Despite an unimpressive freshman season playing very limited minutes, Meyers Leonard
still entered his sophomore year at Illinois as a potential breakout candidate, thanks to his excellent physical tools and a strong showing over the summer in Latvia at the U-19 World Championships.
While the Illini struggled mightily down the stretch, losing twelve of their final fourteen games and failing to reach the NCAA tournament, Leonard made some very positive strides as a sophomore and established himself as a hot name in NBA draft circles.
As we've mentioned before, Leonard's intrigue starts with his excellent physical profile, as he possesses the ideal traits for a prototypical NBA center. Standing 7-feet tall with a long wingspan and a developing frame that should continue to fill out nicely in time, Leonard moves very fluidly for a player his size, running the floor well and showing solid explosiveness, vertically and laterally.
On the offensive end, over 40% of Leonard's possessions came with his back to the basket, where he showed flashes of potential but also displayed that that he's still a work-in-progress. Not the most naturally self-confident player around, he lacks assertiveness establishing deep position and calling for the ball at times, but adding strength as a sophomore seemed to help, and he looked to be fighting harder and embracing more contact during points in the season, which are positive signs for his development.
Once he catches the ball on the block, Leonard can be a bit mechanical with his moves, and he lacks great footwork, but his size and length enable him to just go over the top of most defenders at the college level. His go-to move at this stage is a jump hook turning to his left shoulder, which he executes well, but he'll need to continue adding polish to his post game to establish himself as more of a scoring threat, specifically developing more comfort with weak hand and adding counter moves.
In today's ball-screen heavy NBA, Leonard should see more time as screener in these sets, where he has the potential to be effective, as his excellent mobility, size, and length make him an ideal target rolling to the basket, where he also has to ability to get up well above the rim to catch and finish lob passes. Illinois' lack of playmaking at the guard positions and generally unimaginative offense hampered his ability to show more in this area this season, but his potential as a finisher in the paint is very evident.
He should also be a threat to pick-and pop as well, thanks to his ability to knock down open mid-range jump shots with his feet set. He only attempted about one jumper per game this season, and he doesn't have the smoothest release, but he should continue to improve with repetition, and the 73% he shot from the free throw line bodes well for him going forward.
As we've mentioned before, Leonard's physical tools make him a rare and very intriguing prospect defensively, especially as his frame continues to fill out. He did a better job denying deep post position this season and generally displayed a good effort level, which combined with his size and length, makes him an effective one-on-one defender on the interior, as players have trouble scoring over the top of him.
His excellent agility for a player his size should also help him defending pick-and-roll sets, giving him the ability to hedge and recover quickly. A big key for him defensively will likely the mental side of things and how well he can focus and bring consistent energy on each possession and pick up on team defensive concepts.
Leonard blocked a solid 2.4 shots per-40 minutes this season, displaying his upside as a rim-protector and help defender at the NBA level. He also improved his rebounding numbers substantially from his freshman season, up to 10.3 per-40, but this is an area where he should be making even more of an impact, as his size and athleticism suggest that he could be much more of a force on the glass.
With the buzz surrounding him as a prospect, the uncertainty regarding the Illini's head coaching position following the recent firing of Bruce Weber, and the health problems his mother has dealt with
for the last few years, Leonard may decide that this may be a good time for him to enter this summer's NBA draft. While he's still nowhere near a finished product and may have some question marks regarding his consistency, mental toughness and overall approach to the game, 7-footers with his mobility and agility are extremely hard to find and always highly coveted.
While it's still unknown if he'll declare for this summer's draft, at this stage, he's a player that teams may have a wide range of opinions on, especially with the depth of big men likely to be in this draft. Should he enter, his final draft position could very well be determined by how he fares throughout the pre-draft process in workouts, interviews, and background checks, where decision-makers will get to see how he stacks up with some of the draft's other top big man prospects and evaluate his likelihood of reaching his full potential long term.