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2016 Free Agency: Meyers Leonard could be the next Channing Frye for Alvin Gentry

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A stretch five? A center shooting from behind the arc? Alvin Gentry has certainly made it work before.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Six years ago Channing Frye signed with the Phoenix Suns as a free agent. Alvin Gentry was beginning his first full season as the head coach. In his first four seasons, Frye made a total 20 three-pointers, shooting an anemic 28.6% from beyond the arc. Gentry considered Frye a probable starter at center, and Frye was unguardable in voluntary workouts as early as September thanks to his range behind the arc.

Channing Frye went from a non-threat beyond the arc to fourth in made three-pointers during the 2009-10 season under Alvin Gentry's watch. He made 172 that season and 171 more the following year while shooting an impressive 41.3% in those two seasons on a massive volume. Frye opened up the lane for the pick and roll artistry of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire. Those Suns exceeded even fan expectations: racking up 54 wins, the 3rd seed in the Western Conference, and an appearance in the Western Conference Finals where they fell to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Meyers Leonard could fill a similar role in New Orleans. He's already an adept three-point shooter, knocking down 39.1% of his 340 attempts over the last two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers. (Channing Frye also played for the Blazers before teaming up with Gentry.) Leonard may also be quite available; the Blazers just signed Festus Ezeli to a two year contract to join a suddenly crowded front court with Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, and second round pick Jake Layman. Adding to the Blazers troubles, restricted free agent Allen Crabbe signed a massive offer with the Brooklyn Nets.

Leonard, the 11th pick in the 2012 Draft (right after Austin Rivers!), is enormous but a little on the soft side defensively. He measured a legitimate 7'1.25" at the NBA Combine with a 7'3" wingspan. Despite that physical profile he's not a shot blocker, posting a block rate similar to Jrue Holiday in the last two seasons. No, that is not an exaggeration.

Opponents shot 52.5% at the rim last season against Leonard. The season before, when he played with far better defenders on the perimeter, however, Meyers Leonard posted a team best 42.3% defending the rim. At that rate Leonard saved 8.3 points per 36 minutes according to Nylon Calculus in 2014-15; a mark equivalent to Omer Asik and better than DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard.

Advanced statistics have swung wildly as well; this season Leonard ranked 89th of 99 power forwards in DRPM according to ESPN. For 2014-15 he ranked 18th out of 80 in the same metric. The last two seasons Leonard has proven to be a good, but not great rebounder individually. However, Portland has collected a greater share of defensive rebounds with Leonard on the floor in 2015 (77.3% to 75.8% off) and 2016 (78.2% to 75.2% off).

The big thing Leonard provides is spacing. He's not one to camp in the corners much; the vast majority of his 3-point attempts are above the break when he shot 38.8% on 196 attempts in 2016 and 37.6% on 85 attempts in 2015. His 2014-15 shot chart, for a 7'1" center, is absolutely ridiculous.

Meyers Leonard Shot Chart

Leonard is absolutely automatic if left open. In the last two seasons he's shot 44.3% when wide open on a total of 212 attempts according to NBA stats; 39.6% on all 313 of his catch and shoot attempts. Imagine how many open looks he could see with Anthony Davis diving down the paint in the pick and roll with Jrue Holiday?

There is, of course, a downside. Meyers Leonard presents a significant injury risk. He missed the last month of the season with a dislocated left shoulder. The injury required surgery and Leonard is not expected to be ready to go until training camp at the earliest. He previously dislocated the same shoulder in November 2015 and strained it in December 2014. Leonard missed just two games due to the first injury and seven with the first dislocation, although he was expected to miss 4-6 weeks.

Leonard's surgery was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the same surgeon who performed the recent procedure on Anthony Davis' knee. Last fall Meyers Leonard turned down a "considerable" extension offer that was rumored by be worth $60 million over four years. Can he get that much on the market right now? With his recent injury history and the plummeting amount of cap room available around the league I doubt it.

Instead, like Channing Frye in Phoenix long ago, a shorter two year deal might get the job done. Meyers Leonard is just 24 years old and within Alvin Gentry's system could see his value increase exponentially if he can stay healthy.

The Pelicans, should they trade away Tyreke Evans as they hope, the resulting room could be used to make a reasonable offer to Leonard. This franchise lacks big man depth around Anthony Davis; with respect to plodding big men Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca. Signing Meyers Leonard could prove to be a fortuitous gamble.