Former Illinois player Meyers Leonard will take part in NBA Finals after Celtics defeat

Everyone loves it when a hometown boy makes it to the big leagues; folks in the Windy City will certainly place their bets on Meyers Leonard and Kendrick Nunn of the Miami Heat.

Meyers Leonard, from Robinson, Illinois, and Kendrick Nunn from Chicago, will play in the NBA Finals after their team, the Miami Heat beat the Boston Celtics 125-113 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Both Leonard and Nunn are alumni of the Illinois Fighting Illini, the basketball team of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

Nunn was named the NBA Rookie of the Year runner-up, ahead of Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans and behind Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies.

But the 24-year-old Nunn has only played a small role as a guard for the Heat during the playoffs; Nunn scored 29 points and totaled just 104 minutes during nine playoff appearances. And Leonard has played just one playoff game, after starting 49 games during the regular season.

Despite that, Leonard has been visible as one of the most upbeat players on the Miami Heat sidelines.

“My team knows what’s best, and our coaching staff knows what’s best,” Leonard said. “I would do anything to be on the court. I’d be lying if I said that I’m as competitive as hell. I wish I was affecting the game on the court. I’m not, but as a player and a person, I want what’s best for the team.”

“There are only two things that I will never let be questioned and that’s work ethic and character,” Leonard went on to say. “Every day when I walk through that door, I’m going to be a great teammate and great guy. I’m not fake. So I’m trying to make an impact from the sideline.”

The two Illinois alumni chose different paths before teaming up with the Heat alongside former Chicago Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler.

After two years at Illinois, and one standout season, Leonard was drafted 11th overall by the Portland Trailblazers in the 2012 NBA Draft. That’s just five spots behind Damian Lillard, Leonard’s longtime teammate.

During his eight-year NBA career, 28-year old Leonard has averaged 3.9 rebounds and 5.6 points. Moreover, according to Spotrac, Leonard has earned around $50 million in salary.

After seven seasons with the Trailblazers, including a star performance in l2019’s Western Conference semifinals, the former Illinois player was traded to Miami. Here he started 49 of 51 games this season, averaging 5.1 rebounds and 6.1 points.

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Leonard, “Meyers among the most special people I’ve ever had the privilege to coach and to be around. He is not only an incredible teammate, but also an incredible human being. He has the hearts of us all. We’ll do anything for Meyers because he is just so pure.”

On the other hand, after three outstanding seasons at Illinois, Kendrick Nunn was dropped from the team after pleading guilty to misdemeanor battery. After that disgrace, Nunn transferred to Oakland University in Michigan. After sitting out a season, due to NCAA transfer rules, Nunn achieved the 2017-18 Horizon League Player of the Year. Nunn also scored as the country’s No. 2 leading scorer, with an amazing 25.9 points per game.

Despite his impressive NCAA career, Nunn went undrafted. Instead, he played a season for the Santa Cruz Warriors in the NBA’s G-Leauge. The Miami Heat only signed Nunn last spring.

As a guard for the Heat, Nunn shone during the offseason, both in the preseason and during Summer League, including a 40-point preseason game against the Houston Rockets. Those stellar performances earned Nunn a coveted place with the Miami Heat; Nunn immediately went on to prove his worth, by scoring an impressive 112 points during his first five NBA regular-season games. That earned him the honor of most points scored by a rookie since 19-year old Kevin Durant achieved that goal playing his first season with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007.

As a rookie, Nunn has started all 67 games he’s played, averaging an impressive 15.3 points and 3.3 assists per game. As an undrafted rookie, Nunn was among three finalists for the NBA Rookie of the Year award, along with No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant and No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.

Both of the former Fighting Illini have achieved their NBA dreams. However, while Leonard hit the floor as the Heat's starting center for the first three months of the season, he was sidelined once the regular season resumed. Likewise, rookie guard Nunn was sidelined for the first time since Miami's 113-101 victory over the Indiana Pacers. It also was the first time since the preseason that Nunn was not in the starting lineup.

Both of the former Miami starters were sidelined by Coach Erik Spoelstra.

"Obviously, Kendrick Nunn is a big part of our team. We’ll need to get into our depth at some point,” said Spoelstra. "While I make these decisions, what I feel is best at any particular time, I also want to do it with a good deal of empathy. These are not easy decisions. Players just have to stay ready, and K-Nunn is mentally tough enough to do that."

As for Meyers Leonard, the coach pointed to Leonard’s time with the Portland Trail Blazers, say, "He's been through this before, so he gets the big picture."

Nunn and Leonard have been the best-known rotation casualties since the season NBA restarted. After testing positive for COVID-19, Nunn was forced to miss the first two weeks of training camp and later left to attend to a personal matter. His teammate Leonard is continuing to deal with an ankle injury that occurred in February. This likely factored into Coach Spoelstra’s decision to bench both players.

It remains to be seen if the two former Illinois players will hit the court together any time soon. But when they do, you can be sure Illinois sports bettors will have their wagers ready for Miami, now that sports betting is legal in Illinois.