Leonard: 'Welcome to the NBA'
Roughly an hour before Meyers Leonard attended a benefit golf outing Thursday in Peoria, the former Illini was asked if he would actually play in the event — or simply appear.
"Oh, I'm playing," Leonard said by phone before teeing off to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club. "You better believe I'm playing. I'm definitely getting out there."
Don't worry about Leonard forgoing his youthful, fun-loving personality in light of his newfound NBA celebrity and million-dollar contract.
The 20-year-old is the same guy who danced the robot during pregame warmups and wears a floppy-eared trapper hat to the gym.
Illini guard D.J. Richardson once called it, "Meyers being Meyers."
The Portland Trail Blazers, who selected Leonard with the 11th overall pick in the NBA draft, got an early glance at his free spirit during a summer workout. After finishing a dunk, Leonard did his best Jordyn Wieber and performed a cartwheel on the court.
It's rare that a 7-foot man is capable of completing a cartwheel. It's more rare a 7-foot man would think to try one.
From a personality standpoint, the city of Portland would seem to be a proper fit for Leonard. It's a city blessed with free spirits and a fan base that embraces its Blazers. There's also a popular MLS franchise. But the Blazers are the show.
"I haven't really been able to see much of Portland yet. But from what I know and somewhat seen, it's a great place to live," Leonard said. "It's a little bit more my style, to be honest with you. It's a little more outdoorsy than maybe other places. I like that.
"I grew up with that. Not too big, nice people, great fans. Everyone kind of takes you in and makes you feel like you're at home."
Those close to Leonard were hopeful he would land with a team with big-man veterans who can guide him along a professional path.
All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge already has reached out to Leonard, informing the rookie when he should arrive in Portland for workouts. Leonard said he will return to Portland in early September.
"He (Aldridge) came to one of our summer league games in July, too," Leonard said.
The Blazers have a new coach, as well. Terry Stotts, who spent the past four seasons as the lead assistant with the Mavericks, was hired earlier this month.
"We met when I was in Vegas for a camp, got to know each other a little bit. He was actually one of the coaches at the camp," Leonard said. "He just talked about general stuff and got to know me better. One of his main things for me is to become a really, really good defender. That's one thing he's going to look for from me."
The Blazers certainly did their homework on Leonard, calling everyone from a former high school coach to family friends. There were two conversations — on draft day — with a former athletic trainer, to make certain his 250-pound frame has no hidden secrets.
Leonard averaged 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds with Portland's summer league outfit.
"Everything was pretty much as I expected, except it was a little more physical than I thought it would be," Leonard said. "For whatever reason, people don't think NBA guys play hard. But that couldn't be more untrue. It was a war every single day I was playing."
Leonard departed Friday for the NBA rookie transition program in New York. He will return to the UI campus for a few days next week. With a break between summer league and the start of training camp, Leonard also returned home to Robinson for a visit.
"It was good. It's always been the same," Leonard said. "It's just like when I decided to go to U of I. People always welcome me back. Obviously they were pretty excited this time."
Leonard opens his first NBA preseason against the Lakers in Ontario, Canada, on Oct. 10. The regular season opener also is against the Lakers — in Portland on Oct. 31.
"Me and Damian (Lillard, their other first-round pick) were talking about it," Leonard said. "He's going to be guarding Steve Nash and I'm going to be guarding Dwight Howard. Welcome to the NBA."
Howard, the All-Star center, probably won't play for the Lakers in the opener as he recovers from back surgery. But Leonard's professional schedule is only getting started.