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.’’

Maybe Kerr should have let the players coach...

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USATI

Maybe Kerr should have let the players coach...

The Blazers head into the All-Star break with a huge win over the Golden State Warriors at Moda Center! Damian Lillard led the way 44 points as the Blazers came out hot in the 1st quarter and hung on for the win. 

Box Score: Portland 123, Golden State 117

Rapid Reaction:

The curious case of Jusuf Nurkic

The curious case of Jusuf Nurkic

It seems that suddenly Nurkic Fever has turned into Nurkic Flu. And it's spreading like wildfire.

Once the darling of Portland fans, Portland center Jusuf Nurkic has become a Twitter punching bag and a controversial figure. This seems to be sparked by his absence from both the Portland lineup and his recent media availabilities. And of course there is a growing wave of discontent based on Nurkic's recent play, too. His lack of consistency has been maddening and it seems to have finally worn out the patience of fans, coaches and media. Probably even his teammates.

Let's make a few things clear right off the bat. Nurkic is averaging 14 points, 8 rebounds and nearly 2 assists per game. That's not bad and I'm not sure where else the Trail Blazers could find a center who could chalk up those statistics. And oh yes, he's still just 23 years old.

But there is more, of course. He is shooting only .479 from the field this season, pretty terrible for a man who takes most of his shots in the paint. And he's at an incredibly terrible .442 within three feet of the basket -- a career low. The Trail Blazers often take great pains to go to him early in games in an effort to get him off to a good start but he often responds as he did against Utah Sunday -- by missing his first four shots, three of them virtual layups. That's a discouraging situation for Nurkic and his team.

Why is this happening? I don't think anyone knows. My guess is that his coaches are at wit's end trying to unlock the secret to finding the whereabouts of the Nurkic who looked so promising through 20 games last season. After a summer in which he lost weight and came back promising to be tougher and more effective he only rarely reaches the level of play we saw so briefly last season. He appears tentative and contact averse.

He often seems to be taking a casual approach to his game, not finishing easy shots and avoiding contact. There are times when he just doesn't seem to be into the whole thing.

He is listed as "questionable" for tonight's game in Moda Center against the Golden State Warriors and there couldn't be a more fitting description of him right now. He's become questionable on a lot of levels.

But if he's hurt, he's hurt. It's careless to question that. But he does seem to get injured frequently, which has led to many questioning his toughness. I must say, as the guy who was screaming "Nurkic Fever" so frequently last season, I've fallen into that category. He's also appeared pouty, which was his reputation in Denver.

Could nagging injuries be a part of his disappointing season? I have no idea. But I do know this, for a player heading into free agency -- even restricted free agency -- he's not doing himself a lot of good. In a summer when it appears the free-agent money pool will be shallow, next season he may not end up earning anywhere close to what he probably anticipated.

Who is Jusuf Nurkic? Right now, I don't think many people have a clue.

And he's running out of games this season to show us.

Greg Oden making a comeback...

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Greg Oden making a comeback...

The BIG3 announced today that former Trail Blazer Greg Oden will be participating in the BIG3 Draft Combine.

Oden has agreed to join the BIG3 draft pool with the league getting set to enter its second season this summer.

The BIG3 league is a 3-on-3 pro basketball league that was founded by Ice Cube in January 2017 featuring All-Stars, Hall of Famers and a few World Champions.  The league currently features eight teams who travel from city to city with all eight teams facing off in tournament style play through the summer months.   

CBS Sports reporter Colin Ward-Henninger is reporting that Baron Davis, Metta World Peace, Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer are among a few other players that have signed up for the 2018 season.

How to stream Blazers vs. Jazz

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How to stream Blazers vs. Jazz

If you already get NBCS Northwest on your TV at home, but you are not able to be home during a Trail Blazers game, you can now stream the game live at the NBC Sports App.  You can download the NBC Sports App at www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile.  Or, you can stream the game online at our live stream page, NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream.

The Portland Trail Blazers (31-25) are coming off back-to-back wins, with the most recent victory coming against the Sacramento Kings on Friday night, 118-100.  The Blazers are now back home to host the Utah Jazz (27-28) on Sunday night.  

In Friday’s win, it was all about Damian Lillard.  Lillard scored 50 points in just three quarters of play.  He now joins teammate CJ McCollum and Warriors guard Klay Thompson as the only players in NBA history to score 50 points in under 30 minutes of action. Lillard went 16-of-26 from the floor and that included going 8-of-13 from deep.  He also had six assists.

Reaching the 50-point milestone on Friday was the fourth time in Lillard's career.

Moe Harkless got his third consecutive start on Friday and vs. the Kings, he had 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 8-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99! Click to learn more and buy]

Utah is one of the hottest teams right now having won eight straight games, which is currently the longest active winning streak in the league.

The Jazz most recent win was on Friday night; a 106-94 home victory against the Charlotte Hornets. Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell had a team-high 25 points, while veteran Joe Ingles added 23 points, six assists and five rebounds.

For Sunday’s Blazers and Jazz matchup, the Blazers are not reporting any injuries, while the Jazz have listed Ricky Rubio (left hip soreness) as questionable and Thabo Sefolosha (right knee surgery) and Dante Exum (left shoulder surgery) are both out.

Sunday’s contest will be the second of four meetings between Portland and Utah this season.  The Jazz beat the Trail Blazers 112-103 in overtime back on November 1st in Utah. In the loss, Jusuf Nurkic had 19 points and 11 rebounds.

The Blazers are currently riding a nine-game home winning streak.

Our coverage of the Portland and Utah game starts with Rip City Live at 5:00pm on Sunday as Dan Sheldon, Dwight Jaynes, Orlando Williams, and our Blazer Insider Jason Quick get you ready for all of the action.

 


Quick Links:

Damian Lillard’s 50-point night brewing since flight home from Detroit

Lillard’s Top Plays in his 50-point performance in Blazers win over Kings

Stotts, Blazers’ newest dilemma: What to do with the resurgent of Mo Harkless?


 

Video:  Dame has dropped a 50 spot

Video:  Dame Dominates: 50 points in 3 quarters… sound familiar?

Video:  To whom much is given, much is expected.

Video:  ICYMI: Damian Lillard went off vs. the Kings  


 

Game Details:

Where:  Moda Center, Portland OR    

Tip-off: 6:00pm

Television: NBCS Northwest

Live NBC Sports Northwest coverage:  Rip City Live (5:00pm) and Talkin' Ball  (Immediately after the Blazers postgame show)

Live streaming of the game: Watch the game on your phone on the NBC Sports App.  Download the  app at http://www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile .  Or check out NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream online.

Live streaming coverage on Facebook: The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. 

Radio: Rip City Radio 620

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

SACRAMENTO – A developing subplot in the Trail Blazers season has been the reemergence of Maurice Harkless over the past week.

In what has largely been a disappointing season for the one-time starting small forward, Harkless has recently flourished while being reinserted into the rotation because of injuries.

Last Sunday, he hit all five three-point attempts in Boston en route to a 19-point, 8-rebound performance. And late in an overtime win against Charlotte on Thursday, he made a key block and a flushed a game-clinching dunk off an offensive rebound. He then scored 15 points Friday at Sacramento, and was a key element in the Blazers putting away the Kings in the fourth quarter.

Coach Terry Stotts, who through the first two months of the season went through a somewhat trying exercise in reaching a nine-man rotation, now has an intriguing decision ahead of him: What to do with Harkless?

“Let’s just talk about tonight,’’ Stotts said Friday when asked about his dilemma.

Harkless started the first 19 games of the season, but drifted into anonymity and eventually onto the bench amid poor shooting and energy-less play. To his credit, he remained ready after his demotion. He was the driving force in a December victory at the Lakers, scoring 22 points, and he was a boost with 19 points in a January home win over San Antonio.

This latest development was spurred first by a toe injury to Shabazz Napier, creating an opening in the Boston game, then a calf injury to Evan Turner, which has pushed Harkless into the starting lineup as Turner missed one game and has been on a minutes restriction the past two games.

Stotts started the season with Harkless in the starting lineup because he liked the defensive versatility he provides while paired with power forward Al-Farouq Aminu. The two long and lanky forwards can switch defensively on pick-and-rolls, and when energized, Harkless has athleticism unique to the Blazers.

Plus, with Harkless in the starting lineup, it allows Turner to assume an offensive role off the bench that is more suited to his strengths. With Turner on the second unit, he can be more of a ball-handler and initiator, and it puts less pressure on him to be a spacer alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

So, what does Stotts do?

On Friday at least, the coach conceded that he will probably extend his rotation from nine to 10, at least for the time being. Most coaches -- particularly late in the season -- like to limit their rotations to nine players in order to give them adequate playing time to establish a rhythm. If Harkless forges a regular spot back in the rotation, it will likely have to come at the expense of Napier, the team's third guard.

 “Moving forward I’m sure (Harkless) will be playing,’’ Stotts said. “Evan with the minutes restriction, you know, kind of makes it a little easier on me. Now, I assume Evan’s minutes will be going up, so they will have to come from somewhere. ‘’

This development almost mirrors how Harkless broke onto the scene in Portland two seasons ago. Lost and out of the rotation in February, he flourished as a spot starter in place of the injured Noah Vonleh and became a key element to the team’s late season push.

Now, Lillard is seeing some of the same things from Harkless.

“We get those sprint backs, those block, the deflections, the finishing in the paint, the offensive rebounds, knocking down 3s … when we get that from Mo we are a completely different team,’’ Lillard said. “I literally get excited when I see him doing those things. That’s why I will be the first guy to tell him: ‘We need you like this all the time. Nobody else on our roster can do what you do, and what you bring to the table.’’’

Harkless on Friday said nothing has changed for him, except the opportunity.

“I think it’s just being back in the rotation,’’ Harkless said. “It’s hard to not know if you are going to play, how much you are going to play, then get thrown out there for six minutes. It’s tough to play like that and be consistent.’’

For the immediate future, at least, it sounds like Stotts will give him another shot. What he does with it might determine the course of the Blazers rotation, and season.

“I will be ready to play, whatever role it is,’’ Harkless said.

Damian Lillard's 50-point night brewing since flight home from Detroit

Damian Lillard's 50-point night brewing since flight home from Detroit

SACRAMENTO – In the days leading up to his 50-point game Friday in Sacramento, it was evident something was brewing inside Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard.

He had become shorter in conversation. And his normal countenance ran deeper, and more focused.

It was not that Lillard had become distant or unfriendly to those around him, but it was as if something was weighing on his mind.

Turns out, there was.

On the flight home from Detroit on Monday, still fresh the sting of a blowout loss to the Pistons that gave the Blazers a three-game losing streak, Lillard said he had a personal pep talk.

“It’s time to go,’’ Lillard recounted saying to himself about the season.

By “go” he meant it was time to put his foot on the gas and accelerate the Blazers’ season.

“Take control of the situation,’’ Lillard explained. “That’s what you have to do sometimes – take control of the situation and take it upon yourself.’’

His first game after the Detroit declaration was Thursday against Charlotte in Portland. It was one of his worst games of the season – 6-for-22 from the field and more turnovers (4) than assists or rebounds. The Blazers held a 22-5 lead to open the game, and then had a 17-point lead with seven minutes left, yet still had to eke out the win in overtime.

So on Friday, when he arrived in Sacramento – a place the Blazers lost earlier this season – there was a perfect storm of motivation, dedication and predication.

“I had a certain feeling about this game,’’ Lillard said. “That we had to have it.’’

For two in a half quarters, whether the Blazers would beat the Kings was in question. When Zach Randolph rebounded his own miss with 4:25 left, the Kings were within 75-74.

Then, Lillard took over.

It started with Lillard driving for a layin. Then he stripped Kings’ prized rookie De’Aaron Fox. Then he passed to CJ McCollum for a layin. Then he scored the next 13 points in a row.

All told, the Blazers had gone on a 17-0 run and Lillard had scored 15 of them, pushing him to 50 points at the end of the third quarter in just 29:29 of playing time.

By now, impassioned play at crucial times have become a hallmark of Lillard’s career. Each season, he seems to sense when, and how, the Blazers need their boost. In 2014, his second season, he initiated a spirited team meeting in the San Antonio locker room. In 2016, he led a late-season charge with a flurry of high-scoring first quarters that helped the Blazers win three straight road games. And last season, with, some help from Jusuf Nurkic, he willed them from nine games below .500 in January to the playoffs, thanks in part to a franchise-record 59-point game against Utah in April.

What is different this season, is Lillard says he feels a little more “urgency” for the Blazers to show progress, and that may be why his hallmark playoff-push is coming earlier than ever.

He said this Blazers team has experienced too many lulls throughout the season – going 4-1 on an East trip only to lose four straight at home, and a recent span of seven wins in eight games followed by a three-game losing streak.

It’s why somewhere over the Midwest, on the return from Detroit, that Lillard had his mental declaration.

“When we were on the flight home, I was like, ‘Going into the (All-Star) break, we have to do this. It has to happen,’’ Lillard said.

So on Friday, he made it happen.

Again.

If the weight of a team, and a franchise, has become a burden for Lillard, he is not showing it. Before leaving the Sacramento locker room to share his momentous night with a large segment of his family, Lillard deflected any notion that he was carrying a heavy load.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,’’ he said. “I’m not a three-time All Star in six years for no reason, no matter how you want to slice it. I’m not a max contract player for no reason. That’s what I signed up for.’’

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

After some sharp words from coach Terry Stotts, the Trail Blazers on Thursday received a message: It’s time to get serious about this season.

“I can’t call back exactly what he said,’’ veteran Ed Davis said. “But it had to do with we have big aspirations and we are not playing up to that.’’

After blowing a 17-point lead with seven minutes to go against a subpar Charlotte team, the Blazers were pushed into overtime, where some big plays from Maurice Harkless finally got them over the hump in a 109-103 victory.

Normally a mild-mannered coach who teaches through positive reinforcement, Stotts, players say, laid into his team afterward, and it left a mark.

“He knows we are capable of much more,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We haven’t played our best basketball. We have been pissing away games and not executing. We have to do some things better so we are not in those situations where … we could have lost tonight.’’

Often times this season, the Blazers players have been outwardly positive following wins with subpar play. Not Thursday.

“Unacceptable,’’ Davis said. “We want to be one of those elite teams and elite teams don’t play around at home, especially a game we are supposed to win and had control of the whole game.’’

In his postgame address to the media, the Blazers coach was terse, choosing to release one sentence answers through pursed lips in what probably stands as his most uptight and irritated session during his six seasons. 

Maybe it was because it’s that time of year. Or maybe it was because the Trail Blazers were so spectacularly awful in the fourth quarter. Or maybe Stotts had just had enough of  the up-and-down play.

Whatever the reason, he let the team have it.

Harkless said it was the most angry Stotts has been after a victory, and Meyers Leonard said “he was definitely upset with us” – but both Damian Lillard and Ed Davis said it wasn’t a notable tirade.

“It wasn’t like he was m’fing this, m’fing that – but it was like, ‘This is what it is: we are playing great basketball for three quarters then we (poop) the bed in the fourth and give a team that is not supposed to be in the game a chance to win.’

Lillard said he has seen Stotts more angry, and he noted that the group even laughed at one point.

That humor came via Evan Turner.

According to the players, Stotts at one point realized he was harping after a victory. He caught himself, and said, “I don’t want to be …”

As Stotts started to search for the right word, Turner chirped from his corner stall.

“A Debbie Downer?” Turner asked.

“No,” Stotts said. “I need another one …”

“Negative Nancy?’’ Turner retorted?

As Stotts pondered Nancy, Turner added another one:

“Emotional?”

The last one busted up everyone in the room.

“It definitely helped lighten the mood,’’ Harkless said.

The win ended a three game losing streak and pushed the Blazers’ home winning streak to nine, the longest home run in five seasons. Portland (30-25) is in sixth place in the West, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

As the team boarded a plane later Thursday night for a flight to Sacramento for Friday’s game against the Kings (17-36), it was a group that knows time is running out to back up their own talk that they can be an upper-echelon team.

“We are at a point in the season where we have to start separating ourselves,’’ Davis said. “The games where we need to blow teams out, we need to do that, and tonight was that night.’’

Instead, they got a talking to from their normally laid-back coach.

“He gave us the same message we’ve been preaching all year: we have to be consistent,’’ Harkless said. “When we are consistent we are a pretty good team. But over the course of one game, we can go from really good to average, to good, to average … we just have to maintain.’’

No time like overtime to grab a victory over the Hornets

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USA Today

No time like overtime to grab a victory over the Hornets

The Blazers almost let one slip away on their home floor, but did just enough in the end to pick up the 109-103 victory over the Hornets. The Blazers led my as many as 17pts, but the turnover bug came back and bit them in the fourth quarter allowing Charlotte to get back in the game. The Blazers came up short of a game winning bucket with just over a second remaining in the regulation, giving the Hornets one last. However, on the final possession Jusuf Nurkic came up with the game saving block and sent the game to overtime. It was there that the Blazers put things away and grabbed the win.

Final Score: 109 – 103