Illinois big man Meyers Leonard joins Damian Lillard as Portland NBA Lottery pick

The Portland Trail Blazers made an interesting splash in the 2012 NBA Draft taking a point guard from a mid-major school that few people had heard off, and a project pick at center. They took Damian Lillard at #6 from Weber St. and a guy who played for someone named Weber in Meyers Leonard from the Illini at #11.

This marks the first time since 1990 that Illinois has had a player selected in the first round of both the NFL and NBA Drafts in the same year. Jeff George went to the Indianapolis Colts #1 overall, and current Bulls analyst Kendall Gill went fifth to the Charlotte Hornets. This year Whitney Merciless went #24 to the Houston Texans and A.J. Jenkins went #30 to the San Francisco 49ers.


And here’s our summary of Lillard from our detailed scouting report on him

Summary: Playing against inferior competition in the Big Sky Conference, Lillard had a monster junior season, finishing second in the nation in scoring. He hasn’t displayed the ability to be a true distributor since he needed to be a scorer for the Wildcats, so that is a bit of a concern. Still, Lillard has a chance to be the first point guard taken in what is a weak class at the position. He should get selected somewhere from the late lottery to mid-first round.

Player Comparison: Jarrett Jack. Lillard is more of a scoring point guard than true floor general just like Jack. Both guys have good size for the next level, and can attack the tin or shoot it from deep.

Leonard was the first Big Ten player taken in this year’s draft. The first Fighting Illini to be drafted since 2006, he becomes the 15th first-round pick in school history and the third Illini chosen in the lottery since it began in 1985. He is Illinois’ highest drafted player, meanwhile, since 2005, when Deron Williams was taken third overall.

Leonard averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots last season, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. He led the conference in blocks, ranked 11th in the nation in field goal percentage (.584) as was third in the conference in rebounding.

Leonard ranked third in the Big Ten with eight double-doubles and was the Illini’s top rebounder in 21 games, led by a career-high 16 boards vs. Cornell (Dec. 19). His 60 blocked shots were the second-highest single-season total in school history. He tallied a career-high six blocks in the season opener vs. Loyola-Chicago (Nov. 11).

Leonard becomes the first-ever Illini player on Portland’s roster.

University of Illinois All-Time First-Round NBA Draft Picks:

2012 – Meyers Leonard, No. 11

2005 – Deron Williams, No. 3; Luther Head; No. 24

2003 – Brian Cook, No. 24

2002 – Frank Williams, No. 25

1990 – Kendall Gill, No. 5

1989 – Nick Anderson, No. 11; Kenny Battle; No. 27

1987 – Ken Norman, No. 19

1983 – Derek Harper, No. 11

1973 – Nick Weatherspoon, No. 13

1970 – Mike Price, No. 17

1957 – George BonSalle, No. 7

1954 – John Kerr, No. 6

1951 – Don Sunderlage, No. 9

Why Leonard would be good for the Blazers:

Hopefully this won’t go down in the Hasheem Thabeet, Shawn Bradley, Darko Milicic, Michael Olokwandi, Kwame Brown category of guys who were drafted higher than they should have been simply because of height. And then all proceeded to bust big time. Leonard is to Jared Sullinger and John Shurna from Northwestern what Benjamin Disraeli was to William Gladstone, and not just because they were bitter rivals (yes, indeed there’s nothing quite like making obscure allusions to Victorian Era British Prime Ministers when juxtaposing NBA big men prospects). Leonard is the opposite of Shurna/Sullinger in that he’s better suited for the NBA than for college basketball. The other two are the complete opposite.


Why this could backfire for the Blazers:

Portland already has a reputation for drafting two of the worst all-time overall #1 picks, both were big guys, 6’11″ LaRue Martin in 1972 (coincidentally from an Illinois school in Loyola) and Greg Oden from Ohio State in 2007. Leonard always seemed to have trouble putting together two great halves for the Illini. Too often he would disappear for an entire half. Some of that was not his fault, as Bruce Weber’s motion offense is always guard-focused and the Illini guards did a very poor job with the motion this past season. Basically, they were inept at getting him the ball, which is sad because Leonard should have been the best big man in the Big Ten by far in 2012. Instead that honor belongs to Jared Sullinger, who was a two-time All-American at Ohio State.

And yet here we are, Sullinger is the one falling out of the lottery and ML will go well ahead of him. But Leonard’s biggest minus is so similar to many former University of Illinois sports stars- in between his ears. His own coach has subtly, and not so subtly attacked his attitude and mental toughness. The biggest case against Meyers being mentally tough was the disastrous loss at the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a game Illinois should have won easily and Meyers should have dominated. Instead, cameras caught him crying on the bench, and the photos and videos went viral. That day hurt his draft stock.

Bottom line: As you can see from this video and this other video we shot at the NBA combine, he’s saying all the right things. And if he’s telling the truth, he’s doing all the right things too, and that’s why his stock has shot way up during the interview and workout process. Scouts are as high on Leonard now as they’ve ever been.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Chicago, Fox Sports, MSN, Walter Football and Yardbarker

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too

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