Chicago Colleges: Meyers Leonard
Leonard, who is in second year with the Trail Blazers since leaving Illinois after his sophomore season, is a member of a team seemingly bound for the playoffs, but he hasn’t factored much into its success. Entering the Blazers' meeting Friday with the Chicago Bulls, his playing opportunities have been limited for much of the season, and he’s averaged 2.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 9.7 minutes in 34 games.
He didn’t see any playing time against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday.
Leonard was hoping for more in his second season, but he understands his defensive game isn’t where Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts wants it to be. Leonard has been learning to think the game rather than just rely on what made him successful in college.
“I was always able to use my athleticism and speed and quickness to block shots and be in the right positions,” Leonard said. “Whereas now, everyone is that athletic. Now you've got to be quick with your mind. Not that I can’t do it, but it’s just been an adjustment.
“This year has been hard for me. I have to learn to play defense. I’ve rebounded the ball a lot better. But my defense has to continue to improve.”
Stotts compared Leonard’s progression to that of a lot of young NBA big men.
“You know he works really hard,” Stotts said. “I think it’s a very difficult position for young big men to adapt to the NBA just particularly at the defensive end. He’s made improvements. It just takes young big men a little while to make that next step.”
Leonard expects to make that next step this summer. He’s planning to work out in Portland, play in the NBA summer league and spend August in Los Angeles getting into some high-level pickup games.
“Playing, that’s the main thing,” Leonard said. “I can go and kill individual workouts any time. You can’t really do defense in an individual workout. It’s all about offense. I can knock down open shots, be athletic, run, jump, dunk, all that.
“But the playing and understanding the game and how to use those moves and how to use your athleticism, how to be in the right rotation to block a shot, things like that, is hard the part. It comes with experience. It comes with time and playing.”
Leonard remains in touch with his former Illinois coach, Bruce Weber, now at Kansas State, about once a month, and still follows Illini basketball. He said he hopes to make a trip to Champaign, Ill., this summer.
Leonard knew coming out of college early and finding NBA success wouldn’t be easy. He would have been a senior this season. At 22, he understands he has a lot to learn at the pro level, even if it is sometimes frustrating.
“Obviously everyone wants to play,” said Leonard, who is from Robinson, Ill., and expected to have about 20 friends at Friday's game. “But at the end of the day, it’s not your decision. But it’s hard. As a competitor, you always want to be out there. Just have to continue to battle through it. As a young player, I have to realize it’s a process and keep working at it.”
Leonard, a 7-foot-1, 250-pound center, averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season. He was the first the Big Ten player selected in this year’s draft.
“Just to be selected this high and be considered one of these guys in this room and in this class is unbelievable,” Leonard said on ESPN after being drafted.
Leonard is the first Illini player to be drafted in the top 11 since Deron Williams was selected No. 3 overall by the Utah Jazz in 2005.
Leonard attended the NBA draft at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. and was joined by his family and his former Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who now coaches at Kansas State.
Leonard starred at Robinson High School in Robinson, Ill., and played for the Chicago-based Mac Irvin Fire club team.
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.”
Meyers Leonard’s life has changed quickly since declaring for the NBA draft following his sophomore season at Illinois.
Just this past week, that’s been truly evident for the 7-foot-1 center.
On Tuesday, he was in Portland working out for the Trail Blazers. On Wednesday, he was back in New York City, which he’s calling home right now, working out for the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors in the morning and then later in the afternoon had a clothing photo shoot.
Life is more hectic in some ways, but it’s also become more manageable for the 20-year-old Leonard. Far away from his home in Robinson, Ill., the University of Illinois and his family and friends, Leonard’s attention is on what’s most important right now – preparing for the NBA.
“It’s actually made it easier,” Leonard said by phone on Wednesday. “Being away from the people I’m close to and friends and what not is different. It’s a good group of people around here, and I just focus on basketball. It’s good not having to worry about outside things and just focus on basketball.”
Leonard’s days are filled with basketball from start to finish. He trains up to three times a day, and the sessions focus on improving every facet of his game, especially his offensive skills.
Leonard showed he could be dominant defensively, blocking 1.9 shots a game, and around the glass, averaging 8.2 rebounds as a sophomore. Scouts love his size, athleticism and effort. The one knock on Leonard’s game has been his offensive ability, and he’s working to change that.
“We’ve been doing a lot of ball handling,” Leonard said. “”Be able to face up and put the ball on the court better than I was. Extending my range, working my back to the basket, footwork, just trying to do whatever to improve.”
Leonard felt he showcased his improved offensive skills along with what he normally excels at when he worked out for the three NBA teams in the two days. While so much rides on the workouts, Leonard has arrived to the point where he is confident enough in his skills to not worry about it.
“There’s no sense in being nervous,” Leonard said. “You just go out and work hard and do what you do, and everything will fall in place.”
If Leonard had his way, everything falling into place would mean him being a first-round selection on June 28.
“Hopefully, first round,” said Leonard, who doesn’t have any regrets leaving Illinois early. “The ultimate goal is to be lottery pick. I’ve just been working really hard to make myself a top pick. I don’t pay attention to online boards. It’s useless to me. It comes down to who trains the hardest and wants it the most.”
Chad Ford has Leonard going No. 19 to the Orlando Magic in his latest mock draft
1. Convince sophomore Meyers Leonard to stay: With Leonard, the Illini should be able compete at the top of the Big Ten. Without him, it’s unlikely. Leonard dominated at times as a sophomore, but he still had inconsistencies due to foul trouble and his own personal frustrations. He likely will be drafted in the top 15 if he leaves, but he could be an All-American and a top-10 pick if he stays.
3. Retain assistant coach Jerrance Howard: He lives and breathes Illinois basketball. Howard grew up with it, played there and has now coached there. He has a strong relationship with the current players and the ones already committed. Howard has two years left on his contract. If he gets away, another high-major program will scoop him up, and he’ll soon be recruiting against Illinois.
4. Bring someone with Chicago ties onto the staff: Howard has opened many doors in Chicago, but Chicago coaches would be even more comfortable with one of their own. You’re never going to please everyone in Chicago, but a coach with Chicago roots would go a long way in most gyms. Simeon coach Robert Smith is the logical choice, but he’ll have to be persuaded to leave.
5. Drive to Chicago and start building relationships ASAP: It’s going to be an uphill climb for Groce in Chicago. Most Chicago coaches don’t know him, so they’re going to be skeptical until they speak with him. It will be a lot like what DePaul coach Oliver Purnell went through when he first was hired. Despite what critics have said, Chicago isn’t any more difficult to recruit than any other major city. You have to get in there and gain trust. Groce can do that, but it will take a little time.
6. Deal with Illinois’ current recruits: Groce and the Illini’s current commitments will have to decide what’s best for everyone’s futures. Crete-Monee point guard Michael Orris is the only player signed in the Class of 2012. Prospect senior combo guard Mike LaTulip was also recruited as a preferred walk-on. For the Class of 2013, Illinois has commitments from Belleville East shooting guard Malcolm Hill and LaLumiere point guard Jalen James. Both are highly touted and are considered to be Illinois’ backcourt of the future.
Howard said the players would hear back from the committee sometime this week. College players have until April 8 to decide whether to enter the draft or remain in school.
Howard believes Leonard could leave Illinois early for the NBA, but it's unlikely for Paul.
Leonard, who is 7-foot-1 and 245 pounds, averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks this season. Paul (6-4, 200) averaged 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals.
“Meyers, I think has a chance,” Howard said. “I think it’ll be good for Brandon to see where he’s at, to see what he has to work on. I think they’re two different situations. I definitely think they are both NBA talents. They do have to work on some things. I think it’s really smart if that’s your dream and you really have a chance to go get a good feel of what people are thinking about where you could go.”
Past and present Illinois players reacted Friday to Bruce Weber’s firing on Twitter. Here’s what a number of them wrote:
Former player Deron Williams: “Everything happens for a reason praying for Coach Weber @Coachjhoward [Jerrance Howard] and the rest of the Illinois basketball staff... They will bounce back”
Former player Dee Brown: “I know how much Coach Weber loves his job, love basketball n loved coaching at the best school in the world its a sad day HES A GREAT COACH”
Former player Chester Frazier: “He works his butt off and lives and breathes basketball! And does things the right way! Will do better with tougher players who buy in”
Former player Trent Meacham: “Tough to see Coach Weber go. Great coach and even better man! He's not finished yet and will be successful at his next stop...”
Former player Richard McBride: “Wish I could of made it to the press conference! Much love coach! Can't say it enough”
Junior guard Brandon Paul: “[Gonna] miss Coach Weber..great coach but even a greater person...helped me out w/more than just basketball, will forever be grateful for that!”
Freshman forward Mike Shaw:“Thanks for everything Coach Weber.. Didn't play a lot this year but learned a lot.. Appreciate everything. Continue to be a great person.” He added: “And good luck with what God has next for you, your family, and the staff. Will never forget everything we been through..”
Freshman forward Nnanna Egwu: “Emotional time for the University of Illinois bball program. Can only wish Coach Weber and his staff the best of luck. Appreciate it all”
Sophomore center Meyers Leonard: “Coach Weber will always have a special place in my heart. He was always there for me no matter what. He truly cares about people and” & “Taught me so much about life and lessons along the way to becoming a good person and he will always be a part of my life. #Love+Respect”
Junior guard D.J. Richardson: “Love coach weber taught me a lot on and off the court...... #Great #memories”
Freshman guard Tracy Abrams: “Thanks to coach weber i got the [opportunity] to play college ball, not only play but be a player. He helped me become the person that I am today. Feels weird to [know] he will not be back to coach me again”
Senior guard Sam Maniscalco: “Appreciate Coach Weber & the opportunity he gave me. Privileged and honored to say I played for such a great coach and even better person!”
Overview: Both Iowa and Illinois entered the Big Ten tournament in need of a championship to earn a trip to the Big Dance. Iowa had managed to impress in stretches this season (the Hawkeyes swept Wisconsin) and was mentioned as a sleeper in the buildup to the Big Ten tournament. Illinois, however, had fallen on hard times. The Illini had lost 11 of their past 13 -- a stretch that might cost Bruce Weber his job -- prior to Thursday’s 64-61 loss to Iowa.
After a back-and-forth first half that featured a 50 percent shooting clip for Illinois and a 46 percent mark for Iowa (Illinois had a 31-27 lead at halftime after a D.J. Richardson 3-pointer at the buzzer), Illinois stormed out to a 40-33 advantage just minutes in the second half. But Iowa returned fire with a 22-8 run that gave the Hawkeyes a 55-48 advantage midway through the second half.
It was just a four-point game in the final minute, and a crucial Iowa turnover seemed to put Illinois in a position to change the outcome. But the Illini coughed the ball up before they could do anything with that vital possession. Joseph Bertrand hit a 3-pointer with 16.1 seconds to play, cutting Iowa’s lead to one (62-61). But a pair of free throws by Matt Gatens put the Hawkeyes ahead again by three.
Turning point: The Illini appeared to possess a little mojo at the start of the second half, but Gatens squashed that momentum with a pair of crucial buckets near the 14-minute mark. Gatens hit a deep three, then dunked off a turnover on the other end. The game turned off that stretch. Iowa began playing with more vigor, which led to the run that turned the game in the Hawkeyes’ favor.
Key player: Gatens was a star for the Hawkeyes. He scored 20 on 7-for-12 shooting. Beyond the box score, however, the senior stayed calm when Illinois started to pull away at the start of the second half. He also had three rebounds and an assist. He converted all four of his free throw attempts, including two in the final seconds.
Key stat: The Illini committed 12 turnovers compared to Iowa’s six. The Illini went 7-for-25 from beyond the arc.
Miscellaneous: The Illini made this game far more difficult than it had to be with tough shots toward the end of the shot clock … Meyers Leonard scored 18 points in what might have been his final game at Illinois … Freshman Aaron White (13 points) could be a Big Ten star next year.
What’s next: Iowa moves on to face Michigan State at noon on Friday. Illinois will probably end up in the NIT. The bigger question is how long Weber will be on the sideline.
2. Shoot less 3-pointers: Illinois just isn’t a good 3-point shooting team. Sure, the Illini have players like any team capable of hitting open 3-pointers and getting hot, but it’s not something they should be banking on at this point of the season. The Illini are the worst 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten (98 of 332 from 3-point range for a .295 percentage during conference play), and Penn State is the only other team under 30 percent. Illinois has had only a few games where it could be deemed a good shooting performance. The Illini hit 11 of 18 in an upset of Ohio State and connected on 4 of 10 in a victory over Northwestern. Illinois needs to keep its shots inside the 3-pointer line this week.
3. The team needs to play defense, but especially Brandon Paul: The Illini’s defense has been suspect throughout the second half of the Big Ten season, and Paul has been included in that. Paul admits he needs to play harder on defense. As versatile as any player in the Big Ten not named Draymond Green, Paul can win games for Illinois, and he showed that against Ohio State. He also came through against Minnesota and Michigan State. Paul just needs to get his defense going first and then his offense will come.
4. Try to repeat history: Illinois has traditionally succeeded in the Big Ten tournament, leading all teams with 23 conference tournament wins and a 23-12 overall record, including two championships and four second-place finishes. Even as a No. 10 seed in 2008, Illinois reached the championship. Only twice has Illinois lasted one game in the tournament, last season and in 2006.
The NCAA’s deadline to choose this year will be April 11.
For some players, like Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis, the decision will be a no-brainer to enter the draft. But for someone like Leonard, it’s more complicated. There are pros and cons of both staying in college and going to the NBA.
Procopio was a Boston Celtics scout for four years and an assistant in the NBA Developmental League for one season. He’s also in his seventh year as the director of basketball operations for Tim Grover’s ATTACK Athletics, where he’s trained around 200 NBA players, is Kobe Bryant’s personal scouting consultant and runs HoopConsultants.com, a basketball consulting website for players and coaches.
On this day, Leonard had one of his finer performances. He was 7 of 13 from the floor, scored 22 points, grabbed six offensive and 14 total rebounds, blocked two shots and played 36 minutes in a win.
Here are some of Procopio’s observations on Leonard:
Player of the Year: Michigan State’s Draymond Green
Explanation: Green was consistently the most dominant player in the Big Ten this season. He averaged 16.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals and led Michigan State to a piece of the Big Ten title. Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger was runner-up.
Coach of the Year: Indiana’s Tom Crean
Explanation: Indiana went from a 12-20 overall and 3-15 Big Ten during the 2010-2011 season to being 24-7 overall and 11-7 this season. The Hoosiers also defeated three top-5 teams. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo was a close second.
Freshman of the Year: Michigan’s Trey Burke
Explanation: Burke was the reason Michigan earned a share of the Big Ten title. He averaged 15.8 points in Big Ten play, only once scoring less than double figures in 18 games. He also averaged 4.3 assists, which was third best in the Big Ten. Indiana’s Cody Zeller finished second.
As I watched Ohio State grab rebound after rebound on Wednesday, it made me think all Northwestern was missing was a big man like Illinois’ Meyers Leonard.
That thought led me to this: If you could assemble one team (starters and bench) from all three of the state’s high-major teams, who would you choose?
Here’s my team:
Here’s a quick look at No. 9 Ohio State's 83-67 win over Illinois on Tuesday.
How it happened: In the teams’ first meeting of the season on Jan. 10, It took a special 43-point effort by Brandon Paul for Illinois to upset Ohio State. The Buckeyes weren’t going to allow something like that to happen again, building a 28-8 lead within the first nine minutes on unbelievable shooting. Ohio State connected on 16 of its first 19 shots and built its advantage to 40-18 later in the first half. Ohio State shot 65 percent from the field for the game. Paul was 2-of-10 shooting for nine points.
What it means: The Illini’s woes are getting worse. They’ve lost six games in a row and nine of their last 10. Tuesday’s loss guaranteed their first Big Ten losing record since they went 5-13 in the 2007-08 season. Illinois’ only hope of making the NCAA tournament will now be finishing the conference season strong and making a run in the conference tournament. For Ohio State, the win kept it in the Big Ten title race. It improved to 13-4 in conference.
Player of the game: Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas scored a team-high 19 points and was 6-of-8 from the field. He also went 2-of-3 from 3-point range.
Illinois player of the game: Meyers Leonard looked like one of the few Illini who came to play on Tuesday. Leonard scored a game-high 21 points. The next highest Illinois scorer was D.J. Richardson with 12 points. Leonard held Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger to nine points and six rebounds. Sullinger also fouled out.
What’s next: Illinois returns home for its next two games. It faces Iowa on Sunday and Michigan on March 1. Ohio State hosts Wisconsin on Sunday.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State