Meyers Leonard has the height (7'-0"), strength and athleticism to be a great center someday. In fact, he reminds some old timers of former Illini great Johnny "Red" Kerr. The similarities include a large-framed, tall body, an athletic countenance, advanced basketball skills and a larger-than-life personality.
Illinois fans wanted him to emerge this year, but the Robinson product still needs a great deal of seasoning. He got his first start at Minnesota recently, but Mike Tisdale has started every other game this season. Despite coming from a small school himself, Tisdale says he had far better preparation for the college game.
"My high school coach did a really good job with me. I give him a lot of credit. He really prepared me on footwork and offensive skill stuff. Meyers was such a good athlete in high school, he could do whatever he wanted just because he could. I think he's gonna get better and better as the year goes on."
Leonard admits the adjustment from high school has been a problem for him.
"It's been difficult for me, especially the first couple weeks to a month. But now I'm starting to get the hang of it. When I'm in there, Coach (Bruce) Weber wants me to run the floor, get a rebound. But then in the half court, set some screens if I'm away from the post. Quit floating."
Leonard is quick to answer the part of the game he wants to improve most.
"Rebounding. After the Wisconsin game, that was the first Big 10 game where I got some decent minutes and played pretty well, I was looking at the stats and was concerned. Sometimes it's just not coming toward me, sometimes I'm not rebounding out of my area.
"But in general, I have to start rebounding a lot better. With my size and athleticism, that should be something I'm doing."
One would think a seven footer would have an advantage on the glass. Weber explains why Leonard has struggled.
"I think the game moves very fast for him. Everyone else is jumping and he's, 'Oh, I better jump.' By that time it's a little late. He doesn't use his physicality. He's a strong guy, and obviously he's a tremendous athlete. But he just seems to be a step behind."
Weber has thus resisted fans clamoring to see Leonard receive more minutes in games.
"That's why we've hesitated. We see him every day. He's come along. I think he's gotten to the point where he realizes he's got to listen and be coachable and change. That's a big step for him. He's starting to be a lot more competitive in practice.
"In practices he's not like an animal on the boards. If he wants to have a niche for us in the future, that would be a nice niche to have. Everybody's looking for that. There's so much for him on his plate, I think once the game slows down in his mind, I would hope he would become a better rebounder."
Being an animal is fun for Leonard. It gives him the attention he craves. Slam dunks are his favorite, accompanied by a self-satisfied roar. He must learn to channel his energies into constructive activity on the court and off. Coming from an admitted class clown, sometimes that can be difficult.
"I have to admit I'm kind of an attention-getter. If I dunk on somebody, or if I crack a joke, I want to make sure everybody knows about it. I don't like stealing everybody else's attention, but then again I kind of do. More than that, I like making people laugh and have a good time."
He admits to being obnoxious when younger. He is beginning to mature. He wants people laughing with him, not at him.
"Yeah, I was. I'm over that. Especially in class, sometimes the teacher would be talking, and I wouldn't be paying any attention. I'd be talking to someone else, cracking a joke. That's just how I am, but I chill now."
During games, Leonard is demonstrative on the bench. If he can't be in the game dunking on someone, he gets attention in other ways.
"I'm kind of like that little goof ball. They make a good play and I want to make sure everyone in the crowd knows it. If someone makes a three, I'm putting the threes up. I just like to be animated, get the crowd going. All that."
Weber realizes someone with a sense of humor can be an asset for a team, keeping teammates loose. But he says Leonard still needs to learn when to be serious.
"I think there's a good time to have fun and enjoy yourself, enjoy being loose and free. But coming to practice, having that desire to prepare, the commitment to prepare. That's a lot of the game.
"Practice has got to be important. That's where you pick up your habits. You're not just gonna go into a game and rebound. You rebound every day; it's got to be a habit. That's where he's got to change, to grow up and have practice and preparing become more important to him."
Surprisingly perhaps, Leonard is anything but relaxed when he enters a game. He becomes hyper and loses his breath easily. There are more pressures on him than most realize.
"Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I feel the pressure because everyone thought I was gonna be some superstar. I'm just coming in trying to get quality minutes. When I get in there, I feel the pressure to not mess up.
"That's not really the way you're supposed to play, but that's kind of how I'm playing right now. There's still a lot of nervousness, but then again I feel like I can make plays and do some things other people can't do."
Weber has brought in experts to help his players with the mental side of the game. Leonard says it is helping him.
"Our inspirational guy came in and said I have no future, I have no past. All I have is now. I kind of go with that right now. I'm trying to help the team whatever way I can right now. But I also have to look out for myself, see what I hope to be, what I'm going to be and where I am now."
Of course, he must also take care of his school work and his body. There are a lot of responsibilities on his plate.
"I would say time management is big, especially when school's going. Having mandatory study hall; class, I don't really like school but I appreciate getting good grades; practice; eating; just everything that goes along with it.
"My transfer credits were 3.75, and I got a 3 something (first semester). Now I'm a cumulative 3.51. So I'm doing decent right now. I haven't picked a major, but I'm pretty sure I'm going into Sports Management (RST)."
The young man is trying to eat right, with one small splurge to satisfy the inner child.
"Chicken is my favorite food. I always put chicken somewhere in my diet on a daily basis. In the dorms, for lunch and dinner I usually eat some kind of noodles so I can get carbs. Sometimes meat, but normally it's chicken.
"And I always have to have a snack at the end. I'm a sweets fanatic. I eat a lot of candy, double chocolate chip cookie, ice cream, milk shake, something."
Leonard expects to see his floor time increase dramatically next year after Tisdale graduates.
"I think next year I'm gonna play a lot of minutes, which I'm capable of doing. I want to be a pretty good factor, so I guess we'll see."
He wants to stop worrying about what others think of him.
"Definitely, I'm just gonna keep learning and hopefully become a dominant factor."
To that end, Leonard promises to devote his summer to basketball.
"I was talking to one of my best buddies from back home. I don't pay any attention to what people say about the NBA because I'm trying to be a good college basketball player right now. But people are saying I have a chance to go lottery, all that stuff.
"So this summer it's gonna be balls-out. Eat, lift, sleep basketball. That's all I'm gonna do."
Little by little the nervousness is departing. After his first start, he noted improvement in his approach. He even displayed touch on a 15 foot jumper that swished.
"I've got to admit I was a little nervous when I got out there, but I finally got in the flow and got some rebounds, played defense and played hard. I'm definitely a lot more relaxed. Even though I started, I was getting into the flow of the game."
Leonard has special gifts you can't teach and an athletic body that will continue to get stronger. All he needs now is a lot of hard work, a focus on details, and an understanding of when to have fun and when to be serious.
It may take him awhile to harness everything, but when he does, he could become one of the best centers in Illinois history.