By Meyers Leonard, Portland Trail Blazers
I recently turned 21. The night before my birthday, my girlfriend and I went out to a nice dinner to celebrate. The night of my birthday, we played Denver and I had a good game (13 points and 5 rebounds). After the game, I went home because I wasn’t feeling that great, so to honest with you, I didn’t really think twice about the game being on my birthday. I was just glad I played well, but mad that we lost.
Coming Into My Own
It feels really good to be playing well. Obviously, once you are playing with confidence, it all becomes a lot easier. The last few games, I’ve been finding my stride. The added confidence helps tremendously. I’ve been physically ready all season, working out hard, but now playing better has really helped me become more confident. I speak with coaches pretty often about how it’s all a process. Sometimes big men take two or three years to develop. I’m nowhere near where I want to be or where I know I can be, but I get better each and every day, and that’s all I can ask for at this stage.
My game has evolved a lot since the beginning of the season. I’m more aware of how to play strong and how to use my body, and my anticipation and court savvy have gone way up. It’s about getting game experience and just being out there on the court. It’s tough coming from college as a 20-year-old and having to learn a whole new style of play. It takes more anticipation and a better understanding of what each and every guy you guard is going to do. I think my defense has improved, knowing when to rotate and try to block shots. On offense, I’m starting to find myself in the right places more often and I’m reading the situations and plays in front of me better. It’s coming together for me, and I feel like I’m really starting to understand the NBA game.
Blazers assistant coach Kim Hughes has had a huge amount of influence on me. I work with him constantly, and he’s there for me no matter what. He always keeps me level-headed, whether I had a good or bad game, or made a good or bad play. I trust him 100 percent, on and off the court. Coach Hughes is very smart and understanding. He has been a head coach and played 10-plus years in the league, so he’s been there. We clicked right away. He’s got a little goofy side to him, but when it’s time to work, he’s ready to work. He pushes me a lot and it’s absolutely great to have him as a mentor. We’re really a perfect fit.
There’s just a little bit of pressure in the back of my mind knowing that the season is winding down and we are making a push to make the playoffs. On the other hand, I take the approach that every single game is another stepping stone in the learning process. I realize that different games have different significances and meanings, but I play as I hard as I can and do my best no matter what. I’m just out there trying to be me and help my team win.
Our team mentality hasn’t really changed throughout the season. We are a hardworking and selfless team that plays well together. We’ve had some crazy wins and some bad losses, but quite frankly, overall, we’ve played pretty well. Whether we figure it all out by the end of the season or next year, I think we have a chance to be pretty good.
March Madness Around The Corner
I’m not always spot on everything going on with my Fighting Illini, but they’ve had a pretty good season. The Big 10 has been tough, but Illinois has had some signature wins, like beating Gonzaga, which is No. 1 in the country right now. They also beat Indiana when they were No. 1 and beat Minnesota on its home floor. I’m proud of my team! I hope they make a great run in the Tournament and they deserve it. They are good kids who work hard.
I still communicate with some of the guys on the team, especially Brandon Paul. He’s very talented and definitely going to get drafted. Rather than worry about that though, I have always told him to focus on his college season and everything else will fall into place.
It’s tough to predict who’s going to do what in the Tournament now because there’s really not one dominant team. Obviously, the teams that are ranked highest are the best ones. Michigan is doing pretty dang well. Indiana is pretty good — I really like the way Victor Oladipo plays. I was friends with him in college, and I’m proud of him. Duke is up there as one of the top teams. Then there’s Gonzaga. I think Miami is pretty tough, but I don’t think they can make a run at the title. Most importantly, watch out for my Illini!
That’s about it. We’re on a short road trip right now. I’m happy that I’m playing better, and I just want to continue play this way. My family is good, and I do something I love every day. Life is good!
Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MeyersLeonard11.
Meyers Leonard is a 7-foot-1 center from the University of Illinois. He was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 11th pick of the 2012 NBA Draft.
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