Meyers Leonard fills big need for Blazers
By ANNE M. PETERSON AP Sports Writer June 29, 2012 12:58PM
PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers didn’t pull any early surprises in the NBA draft, filling needs with guard Damian Lillard and center Meyers Leonard.
The Blazers took Lillard out of Weber State with the sixth pick before selecting the 7-foot-1 Leonard out of Illinois with the 11th on Thursday night.
It was the first time that Portland had two lottery picks in the draft. The Blazers got the sixth pick in a trade with the Nets at the March deadline for forward Gerald Wallace.
The Blazers, known for draft-night drama in recent years, had earlier targeted a point guard and center at the top of their wish list for the offseason.
Lillard, a two-time Big Sky Conference player of the year, averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and four assists as a junior with the Wildcats before declaring early for the draft.
The 6-foot-3 guard had a solo workout with the Blazers earlier this month and reportedly dined with Portland owner Paul Allen afterward. He was widely considered the top point guard in the draft.
“I wanted to see what happened,” Lillard said about waiting for his name to come up. “I tried not to have expectations because I didn’t want to be disappointed.”
Lillard is the first player from Weber State to be drafted since Willard Sojourner was taken in the second round — 20th overall — by the Chicago Bulls in 1972.
The most recent player from Weber State to play in the NBA was Eddie Gill, who played in six games for the Milwaukee Bucks in 2008-09.
In a conference call with reporters, Lillard said he believes his game will complement Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
New Blazers general manager Neil Olshey did not mince words when it came to Lillard.
“Damian Lillard was brought here to be our starting point guard. He might not be that in camp, but we selected him to be the starting point guard,” Olshey said.
Leonard averaged 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season before he also declared early for the draft. He led the Big Ten with an average of 1.9 blocks per game.
“Coming in I’m just going to work as hard as I can and improve myself,” Meyers said.
Olshey said the Blazers would be patient with Leonard, since big men typically take longer to bring along.
“When you get a big guy with a motor and a skillset like that, you’ve got something special,” Olshey said.
The Blazers selected guard Will Barton out of Memphis with the 40th overall pick. The Conference USA player of the year last season as a sophomore, the 6-foot-6 Barton averaged 18 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Portland also dealt the 41st overall pick, Tyshawn Taylor out of Kansas, to the Nets for cash considerations.
Taylor averaged 16.6 points and 4.8 assists per game as a senior last season for the Jayhawks, who went to the NCAA championship game but fell to Kentucky.
The draft picks were the Blazers’ first significant moves involving Olshey, hired earlier this month to make over the team.
Olshey spent nine seasons with the Clippers, and last season oversaw a roster revamp that included the acquisition of Chris Paul, Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups, and the re-signing of DeAndre Jordan. As a result, the invigorated Clippers finished 40-26 and reached the second round of the playoffs.
Portland finished last season 28-38 and out of the playoffs for the first time in four years.
“This is the first step,” Olshey said after Thursday night’s draft.
Portland has a history of making news in the draft. Last year the team made two significant trades, sending guard Andre Miller to Denver in exchange for Raymond Felton, and trading Spanish swingman Rudy Fernandez to Dallas.
The year before, the Blazers fired GM Kevin Pritchard on draft night.