ROBINSON — Just a few minutes ago, in the high school gym that features a banner honoring the team he led to the 2010 Class 2A state title and inside the small town whose welcome signs read “Home of Meyers Leonard,” the former Illinois standout is celebrated by the locals at his first youth basketball camp.
Parents, some wearing his orange No. 12 Illinois jersey and others his black No. 11 Portland Trail Blazers jersey, snap photos of the 7-foot-1 Leonard as he participates in a game of knockout with their kids.
The kids, ranging in age from 6 to 14, enthusiastically answer trivia questions the 22-year-old poses to them, offering prizes for correct answers.
“What size shoes do I wear?” Leonard asks.
“16,” a camper answers.
“Who won the NBA championship?” is another question.
“The Spurs — they beat you guys.”
“Where did I go to college?”
“U of I.”
Make no mistake about it, Meyers Leonard is the biggest star to call the Crawford County town of less than 8,000 home.
But now, with the admirers gone from the Robinson High gym, Leonard isn’t being treated like a star.
Wearing gray Nikes, red Trail Blazers game shorts and a white Meyers Leonard camp T-shirt, the two-year NBA veteran is being put through an individual workout by Portland assistant coach Kim Hughes, a native of Freeport in town to help Leonard with his camp. Jump shots from both baselines, both wings and the top of the key. Free throws, jumpers off pick-and-pop and layups off pick-and-roll.
“If you miss the shot and you don’t follow it and get the rebound, you owe me four down-and-backs,” Hughes tells Leonard.
Two years after he was drafted 11th overall by Portland, Leonard hasn’t made an impact in the league. He’s been criticized: The numbers he posted as a rookie (5.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 17.5 minutes in 69 games) dropped last season (2.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 8.9 minutes in 40 games).
“It was an up-and-down year,” Leonard said. “But I’ve learned a lot more and gotten a lot better than what people can see from the outside looking in.”
Leonard remains confident. Teammates, most of whom gushed publicly about his skill and potential at the end of the season, know what he’s capable of. Most important, the coaches in Portland believe the 245-pound freak of an athlete will soon be a solid contributor.
“He does have great potential,” said the 62-year-old Hughes, a former Wisconsin standout who played for the Nets, Nuggets and Cavaliers. “I think he’s going to be very good.”
The 6-foot-11 Hughes, a former Nuggets and Clippers assistant who was the Clippers’ interim head coach for 33 games in 2010, said Leonard deserved more minutes last season than he got, but with the team making a playoff run, Portland didn’t use its bench much.
Hughes said Leonard’s outside shot is solid, and his still-developing post game is serviceable. It’s at the defensive end where Leonard needs to make his most improvement.
“The things he has to work on is challenging shots more often,” Hughes said. “If he just assumes a presence defensively, he’s a help defender, he’ll get a few more minutes. That’s typical of big men in our league, he’s got to get minutes to get better. Until he gets more minutes on the floor, he’s going to be a little bit behind in terms of progression. But all big guys get better by playing; none of them get better by watching.”
The relationship between Leonard and Hughes is player-coach, but each considers the other to be a dear friend. It’s part of the reason Hughes traveled with Leonard to help out with his camp, which will benefit Robinson High School, Highland Church of Christ and help contribute to the medical bills of one of Leonard’s close friends from his hometown who recently discovered he had a brain tumor.
During a quick lunch between camp sessions at Los Jardines Mexican Restaurant, Hughes kids Leonard for burying his nose in his iPhone as well as his order: chicken, steak and grilled onions smothered with cheese and three tortillas.
The relationship with Hughes is why Leonard says he has no regrets about leaving Illinois with two years of eligibility remaining.
“I just look at my situation and it seems like every time I have a big step in my life, someone is there for me to help me, and Kim is exactly that,” Leonard said. “Who knows if I come out a year later if he’s going to be there or what team I end up going to.”
But the NBA is about production, not friendships, and Leonard and Hughes know that for Leonard to stick around, he’s going to have to start contributing more — and soon.
Leonard has one more guaranteed year on his rookie contract that will pay him about $2.3 million next season, while the Blazers hold a team option for the following year.
“I have to prove myself, be assertive, show the coaches I’m worthy and go to my strengths on the court,” Leonard said. “I can shoot the ball, finish around the rim and continue to work on defensive rebounding. As long as I do that, they’ll respect that and I’ll continue to get more minutes.”
Hughes, who has worked with Chris Kaman, DeAndre Jordan, Elton Brand, Antonio McDyess and Blake Griffin, doesn’t think Leonard is far away. And there isn’t much separating Leonard from Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland, the big men ahead of him on the Portland depth chart.
“Some of it’s chemistry. It’s a mental thing, and we work on it all the time. His confidence is there,” Hughes said. “He just needs to make that next step defensively where he’s more of a team, help defender. He can, and I think he will.”
Leonard, 22, has handled the ups and downs of his career with the maturity of someone much older while maintaining his youthful, sometimes- immature charm.
“I don’t think he’s necessarily a mature kid, but I’m an immature person myself, and you just have to recognize that,” Hughes said. “I think he’s got a good heart. I think he’s handled the trials and tribulations very well.”
Hughes said Kaman and Jordan didn’t excel until later in their careers.
“In our league, a lot of big guys don’t play until their third year. This is his third year; it’s a very big year for him. Year 3 and 4 are very big years for big guys,” Hughes said. “I worked with DeAndre Jordan, and he didn’t get any time until his fourth year. It takes them a little more time to progress and reach their potential, but, in my opinion, bigs are invaluable in our league and in high school and college. You win with bigs. You’ve got to have not necessarily big guys who dominate the middle, but you can’t coach size.”
The hope for Leonard is to play out his career in Portland. He loves everything about the city “except for the rain,” he said.
The fans are supportive. “I asked Terry Stotts and Kim, and they really think we have the best fans,” Leonard said. “They’re so knowledgeable.”
And longtime girlfriend Elle Bielfeldt, whom Leonard met at Illinois at the end of his freshman year, has now made it her home, too. Bielfeldt, who graduated from the UI in May, accepted Leonard’s marriage proposal last month.
“I’m extremely comfortable having her there and moving into that portion of my life off the court,” Leonard said. “I’m close with all the players, and I’m extremely happy in Portland and Elle loves it out there, so I don’t have any complaints.”
Portland is 2,000 miles from Robinson, but the family in the hometown is doing well, too. Older brother Bailey, a U.S. Marine, has a young daughter, Alexa, and is working for a family friend’s wine company.
Leonard’s mom, Tracie, who had a crippling back injury, is doing well and living comfortably in the home her NBA son purchased for her after the 2012 draft.
“Her back is a lot better,” Leonard said. “I just want her to enjoy herself and have a good time because she deserves it. She’s been through so much.”
Makes it seem as though the basketball ups and downs really aren’t that serious in the grand scheme of things, but this is Leonard’s life, and he’s determined more than ever to continue making the folks in Robinson proud for wearing his jersey.
“That’s why I do stuff like the camp, to show my appreciation and to try to have an impact on some kids’ lives like the people had for me here at home,” Leonard said. “The people here have always been good to me, and I want to continue giving back any way I can.”