Meyers Leonard Returns With Serious Attitude

The Fighting Illini basketball team must rely on younger players this season after four seniors graduated. Possibly the most important returnee is center Meyers Leonard. Fortunately, he has improved while playing USA basketball in Latvia. He is now back on campus and eager to be a leader for the rookies on campus.

After a frustrating freshman season, Meyers Leonard planned a heavy summer work load to improve his game and become more serious about basketball. Being named to the 19U USA team guaranteed he would have quality coaching and competition this summer. He benefitted from his experiences.

"It was a good time. It was a different experience; I had never been over there. The food wasn't always very good, but I dealt with it. As far as basketball goes, I had a good experience. I worked hard and played well at the end.

Coach Paul Hewitt offered Leonard some contrasts but also some similarities to Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

"Coach Hewitt is kind of like Coach Weber. He tries to turn you into a good young man and not just bring you here and try to send you off. I learned a lot of life things from him, like always work hard. Every time I'd do something in practice and get down on myself, he told me, 'Be a pro.'

"I liked him a lot. He was pretty aggressive at times, making sure we worked hard. He kept us straight."

Immaturity was an issue last season, as it is for most freshmen. Learning to take the game and his responsibilities more seriously is an obvious benefit from his summer experiences.

"Maturity definitely is a big thing. I made strides on the court, off the court, everything. Eating, not staying up late. Extra workouts and just being focused when I'm in the gym.

"When I step on the court now, it's all about business. Last year sometimes I'd be frustrated, I'd be tired. I wouldn't know what my position on the team was. Now I feel like I have a lot more confidence."

Leonard was one of the best players on the floor in USA tryouts, and he started off well in Latvia. Then he got down on himself and struggled before putting it together at the end of the World Games.

"At the beginning of the tournament, we played Egypt and handled them really easy. I went for a double-double; I think I had 11 (points) and 11 (rebounds) with three blocks.

"Then I went through a rough stretch where I wasn't very aggressive. And then the last three games, I really turned it on and played pretty well. I was happy with the way I ended it, so hopefully that will transition over to this upcoming season."

He was confused by one strange statistic from the trip. During his down period, he played few minutes but had many fouls. In one game, he had five fouls in eight minutes. When he started playing better, the fouls went down.

"I think once I got into the flow of the game, it helped me a lot. At the end, I was playing well and not getting many fouls, which makes no sense. When I played less minutes, I had more fouls than when I played more minutes. I guess I was more in the flow of the game."

Among his competitors was 7'-0" Jonas Valanciunas, the Lithuanian who was the #5 pick in this year's NBA draft. About the same size and weight, Leonard learned first hand what he needed to do to become the same level of player.

"When I played against Jonas, who was the #5 pick this year, I'd say we were on a pretty even keel as far as strength goes. It was nice to play against him and see his talents and recognize that hopefully I have the same ability to do what he's doing. Get drafted, but most importantly bring that physicality back here and try to make a name at this university.

"I don't look at stats that often, but he was the points and rebound leader. I think it was close to 22 and 12 or 13. That's feasible for me, but it's obviously a stretch from last year. But I think I'm ready."

Leonard also benefitted from the physicality of the games.

"Everyone always has this misconception that (Europeans) are really soft, but that's not true at all. It was just like the Big 10, a battle every game."

The USA team defeated the top three teams in the tournament but were upset by Russia. A 5-2 record left it fifth overall. Leonard's last three games were his best, and he believes they can be a springboard to a good sophomore season.

"It was a big confidence boost. I think I was averaging 23-24 minutes those last three games, 14 (points), 7 or 8 (rebounds). I remember I had three blocks every game. That was nice to know that I'm up there, be relaxed but also be aggressive and use my talents to the fullest."

Was he homesick?

"Yeah definitely. I like being around different guys, and I've never been overseas, so that was different. I wasn't able to talk to my mom, so it was different not being able to talk to her. But I was able to communicate with my friends fairly well."

The key now is to continue his upward climb as he approaches his sophomore season. He is glad he went, but Coach Weber provided some indirect reminders to coax him into going.

"Four or five months ago, I was telling Coach Weber I was nervous about this and didn't want to go. But that's when it clicked for me, I have to be good next year for us to be good."

Illinois graduated scoring and assist leader Demetri McCamey, shooter Mike Tisdale, rebounder Mike Davis and hustle expert Bill Cole. Leonard knows there is much weight on his and his teammates' shoulders, but he is optimistic for the season ahead.

"Those guys are gone, and the rest of us have to pick up the slack. I think this year we can really surprise some people.

"As far as this upcoming year, I hope they follow my work ethic, along with Brandon (Paul) and D.J. (Richardson) and the other guys. I think there's more of an understanding of hard work, listening to coach and better attitudes this year than it was last year. I think we're gonna be ready."

Leonard will have competition at center from freshman Nnanna Egwu. They played together briefly before Leonard left for Latvia, enough time for Egwu to make a strong impression.

"Very hard worker. He can really shoot the ball compared with what I thought he could. He's a lot stronger than I thought he was; he's definitely physical. And he never stops running."

Leonard expects to help Egwu and the other rookies on the team.

"I'm definitely gonna be a big brother for all those guys. Mike Shaw was down here before all the other guys. If he needed a ride, I was there to pick him up. I'll do anything for a teammate. That's just how I am. I get close to the people I'm playing with."

Illinois will be touring Italy in August. Leonard hadn't been out of the country his entire life until the last month, and now he'll soon be taking his second overseas excursion.

"I hope it will be another good experience. These guys are like brothers to me. I was kind of close to some of the guys I was just with, but nothing like I am with these guys. It will be nice to do a little more sightseeing but also focus on basketball."

Leonard believes he can help his teammates, and they can help him. Together, they can create a strong team that can win many games.

"I think I know that, as long as I work hard and do the things I know I can do, I should be all right. Obviously, the others coming in and playing hard will make me work hard. I've got to work hard and do everything I can to make this team good."

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