove people wrong.

This season, that confidence seems more … peaceful, more comfortable.  I think that was on display pregame, when McCollum and Damian Lillard had a midcourt conversation with television broadcasters Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd.

In those settings, Lillard is usually the one who owns the stage. But on Sunday, it was McCollum who held court, telling stories about his travels to Africa, and making quips about social media posts.

To me, it looks like a young star coming into his own, as a player and a person. When that synergy happens, look out … and it’s why I think it’s possible McCollum surpasses Lillard as the team’s top scorer this season. 

The surprise

The biggest surprise Sunday was the play of guard Isaiah Briscoe, the rookie from Kentucky who is one of three players trying to win the 15th and final roster spot.

Briscoe scored 14 points and hit 6-of-7 shots while adding six rebounds, five assists and two steals.

After the game, coach Terry Stotts shrugged and said that’s what the staff has been seeing all training camp out of Briscoe. He is in competition with NBA veteran sharpshooter Anthony Morrow and guard Archie Goodwin, a 2013 first round pick – a spot I think many figure will go to Morrow – but after seeing Briscoe on Sunday that might be more of a battle than we think.

Solid Swanigan

Caleb Swanigan had 13 points and four rebounds, and what I liked best was his no-hesitation three-point attempt, which he made.

His ability to be a spacing power forward will only help him get on the floor in what figures to be the most heated position battle of the preseason. Between Swanigan, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless, and eventually Noah Vonleh when his shoulder heals, coach Stotts will have many options.

I’ve been curious this training camp how Stotts and the players view Swanigan from a spacing standpoint, and all have had basically the same response: He hasn’t shot it well the first week, but they know he can. If he can consistently hit the jumper, that will give him a better chance to be on the floor with Lillard and McCollum.

Of course, the bread-and-butter for Swanigan is his nose for the ball, and that was on display Sunday. He is not afraid to bang inside and he is one of those guys who is constantly in motion.

“What saw from Caleb is what we’ve seen for the last month: Effective scorer, tough, feels very confident on the block,’’ Stotts said.

Odds & Ends

While Swanigan has earned much of the attention and figures to be more game ready, don’t sleep on fellow rookie Zach Collins. On Sunday, Collins had a nice block on Swanigan at the rim, and word out of practices is that Collins has emerged as the team’s best rim protector … Speaking of defense, Meyers Leonard looked much better at contesting shots on Sunday. People often fixate on his shot, but for the coaches, it’s his defense that has prevented him from playing more. Leonard knows this and perhaps that’s why he was pumping himself up and talking to the crowd after holding his ground during a couple of Jusuf Nurkic’s forays into the lane … Ed Davis was really active and bouncy, which is exactly what the Blazers need from him. Next game, spend a couple possessions where you just focus on Davis and you will notice how many little things he does – keeping a ball alive, tipping a rebound to a teammate, showing help defense to cut off a drive, setting a hard screen. He makes this team better … Looks like it could be another hold-your-breath-and-pray shooting seasons for Al-Farouq Aminu. He went 0-for-4 with one airball and a near airball … Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless were late scratches to the scrimmage, but Stotts said both should be available to play Tuesday in the preseason opener against Phoenix. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Sunday is Fan Fest, a free event to see team scrimmage

Breakfast with the Blazers: Sunday is Fan Fest, a free event to see team scrimmage

Sunday is the Trail Blazers’ 13th annual Wells Fargo Fan Fest, which is essentially a chance to see the Trail Blazers scrimmage for free at the Moda Center.

If you have never been to the event, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s free, first-come-first-serve on the seating, and a chance to see the Blazers’ players in a setting that is relaxed and intimate.

“It’s like they came to a practice, and we are just hoopin’ in front of them,’’ Damian Lillard said. “Like a pickup (game) … that’s pretty cool.’’

Doors open at noon and the team will scrimmage around 1 p.m., which will consist of four six-minute quarters played on a running clock except for the game’s final minute.

To receive a free ticket, click here or go to www.nba.com/blazers/fanfest.

It will be Blazers’ fans first look at rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, the first chance to see what a slimmed down Jusuf Nurkic can do on the court, and to see for themselves whether Meyers Leonard has improved.

But more than anything, it’s a chance to interact with the players and see them without the pressure of a game weighing on them.

“It’s good for the people who can’t afford to go to the games,’’ Ed Davis said. “And it’s a good chance to be up close and see us.’’

Coach Terry Stotts said he puts very little stock into what happens during the scrimmage, so don’t expect a player to win or lose a rotation spot because of what happens Sunday, but he also stressed that the event is not a time for horseplay.

“I like that our players are able to interact with the fans during certain parts of it, and from a basketball standpoint, we make it a competitive game,’’ Stotts said. “It’s not a practice, but it’s not like we are just out there screwing around. It’s a competitive game and guys are trying to win. And we use it as an opportunity to work on the things we’ve been working on in camp.’’

Lillard, who has won the Most Valuable Player of the event three times, says he doesn’t plan on winning it this season. He said plans on playing only limited minutes in order to give the rookies and other players a chance to showcase for the fans.

Then again, he said the same thing last season then came out on fire, hitting his first five three-pointers, which prompted him to keep playing. Not so this year, he says.

“This year, I will probably play very, very little,’’ Lillard said. “I’ve been here five years, they’ve seen me play, they know what I’m going to do. They want to see who else is out here, who has improved.’’

In past years, the event has drawn anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 fans. If you aren’t able to attend, you can watch on CSN at 1 p.m.

Either way, it’s an event worth watching.

“As players, we enjoy playing in front of a crowd,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We enjoy being able to provide them with a free experience. I know a lot of fans don’t necessarily have the time, or the money, to go to as many games as they would like to. So to be able to go in and sit courtside at the arena … it’s a good environment. And it’s a first chance to look at the new guys.’’

Today's Blazers Links:

I wrote about teammates praising Meyers Leonard after first week

Dane Carbaugh listed five questions the Blazers must answer this season.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman has a story on Anthony Morrow and his fight for the 15th spot. 

Has Meyers Leonard improved? Blazers teammates say 'yes'

Has Meyers Leonard improved? Blazers teammates say 'yes'

It’s only training camp, and it’s only been one week, but the early returns on a new-and-improved Meyers Leonard are encouraging.

According to some of his Trail Blazers’ teammates, Leonard has made an impression this week during the team’s two-a-day workouts.

“He looks good,’’ CJ McCollum said. “This is my fifth training camp and I think this is the best he has looked. He’s aggressive, he is playing strong, he is making shots. I think it’s just more about staying consistent with it through training camp … then transitioning from good training camp to good preseason to a good season.’’

Leonard, 25, entered training camp optimistic that he had improved his game after spending much of his summer working out with noted trainer Drew Hanlen in Los Angeles. His summer came on the heels of what he called a disappointing season in which he averaged 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 38.5 percent fro the field.

A 7-foot-1 center with soft touch and unique physical tools, Leonard has said much of his past struggles have been mental. After the summer workouts with Hanlen, which included a mechanical tweak to his shot and developing a “plan” in how to diversify ways he can attack a defense, Leonard felt he was as healthy – mentally and physically – as he has been since becoming the 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft.  

His teammates agree.

Captain Damian Lillard on Friday said it’s hard not to see a change in Leonard.

“It’s noticeable. I think everybody notices,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard cautioned that it’s one thing to show confidence in training camp practices and another to show it against a real opponent. But he said he likes the first steps Leonard is taking.

“You can tell he’s trying to show something, he’s trying to prove it,’’ Lillard said. “The best thing right now, he’s really pushing (Jusuf Nurkic). He’s challenging him, playing physical with him, not backing down from him, making him have to play through fouls, making him have to run the court. He’s doing a great job alone, but he’s really pushing Nurk too.’’

The next test for Leonard will come next week, when the Blazers play home preseason games against Phoenix on Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday.

Five reasons Blazers could be better than you think: A 'new' Meyers Leonard

Five reasons Blazers could be better than you think: A 'new' Meyers Leonard

On the surface, it would appear this offseason brought little to no help to the Trail Blazers amid the NBA’s whirlwind summer of blockbuster trades and free agent acquisitions.

Aside from a salary-cap motivated move of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn, and the drafting of 19-year-old center Zach Collins and Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan, the Blazers are largely the same group that went 41-41 and finished eighth in the Western Conference.

The Las Vegas betting line on Trail Blazers wins for the 2017-2018 season is 42.5 games, which would place them eighth in the West:

1. Golden State (67.5)

2. Houston (55.5)

3. San Antonio (54.5)

4. Oklahoma City (51.5)

5. Minnesota (48.5)

6. Denver (45.5)

7. LA Clippers (44.5)

8. Portland (42.5)

Of course, Las Vegas has been wrong before about the Blazers (remember 2015-2016 when the Blazers won 44 games after Vegas set the line at 26.5?), and it’s easy to get swept up in the headlines from an offseason that saw Chris Paul move to Houston, Paul George to Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and Paul Millsap to Denver.

But behind the sexy headlines and tumultuous turnover, the Blazers have been  doing what has become a hallmark of this franchise: relying on improvement from within.

With that in mind, CSN this week will unveil five reasons the Blazers this season could exceed 42 wins and be better than people think:

Today: A 'new' Meyers Leonard

Tuesday: A full season of a more fit Jusuf Nurkic

Monday: A healthy Ed Davis


One of the first things Meyers Leonard did this summer with Drew Hanlen, his new trainer, was watch the Trail Blazers’ final regular season game against New Orleans.

Leonard started that game and played 36 minutes, finishing 3-for-11 from the field and with seven points and nine rebounds.

“It was hard for me to sit there and watch it,’’ Leonard said.

He couldn’t score in the post against guards. He noticed he wasn’t attacking rebounds. And the form of his shot was disjointed and his attempts off the mark.

“It was eye opening,’’ the 7-foot-1 Leonard remembered. “I was making it so difficult on myself.’’

The regular-season finale was a microcosm of his frustrating fifth season in Portland, when he averaged 5.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and shot 38.5 percent from the field.

After the film session, Hanlen -- whose resume includes training NBA players Bradley Beal, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Clarkson, Joel Embiid and Dwight Howard to name a few -- developed a plan.

“It was a plan to prepare him for this kind of ‘New Meyers,’’’ Hanlen said.

The major bullet points of the rebuild were to tighten Leonard’s shooting mechanics; get him to play lower and less upright; and to develop a plan on how to approach various scenarios, such as when defenders rush at him at the three-point line.

“But the first area we had to attack was the cloud that was holding him back – his confidence,’’ Hanlen said. “When he first arrived in the summer I asked him ‘From 1-to-100, how confident are you in your game?’

“He said, ‘If I’m being honest, probably around 30,’’’ Hanlen said.

Fast forward four months to today, less than a week away from the start of training camp.

Leonard says his confidence level is “in the 80s” and Hanlen says in all his years of working with NBA players, Leonard’s progress is remarkable.

“From a confidence level, it’s one of the biggest jumps I’ve seen a player make in a summer,’’ Hanlen said. “And from a skill level standpoint, Meyers elevated himself multiple levels.’’

Apparently, Leonard and Hanlen aren’t the only ones noticing.

Leonard this summer took part in the renowned NBA pickup games at UCLA two or three times a week, and Hanlen said several of his clients approached him about the 7-footer from Portland.

“I was getting compliments from NBA players like ‘Meyers is a beast … I don’t know why Portland is not using him,’’ Hanlen said. “Other players, they were bragging to me about him.’’

Leonard said those games included players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, DeMar DeRozan, and one week the entire Oklahoma City team played.

“I was out there as confident as I’ve ever been – hitting shots … down in the post … and having a plan of what I wanted to do,’’ he said. “I had a couple different people tell me they heard things, stuff like ‘If Meyers plays like this he will be just fine … it will be eye opening … ‘’

Leonard stopped short and retreated. He is wary of what he says these days, knowing all too well how much of a divisive force he is among the Blazers’ fan base, and how many “remakes” he has supposedly undergone during his five seasons in Portland.

Both he and Hanlen agree that the proof will be in his performance this season.

“I will say this: This is the most laser-focused I have been in my life. For sure,’’ Leonard said. “I no longer have thoughts in head of ‘Do I really belong?’  – I no longer have that and never will again. I’ve proven that to myself.’’

That confidence was born out of 6:15 a.m. wakeup calls for daily workouts with Hanlen in Los Angeles.

The biggest changes: Hanlen has changed Leonard’s shooting mechanics, most of which deals with balance. He found that Leonard would often lean back on his shots and/or have his feet to close together. So now, Leonard focuses on his shoulders being forward and establishing a wide base with his feet.

Also, he has trained Leonard to play lower, which allows him to move better, both offensively and defensively.

Finally, Hanlen developed what he calls a “plan” for Leonard in how to thrive within the Blazers’ system.

“He has to be able to play within that system, but before he would set a screen and then float around the perimeter,’’ Hanlen said. “He didn’t have a purpose.’’

So they worked on a series of options –  pick-and-pop …  a dive to the basket where he worked on finishing with both hands … a short roll to the basket … a one-dribble and attack the basket.

“That way he can keep defenses off balance and open more space for Damian and CJ while becoming more of a threat himself, instead of just drifting around the perimeter,’’ Hanlen said.

To accentuate Leonard’s new skills, Hanlen wanted Leonard to lose weight.

“Today in the NBA, thin is in,’’ Hanlen said. “You not only move better, you recover quicker.’’

Leonard played between 262 and 265 pounds last season and initially thought he wanted to bulk to 270 pounds this season. But with the urging of Hanlen to lose weight to become more mobile, Leonard says he is at 257.5 pounds as he enters training camp.

“I feel great,’’ Leonard said. “This is the healthiest I’ve been since I’ve been in Portland.’’

Now comes the hard part: proving it.

The Blazers’ have a stable of big men with Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu and a burgeoning rookie in Caleb Swanigan. In order to break into the roation, Leonard will have to earn it and he knows it will take time.

 “It’s going to be a day-by-day thing,’’ Leonard said. “A lot of people know in the back of their mind that I can play. Did I show that last year? Occasionally, but not really. So gaining the players’ trust to throw me the ball, gaining Coach Stotts’ trust to put me in to help the team win … I’m going to have to keep chipping at that. And I’m sure there will be bumps in the road.

“In the meantime, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,’’ Leonard said. “It was a good summer. I’m in a really good place. And I just want to continue to do the right things.’’

Meyers Leonard: New trainer, new shot, new outlook as he vows to improve

Meyers Leonard: New trainer, new shot, new outlook as he vows to improve

LAS VEGAS – Meyers Leonard says he is getting better this summer.

The embattled Trail Blazers center has moved to Los Angeles for the summer and is training with noted NBA skills coach Drew Hanlen, who among other things has made an adjustment to his shooting mechanics.

“I’ve been working out a lot,’’ Leonard said Saturday while watching the Blazers’ Summer League entrant in Las Vegas. “I’m confident where I’m at in my progression this summer. And, I feel healthy. I feel as good as I have in five years.’’

In April, after a disappointing 2016-2017 season that was in part stalled by hip and back injuries, Leonard said he was entering this offseason with an excitement unlike any of his five previous summers.

Three months into his training, Leonard has even more verve. He said the first phase of his training with Hanlen has been centered around his technique, and the second phase will begin at the end of July with some one-on-one play with another Hanlen client, Philadelphia center Joel Embiid.

Later in the summer, Leonard said he will play 5-on-5 at the Clippers’ practice facility and UCLA, which are noted gathering spots for pickup games between NBA players in the offseason.

Leonard has been under scrutiny in Portland since he was the 11th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, a particularly after last season, when on the heels of signing a four-year, $41 million deal he averaged 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from three-point range.

After visiting with former teammate Wesley Matthews in Dallas over the All-Star Break, he took Matthews’ advice to change his offseason routine by hiring Hanlen, who has an extensive client list that includes NBA players Dwight Howard, Bradley Beal, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Clarkson.

“I’ve learned a ton from him,’’ Leonard said.

After studying Leonard’s game tapes, Hanlen determined that Leonard’s feet were too close as he shot, and that his shoulders leaned back slightly, causing him to aim his shots. With a wider base, and a concentration on quicker wrist-release, Leonard says his shot is feeling much improved.  

“There have been a lot of little, intricate things Drew has pointed out that helps me build a better shot routine,’’ Leonard said. “Hopefully that transitions into games to where I just feel really good with what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.’’

It’s a drastic change from last summer for Leonard, who went six months without picking up a basketball while he rehabilitated a surgically repaired left shoulder. He points to that inability to workout in the offseason, and the hip and back injuries during the season, for derailing his rhythm and confidence.

It’s why the Blazers coaching staff encouraged him this summer to not only workout, but engage in a lot of 5-on-5.

“I think the biggest thing for Meyers is he needs to probably get a feel of reacting to the game,’’ Blazers coach Terry Stotts said at the end of last season. “I think he needs to play a lot this summer and work on his reaction time on both ends of the court.’’

Leonard still fights himself at times over a career that hasn’t developed as quickly as he, or many fans, would like. He says he needs rhythm and confidence to succeed and for various reasons he hasn’t been able to attain that in Portland.

“It’s been rather frustrating for the vast majority of my career.  I feel like I can offer a ton more, but I work well with confidence, and kind of feeling good, and I don’t know that it’s always been reciprocated,’’ Leonard said in his exit interview with the media in April. “But that comes with the territory. This is the best basketball players in the world. An elite group of people. I have to continue to work and be better.’’

If anything, Leonard has become a student of the game, and his teammates – Damian Lillard in particular – point out that he is among the sharpest at knowing other team’s plays and communicating on the court. But Lillard in April said it’s time for Leonard to do less thinking and more doing, and that starts with a mindset.

“I think with Meyers, there comes a time where you have to take it personal,’’ Lillard said. “He’s got to take it as a challenge. A guy like that, you know, with such great skills – he has great touch around the basket, he’s a great athlete, a really good shooter and a really smart player -- so it’s just a matter of him putting it together and taking it as a challenge. I know if I was in his position, at this point I would just really take it as a challenge to put it all together and get it all done.

“I think his contract with our team shows that everyone believes that if he puts it together and when he starts to believe he can put it together, he will give us some valuable time,’’ Lillard said. “But I think its time for Meyers to really believe it, and throw himself in to becoming what he is capable of becoming. It’s not up to anybody else.’’

Leonard has heard those comments and says he has taken them to heart. More than ever, he has less excuses and is owning more accountability.

“I respect Damian just about as much as I do anybody, so I take that and I listen to it  and ive been working, man,’’ Leonard said.  “That’s what I’ve been doing. I just have to keep improving and see where this summer takes me.’’

When he arrives back in Portland, it will be to a more crowded frontcourt after the Blazers drafted center Zach Collins and power forward Caleb Swanigan. Although Leonard said he didn’t watch the draft because he was napping after working out three times that day, he knows the battle awaiting him in October training camp.

“I understand we took two bigs. It is what it is. That’s competition. That’s just the way it is,’’ Leonard said.  “The NBA in itself is a business. It’s my job now to come back to Portland at the end of the summer and show what I’ve done.’’

With starters out, Blazers keep rolling as Noah Vonleh beats buzzer and Spurs

With starters out, Blazers keep rolling as Noah Vonleh beats buzzer and Spurs

With one eye on the upcoming playoffs, the Trail Blazers on Monday rested their stars, but that didn’t stop Portland's late-season momentum.

Noah Vonleh picked up a loose ball and scored the game-winning layin before the buzzer on a busted play, leading the Blazers to a stunning 99-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, giving the Blazers a chance at securing a winning season with a victory in their season finale on Wednesday. 

Behind a Damian Lillard-like performance from point guard Shabazz Napier, the shooting of center Meyers Leonard and the passing of Evan Turner, the Blazers beat one of the West's top teams without stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Napier had a career-high 32 points, Vonleh 12 points and 11 rebounds and Pat Connaughton had a career-high 15 for Portland (41-40) while Leonard hit his first five shots on the way to 13 points. Turner had 16 points and seven assists. 

The Blazers' final shot came after the Spurs threw away an inbounds pass with 6.0 seconds left. 

The Blazers rested stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as starter Maurice Harkless and had Allen Crabbe (foot), Jusuf Nurkic (leg) and Ed Davis (shoulder) sidelined with injuries.

It was the season’s penultimate game and the first since the Blazers clinched the eighth and final playoff spot in the West on Sunday.

“It was the time and the opportunity to do it,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said before the game of resting players.

Stotts started Napier at point guard, Pat Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Vonleh at power forward and Leonard at center while the Spurs started their regulars -  Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dewyane Dedmon. 

The biggest benefit of the night was supposed to be resting Lillard and McCollum. Lillard entered the game averaging 35.9 minutes (9th in the NBA) while McCollum averages 34.9 minutes (16th). But now, the victory has given the Blazers the chance to secure a winning season with a victory over New Orleans on Wednesday. 

Stotts and the team’s health and performance staff met with the starting backcourt in the morning to tell them they would like each to sit in order to rest for the upcoming playoffs.

Lillard said he intended on playing in the Blazers regular-season finale on Wednesday against New Orleans.

McCollum, who had played in every game leading up to Monday, said it wasn’t his choice to sit, but he said he understood after listening to the reasoning.

“It’s a chance to refresh, recharge,’’ McCollum said. “It works for the Spurs, so we might as well follow their blueprint.’’

McCollum and Lillard both engaged in a hard workout before the game, going against each other in pick-and-rolls and 1-on-1 scenarios, while also taking part in extended three-point shooting drills.

Lillard, who scored a franchise-record 59 points on Saturday, said he planned on playing Monday against the Spurs.

 “I was prepared for an encore,” Lillard said.

Lillard has always been a proponent of playing whenever he is able, but he knew what was coming when he was called in for a meeting and told to take a seat.

“They knew they would have to sit me down,’’ Lillard said with a smile. “But after hearing them, I know they are coming from a good place.’’

Without the big names, the Blazers got a look at some of their youngsters, and for the most part, they played well against the Spurs’ accomplished lineups.

The Blazers led 31-28 after the first quarter, thanks largely to Meyers Leonard’s 5-of-5 shooting, and 47-43 at halftime after both teams survived a dreadful second quarter. Both the Spurs and Blazers started the second quarter by missing their first 10 shots. 

The Spurs (61-20) have the West’s No. 2 seed locked up and have been resting players during April, but after their last game, coach Gregg Popovich was unhappy with their physicality and effort and declared that no players would rest for the remainder of the season.

Popovich played his starters for the first three quarters, which is how long they needed to establish a lead. Portland led from the early moments of the game until midway through the third, when Kawhi Leonard scored nine of his 18 points and Tony Parker had six of his 12 points.

Next up:  New Orleans at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (KGW/ESPN)