ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — If Meyers Leonard is anything, he is a physical specimen. With the media surrounding him at the Milwaukee Bucks’ practice facility on Thursday, he is a giant among average-sized men. The tallest prospect in the NBA Draft this year, Leonard looks, at first glance, like he was built specifically to be an All-Star center in the NBA.
Teams all across the NBA have seen the same vision when they brought Leonard in for workouts. They have seen the measurables and wondered: Could Meyers Leonard be the next great center in the NBA?
That looming question and the curiosity surrounding Leonard has sent the former Illinois center shooting up draft boards since workouts began. Once considered to be a late first-round pick, Leonard now seems like a lock to be a lottery pick on June 28.
And, with the 12th pick, Milwaukee seems to be one of Leonard’s most likely destinations.
A month ago, the thought of Leonard being drafted that high seemed like a pipe dream. His numbers were far from dazzling during his time in Champaign: 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds a game while averaging 31.8 minutes last season. With only one season of action in which Leonard played serious minutes, his toughness in relation to his size was often questioned.
Leonard knows about those doubts. He knew people questioned his decision to leave Illinois after his sophomore season, especially with how badly the Illini’s season had ended — with his coach fired and his squad seemingly falling apart. But all those trials and question marks put Leonard in a position to send a message to the NBA during the workout process.
“There’s no doubt in my mind I feel like I had something to prove,” Leonard said. “Over the last couple weeks with workouts and at the combine, I feel like I’ve surprised some people.”
Consider Bucks director of scouting Billy McKinney to be one of those people. He admires the physical tools of Leonard just as much as any other NBA scout, but the other tools Leonard showed in the workout are what had him impressed.
Still, he knows not everything can be proven about a player through just workouts.
“Meyers is a very good shooter at 7-1, 240 — a guy that can really run the floor and pass the ball,” McKinney said. “Sometimes, the workouts don’t do the justice all of the time of what we might see through the course of a game. But it kind of fills in the blanks for us.”
There are still plenty of blanks to fill for Leonard. Even he admitted, rather honestly, that he got away with using his strength and athleticism to overpower weaker players at the collegiate level. But more than anything, aside from the three-times-a-day workouts in Long Island and the endless repetitions built to further craft the physical tools that have gotten him to this point, Leonard has been working on figuring out the game at a professional level.
Without a complex understanding of the game, Leonard knows that his physical tools will be mostly for naught when he goes up against some of the NBA’s strongest big men.
“At this level, you really have to have a high basketball IQ,” Leonard said. “In college, I could get away with using my athleticism some times and just being bigger than some people. . . . I feel like basketball IQ is a big part of it.”
The potential of Leonard is palpable to anyone with decent eyesight. But the other parts of being the All-Star-in-the-making that his physical tools suggest, well, those parts are still coming together. And with the No. 12 pick in the draft, the Bucks might be the team that decides whether the pieces to that puzzle will actually fit.
From there, it will be up to Leonard to prove he’s more than a bunch of impressive numbers on a scouting report. But with his meteoric rise already taking shape in this year’s draft, Leonard seems to be proving something.