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.’’