- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Meyers Leonard never doubted he could attract a NBA team with his combination of size and athleticism.
There just aren’t many 7-foot-1 centers who are as physically gifted as Leonard is.
Where Leonard felt he needed to impress NBA executives, though, was in his interviews. Leonard knew people believed he had been too emotional and immature during his two years at Illinois.
Heading into Thursday’s NBA draft, all signs point to Leonard having succeeded in squashing any concerns over his mental makeup. Leonard is confident he did just that, and the fact the NBA invited him to the draft’s green room provides the assumption he’s expected to be a lottery pick.
“Often times people try to give me the label or stamp of being immature or too emotional,” Leonard said from New York on Tuesday. “As I explained to them, it’s more I care a lot, love to win and hate to lose. I felt like I really knocked that out and just put myself in a positive light.
“With all the feedback I got from the teams, my agent, just general feedback, most people really thought I did an unbelievable job with my interviews. I thought I did the same. I showed up in a full suit to almost all of them. I was straight forward and honest with my answers. I thought I came across more professional and more mature than people thought.”
It also appears general managers believe Leonard is a better player than first thought. Where Leonard was considered a late first-round pick when he first declared for draft in April, he’s steadily worked up the ladder and will likely be the Big Ten player selected on Thursday.
ESPN NBA draft analyst Chad Ford has Leonard going No. 12 overall to the Houston Rockets in his latest mock draft. Most draft experts have Leonard being selected within the top 15 picks.
Leonard isn’t worried about where he lands on Thursday. He plans on enjoying the evening no matter what happens.
“It’s definitely going to be an exciting time, maybe a little bit of an emotional one with my family and close friends there,” Leonard said. “All I’ve been through, and these are the people who have helped me along the way.”
Among the people who will join Leonard at his draft table will be his former Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who now coaches at Kansas State.
“He’s just been a great motivator in my life, and, of course, those two years at Illinois,” Leonard said. “He not only helped me be a great basketball player, but also a great man. He cares so much about people. He just pushed me to be the best on and off the court.”
Leonard’s mother, Tracie Leonard, has played an even large role in his life. With Leonard’s paycheck, he plans to give back to his mom. His goal is to provide her with the best specialist money can buy to improve a chronic back problem she’s had for some time.
“She’s been a great role model in my life,” Leonard said. “I’ve been without my dad (who passed away), her back, not a lot of money. She’s been independent. My brother left for the Marines, and I left for school, and she was really by herself. We have a great relationship, and I couldn’t be happier to provide for her and take care of her. She’s always given everything she’s had to me and my brother. She’s just been a positive person in my life.”
When Leonard’s name is called Thursday, he and his family celebrate, but so will the entire town of Robinson, Ill. Most of the town’s residents (about a 6,300 population) will be at one of two locations – the country club and movie theatre -- televising the draft.
Leonard is proud to be the pride of Robinson.
“I couldn’t be more happy to say I’m from Robinson,” Leonard said.
Leonard doesn’t expect that to ever change either. He wants to always be “Meyers” to everyone back home.
“If you speak to the people who are close to me, they would tell you I’m just Meyers,” Leonard said. “I’m not a superstar to them, and I don’t pretend to be. I respect the fact they know me as that. That’s how I want to be. I don’t want people thinking I’m some big thing. I’m just a normal kid.”