March 3, 2016
2016 Free Agent Profile – 7’1” 245 lbs, Age 24 (2016-17), Restricted
Meyers Leonard is a 7’1” C/PF who achieved the rare feat of shooting 50%+ from the field, 40%+ from 3, and 90%+ from the free throw line in 2014-15. This season his offensive efficiency is down somewhat, from 1.11 points per possession (96th percentile) to 0.97 PPP (66th percentile), though his role has expanded with the Blazers having lost 4/5 of last year’s starting lineup.
Leonard’s strengths are not confined to jump shooting, though he is a fairly limited player overall. He uses his size to establish good post position on both sides of the floor and box out for defensive rebounds, and he’s able to get his shot off relatively easily due to his high release point. Yet a lack of agility and poor technique make him a liability defending the pick-and-roll and as a rim protector in general. On the offensive end, he’s particularly reliant on teammates to set him up for in-rhythm, catch-and-shoot jumpers due to his weak ball-handling ability and subpar body control. He’ll need to improve his footwork defensively to justify the contract he is likely to receive as a young stretch big man on the free agent market.
Physical Tools: Size & Strength
Leonard is a muscular 7-footer (6’11.75” without shoes) with a 7’3” wingspan. When he has time and space to establish his position & move deliberately, Leonard holds his ground well against contact. This is most evident when he’s boxing out for defensive rebounds and when he’s maintaining or denying post position.
His height and reach enable him to get his shot off over rim protectors in the paint. He’s converted over 50% of his shots from 3-10 feet in each of the past 3 seasons, an especially high mark [league average is a shade under 40%], though he rarely functions as an interior scorer due to his primary role as a floor spacer.
Leonard’s outside jumper is his signature skill. He’s not just one of the league’s best spot-up shooting bigs but rather one of the best spot-up shooters in the league period. He has a quick release and good lift for a big man, and he excels at finding open space on the perimeter and receiving the pass in a shooting position. This is evidenced by his elite 1.3+ PPP on unguarded catch-and-shoot possessions each of past 2 seasons and 1.38 PPP on pick-&-pop no-dribble jumpers in 2014-15.
While the majority of Leonard’s jumpers come from beyond the arc, he’s also elite from the mid-range area. For the vast majority of NBA players, a mid-range jumper is a bad possession with an expected value of 0.7 to 0.9 points. For Leonard, however, the expected value is greater than 1.0 PPP. This season he’s shooting 53% from 10-16 feet and 52% from 16 feet to the 3-point line, making him the most efficient mid-range shooter in the league.
Over the past season or two Leonard has been working on developing his post moves, which include face-up jumpers, turnaround jumpers, and hooks with good feel out to 10-12 feet. He’s been above average in his post efficiency, though post ups still comprise only a small portion of his total possessions.
He’s also a solid post defender. Leonard actively denies deep post position, forcing tough scoring opportunities fading away from the hoop. He also gets a hand up to contest the shot. If Leonard has a flaw in his post defense, it’s that he struggles to maintain verticality on his contests, which can result in unwanted fouls.
Physical Tools: Lateral Quickness & Body Control
Leonard’s slow feet limit his effectiveness protecting the rim and contesting jumpers. Ball handlers cross him over, blow by him, or step back to get their shots off comfortably. Leonard’s 0.7 blocks per 36 for his career is exceptionally low for a 7-footer. [Note that, among 7-footers, Leonard is responsible for 3 of the 10 seasons with such a low block rate since entering the league: Blocks per 36 since 2012-13].
He doesn’t maintain balance or change direction well on the move, which is particularly evident in pick-and-roll defense and offensive rebounding situations.
Pick & Roll Defense
Leonard tends to sink deep into the paint or toward the baseline, leaving him especially vulnerable to the pick-&-pop. He lacks quickness to challenge the ball handler, and more often than not he moves backward rather than laterally. He then ends up stuck on his heels in poor position to react.
Poor body control and a lack of agility limit his effectiveness. Leonard’s low ORB% for a big man (4.3% this year) is only partially due to his floor-spacing role. He lacks fluidity, or coordination, in the air and as a result he sometimes resorts to batting at the ball rather than grabbing it or making a controlled tip. When he does secure an offensive rebound, he’ll often end up in awkward position due to his issues with body control, leading to turnovers and low-percentage put-back attempts [0.71 PPP (4th percentile) on put-backs this year; 0.8 PPP (9th percentile) in 2014-15].
Ball Handling / Shot Creation
Leonard is very reliant on teammates to set up his offense. He struggles in any sort of playmaking role, as he’s quite prone to turnovers off the dribble. He moves deliberately yet still appears out of control when he puts the ball on the floor.
He needs crisp, accurate passes into the shooting pocket to be most effective. When the pass he receives is off the mark, Leonard has difficulty adjusting. Sometimes the possession stalls. Sometimes he turns it over. And sometimes he shoots anyway, though his usually-impeccable form can break down in these situations, resulting in some bad misses.
Value / Recommendation
Leonard is most valuable offensively when surrounded by good passers in a system that thrives on ball movement. Last season, Leonard benefited from Damian Lillard, Steve Blake, and Nic Batum all acting as distributors delivering the ball crisply and accurately so that Leonard could shoot in rhythm and unguarded. This season, with Blake and Batum gone, many of those passes are coming from CJ McCollum, a gifted scorer by nature who has a tendency to throw looping passes that sometimes miss the preferred catch-and-shoot target.
Since Leonard has relatively slow feet on defense and lacks the agility to be a strong offensive rebounder, ideally he should be paired with an athletic defender and rebounder in the frontcourt or play in a scheme that minimizes these flaws. Such a scheme might involve overloading the strong side on pick-and-rolls, using long, active wing defenders to help closeout on shooters, and prioritizing getting back on defense over crashing the offensive glass.
This is only Leonard’s age-23 season, so there is reason to think that he will improve on his deficiencies somewhat with further instruction and natural development. On the other hand, he already has been in the league for 4 years with a well-respected coach in Terry Stotts, and his age and restricted free agent status may serve to drive up the price to acquire him. While it’s unclear how much the Blazers value him (he bounces around between 2nd and 4th on their big man depth chart), Portland will have more than $40M in cap space this summer and may be inclined to match any reasonable offer for him if no top-tier free agent alternative presents itself.
For salary purposes I have identified 2014 free agents Spencer Hawes and Patrick Patterson as comps. They each entered free agency as stretch big men in their early to mid-20s with questions concerning their defense and athleticism. Leonard is entering free agency at a younger age than Hawes (25) or Patterson (24), though both of these 2014 free agents rated better than Leonard in the athletic indicators of offensive rebounding, steals, and blocks [Patterson especially – see Appendix]. Hawes and Patterson also scored more inside the arc, though Leonard has the best track record in terms of shooting efficiency.
Hawes and Patterson each signed deals around $6M/year, which corresponds to an expected contract for Leonard in the neighborhood of $9M-$11M per year. [I estimate that free agent contract values will increase 50%-80% from 2014 to 2016 based on changes in the cap environment, using the $92 million projected cap figure. Hawes signed with the Clippers as an unrestricted free agent for 4 years, $23 million. Patterson re-signed with the Raptors as a restricted free agent for 3 years, $18 million.] I believe this is a fair estimate for Leonard’s next contract, though in restricted free agency some team may need to submit an offer at the high end of that range or even perhaps a tad higher to keep the Blazers from matching. Outside shooting is valued quite highly in the market, and Leonard has one of the league’s best jumpers, particularly among big men.
For most teams, I would hesitate to sign Leonard to such an offer sheet, simply because I wouldn’t recommend prioritizing any mid-tier Center or Power Forward in free agency this summer. Looking around the league, few teams are short on rotation-quality big men—barring the need for an injury replacement—and many solid big men have seen limited playing time this season, in contrast to the Wing and Point Guard positions where quality depth is lacking. As a result, there will be a greater supply of competent big men available in free agency and trade. Unless you already have athletic defenders and ball handlers to fill in around Leonard, you’re likely better off focusing on filling other positions with your cap space rather than spending it on a marginal interior upgrade.
By waiting out the big man market, you’re likely to find a relative bargain as the remaining free agents realize that playing time is scarce and other teams face a roster crunch after acquiring a free agent C/PF. Rather than spending $10M+ a year on Leonard for several years, you may end up signing a solid veteran, trading for an underutilized backup, or picking up a D-League or overseas standout at a fraction of the cost. In the meantime, you can aggressively pursue and afford to pay a premium for more versatile defenders and shot creators on the perimeter.
Spencer Hawes 2013-14 (Cavs) v. Meyers Leonard 2015-16 v. Patrick Patterson 2013-14 (Raptors)
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