The Portland Trail Blazers had their opportunities. J.J. Hickson was allowed to leave, eventually signing with Denver. Gorgui Dieng was still available at number ten in the 2013 NBA Draft. The Blazers passed on him and instead selected Jeff Withey, the center out of Kansas in the second round. But Neil Olshey turned Withey, regarded by many scouts as the best interior defender in the draft, into Terrel Harris and Robin Lopez.
All of this was a massive vote of confidence for 2012 first round pick Meyers Leonard. While his fellow draft pick Damian Lillard was lighting up scoreboards, Leonard sat on the bench, showed an occasional flash of brilliance, and more often looked lost on defense and overmatched on offense. No one expected Leonard to make an immediate impact, but what he showed did indicate a player ready to start year two.
Leonard must be ready to start, at least in the mind of Neil Olshey. Why else would the Blazers downgrade Jeff Withey, a player with tremendous defensive instincts and a good chance to be on the NBA's defensive first team at several points in his career, for Robin Lopez? Why give up Withey for a center that averaged just 5.6 rebounds and less than two blocks per game in his only season starting all 82 games? A center that averaged double-figures for the first time in his career, and a guard that averaged 0.4 points in 13 games last season? Lopez would not be a starter on virtually every team in the league and that only leaves one option.
Neil Olshey has pushed his chips into the middle of the table. If Leonard takes that leap forward and becomes a force in the middle, Lopez makes a fair backup and the Blazers will have a team prepped for a deep playoff run. If Leonard regresses to how he played last season, or fails to live up to his talent level as he often did at the University of Illinois, the Blazers will be woefully undermanned at center, and all of the pressure will be placed on the shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard yet again.
This move is a desperate one, and one Neil Olshey may regret if Leonard does not live up to his potential. Hindsight is 20-20 and only time will tell. For Olshey and Leonard, the clock is ticking.