Robinson cheers as Leonard goes 11th to Portland
NEWARK, N.J. — The Meyers Leonard story is a memorable one.
And the big man from the small town will continue the tale in Portland.
The Robinson native and former Illini was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 11th pick in Thursday's NBA draft at the Prudential Center. The 7-foot-1 center became the 15th Illinois product to go in the first round and the first Illini to be on Portland's roster.
"It was a really unbelievable and surreal feeling (when his name was called by NBA commissioner David Stern)," said Leonard, who played two seasons at Illinois and won an IHSA Class 2A state championship at Robinson. "It was a mix of emotions. I was anxious. I was relieved.
"But overall just to share this special experience, it was a very happy time and a great one in my young life and for my close family members and friends."
Portland actually was Leonard's first workout on the predraft circuit. And he felt the workout was one of his best.
Leonard said last week he had "a good feeling" about the Blazers after getting feedback from the organization following his workout. Portland hopes to pair Leonard with All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge in its frontcourt.
"I'm going to look to him for advice," Leonard said.
Leonard was the second center off the board, following Connecticut's Andre Drummond (No. 9 to Detroit). Leonard's people learned before the draft the Pistons wouldn't be an option. Leonard felt he would go between Nos. 10-15.
Without knowing, Leonard dressed appropriately for the occasion — red tie, black-checkered dress shirt and gray jacket. The get-up matched perfectly with his Blazers hat.
Leonard attended the draft in the green room with his mom (Tracie Leonard), brother (Bailey), girlfriend (Elle Bielfeldt), close family friend (Brian Siler) and former Illinois coach Bruce Weber. Leonard said he intends to return to the UI campus as often as possible.
"I love my Illini family, and I always will," he said. "I take pride in it, and I love the school. Obviously Bruce is gone now (as coach) but it was very special to have him at my table. I will always be back and give back to the university."
The 20-year-old Leonard was well-spoken in his on-camera interview with ESPN and steps into an enviable position with a Portland roster that needs a center.
"Just to be selected this high and be considered with some of these guys in this room and in this class is unbelievable," Leonard said into the cameras.
And, finally, Illinois had representation in the NBA draft again. It had been seven years since the UI had a first-round pick (Deron Williams, No. 3; Luther Head, No. 24).
Leonard's draft stock continued to rise throughout the predraft process. Sure, his size and athletic ability impressed scouts, but he also had to disprove the notion he is difficult to coach and immature. Once the decision-makers met him, those allegations became less of an issue.
"Off the court what helped me a lot were the interviews," Leonard said. "I was very professional and mature, I believe. I came across, I believe, as very articulate. ... It was just a combination (of factors)."
Leonard was the first Big Ten player selected in the draft. Aside from the former Illini, it was another disappointing draft for the league.
Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger fell to the Celtics at No. 21. The other potential first-rounder — Michigan State forward Draymond Green — became a second-rounder when he slipped to the Warriors at No. 35. The SEC claimed top honors with a conference-record eight first-round selections.
Looking ahead to next year, the Big Ten figures to be well-represented on draft night. Scouts have pegged Indiana forward Cody Zeller, Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas and Michigan point guard Trey Burke as three of the top returning players on the board — if the non-seniors were to enter the draft.
Portland also selected Weber State point guard Damian Lillard (No. 6), Memphis shooting guard Will Barton (No. 40) and Tyshawn Taylor (No. 41, traded to Brooklyn).
Illinois got one productive season out of Leonard, who was named All-Big Ten honorable mention. He averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks as a sophomore. But this was a lottery pick based on potential and rare athletic gifts.
Leonard said he's ready to show he was worthy of the lofty selection.
"I couldn't be more proud and more honored to not only be drafted into the NBA but with the Portland Trail Blazers," he said.