Leonard Ready To Accept Responsibility

The 2011 Fighting Illini basketball team must replace five players who saw extended minutes last season. Returning players must step up and fill the holes. Perhaps the biggest improvement must come from Meyers Leonard, the tall and athletic center. He needs to advance his game while also accepting more responsibility.

Meyers Leonard is a 7'-1" center with tremendous upside. He is athletic, mobile and smart, all ingredients for a quality college postman. However, he went to a small high school and didn't realize how big a transition it would be.

"They won the state championship, so it wasn't that he struggled." Illinois coach Bruce Weber reminded. "But at the same time, I'm not sure how much it prepared him for us. That's the biggest thing."

Leonard also played AAU ball, but he took advantage of his athleticism rather than learning fundamentals of post play according to Weber.

"He had two summers of AAU, but he was just figuring it out. Second year he was a little better, but I still don't think he understood what he was."

Leonard grew late; he played on the perimeter early in his life.

"He has good skills. I think part of it was his high school. One, he was a guard or a forward most of his life. All of a sudden, he's a seven footer. So now his habits are to be out in front.

"In high school, there'd be six guys around him, so he just stepped out. And then we almost encouraged that because that's more the way Mike Tisdale plays, more the way Tyler Griffey plays.

"In hindsight, we started doing things with him that Tisdale was good at doing, but Tisdale had been here three years. So maybe we went a little too fast for him."

Tisdale and Griffey are good outside shooters but not as effective banging inside. Leonard was familiar with that type of offense, but it prevented him from learning the inside game all teams need. He now realizes his home is in the post.

"I can shoot, but I can't shoot like Tiz. I thought I was a mix between a four and five, which I am because I can run like most bigger centers can't. I've just got to realize that where I'm gonna make money and to help us be successful is at the five."

Weber says his prize pupil struggled freshman year.

"I think late in the season, he got so frustrated. It was almost as if he wished he could just fast-forward to next season. He thought it was gonna be easier, but it was a lot harder than he anticipated. I think the mental part was really hard on him."

Leonard concurs, mentioning also an illness that sapped his strength.

"Some people apparently thought I had given up on us last year. But I was extremely sick during the NCAA Tournament. It was pretty bad. We're past that now.

"There was a lot of physical sickness, but there was psychological also. The season had worn down on me. I didn't do as good as I thought I was going to and didn't impress as many people as I thought. It was kind of a tough learning experience.

"The game had changed for me. It was more high speed. It wasn't necessarily that I was not ready, but then again sometimes I wasn't."

Leonard averaged 2 points and one rebound playing 8 minutes per game last year, but Weber knows he learned valuable lessons.

"I think he learned a lot. The preparation, how mature you have to be, how serious you have to be. If you ask him, that was the biggest thing."

Leonard now realizes he didn't always focus like he should.

"I was kind of childish last year, to be completely honest. I thought I was better than I really was; it was harder than I expected. I think I've grown up and am starting to become more of a leader."

Leonard received a jolt when he reported this spring. With just six scholarship athletes on campus this spring, Illinois coaches reminded him how important his play was to the team.

"Definitely. I think even more so because I have more responsibility, like a co-captain-like thing. I know I have to be good next year for us to be good. Last year wasn't as good as we thought it would be, which I completely agree. So it's something I've been facing. Now I'm working hard."

Weber and his staff have been teaching the big man post play during spring workouts.

"We've tried to switch his mindset to be post-up first. Look to seal, get some layups. And then he still has the ability to shoot and do some things. But that was his number one mindset. It's teaching, it's fundamentals. And then the mindset of being a seven footer.

"It takes a certain mindset for kids to play inside. They don't want to. But you watch the NBA, you watch the playoffs, you've got to score points. You've got to get baskets."

Leonard is starting to catch on regarding his on-court responsibilities.

"First of all, I've got to play hard all the time. That's one of my things last year. Setting screens, being physical, rebounding and defense, all the things big men do to help the team win. Be a center. Be a beast."

Transforming his game requires practice and repetition.

"There's a lot of fundamental work. Now we're able to seal in the post and get post position because I'm capable of that. We've been going back to basics."

There were times last year where Leonard would receive the ball in the post, and his teammates would clear out. He would dribble with his back to the basket, unsure what to do next. He was thinking too much.

"I guess I was thinking, do I have a seal or not? Should I go back, or should I go straight to the hook? But it's coming along. I'm starting to get a killer move and come back with a counter. Sitting low and using my body is the most important thing.

"I've got it down to a point where, if I don't get a seal, then I take one dribble, fake and come back, or one dribble hook. That's been good for me, trying to get that killer counter like Coach Weber says.

Other than that, sealing and being a big man all the time. Even though it seems like it should come, sometimes you've just got to keep going."

Weber wishes he had more time to work with the young giant this spring. Ten extra practices preparing for the August tour of Italy will help. But most of the summer, Leonard is on his own.

"I wish we would have more than two hours a week, to be honest. But you can set a good foundation. I think the summer will be important because that's 10 days. We've got to use that in a positive way. And then in the fall, we've got to do a lot of teaching.

"One thing for him, what he does from May 1st until we practice for Italy. And then he'll try out for USA Basketball in mid June. If he makes it, it's great. I told him he'd be coached for a lengthy period this summer. But he's got to make it. Otherwise, it's just three days of scrimmages."

If Leonard's summer matches his current plans, he should return for his sophomore year a better player.

"I talked to Coach Weber for quite awhile the other day. It's basically being responsible in the summer. It's pretty much on your shoulders. They really can't do much. You've got to go work out and get better.

"I'm gonna spend a little time in Robinson, but more than that I'm gonna get up for maybe a week working out with Brandon (Paul) up in Gurnee. I'll probably get up to Attack (Athletics) for two weeks in Chicago.

"USA starts, and hopefully I'll make that team, which I think I can. It'll be jam-packed with basketball and hopefully improve. I'm gonna go and see my mom some, but I've got to explain it's a business."

Leonard has the physique to gain weight and strength, but he lost weight late in the season due to his illness. His weight training must continue.

"I'm up to 245, so it's coming back. My squat is pretty good. Hopefully I continue to get better in the weight room. My goal for the end of the summer is around 255 and benching 275, something like that."

Leonard has the potential to be one of the best centers in the history of Illinois basketball. But right now that potential hasn't been realized. The rest is up to him. When Weber talks about his upcoming team, he is no doubt thinking of Leonard first and foremost.

"We've got to have some guys make some big steps. We've got to have somebody improve enough that, if you mention most improved player in the league, you mention their name."

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