Basketball players who are 7'-1" but also agile, athletic, coordinated, strong, smart and can run, jump and show good touch are extremely rare. Illinois center Meyers Leonard has that kind of natural ability. In reality, NBA scouts will be sniffing around him far before he demonstrates proficiency on the basketball court.
For his sake and the Illini's, everyone hopes he self-actualizes while still in college. That means becoming a strong post presence, a defensive stopper and a top rebounder and shot blocker while also getting transition buckets, putback dunks, short jumpers and converting numerous free throw opportunities.
That sounds simple enough. Plenty of people dream of becoming a Meyers Leonard when they grow up and are convinced they could do those things with Leonard's gifts. Unfortunately, they are not him. Leonard has his own demons to fight. He had trouble controlling his emotions last year, and he realizes he needs a more mature attitude.
"Absolutely. Keeping my emotions under control. Obviously, sometimes you see a foul the wrong way, and maybe you'll show a little emotion. But I want to me more calm on the court and able to keep myself under control better."
The Robinson sophomore sometimes goes from one emotional extreme to another. One minute, he sees himself as a superstar. But if something bad happens, he can suddenly think he is worthless. Finding the middle ground is difficult for him.
In addition, Leonard is a fun-loving guy. Last year, he wasn't always taken seriously by his coaches and teammates. It likely reduced his playing time. He understands the team needs him more this year, so he is working to change his behavior in practices and games.
"It's kind of clicked for me. Obviously I like to joke some, but I keep that off the court as much as possible now. I'm more business on the court. I'm trying to be more serious and get everything done the right way. Just trying to get better every day."
Leonard is needed this year to play solid post defense without fouling. Last year, he could accumulate fouls faster than honey attracts flies. He plans to be smarter this time around.
"I've always been able to play defense. I knew I wasn't gonna play that many minutes last year, so I could play a little out of control."
He also needs to develop an inside game offensively. He knows a number of post moves, but he still isn't accustomed to using them consistently to score. It seems sometimes he is thinking too much about what to do instead of just making a move and then using a counter when that is unavailable.
"I'm trying to score more in the paint, trying to rebound and block shots. Just being a presence overall. I think Tyler (Griffey) has also done a nice job. So has Nnanna (Egwu) and all the other big guys, realizing we have to have that in order for us to be good. We haven't had that the last so many years."
Leonard made the USA team last summer and benefitted from their tournament overseas. He played really well during the trials and team practices, went through a typical down period and then recovered at the end to help his team.
"When I was training for USA basketball, I was going 2-3 times a day, 5-6 times a week. It was hard, but I knew it was all gonna pay off, and it did. I started off real well, then I had a couple rough games, and then I finished real well. It was nice to play with different coaches and players, different coaching styles."
Leonard sprained his knee before the Italy trip, so he went through another down period before he regained confidence in his knee. He tried to find other ways of helping the team, which played well there.
"It definitely helped the team as a whole. We got to see what some guys can do. We really played hard, and we got closer and had better chemistry. We learned a lot from Coach (Bruce Weber). As far as I go, it's more of a leadership thing, trying to be there for everyone."
The 240 pounder cares about Illinois and his team. He wants what's best for everyone. In that regard, he is optimistic about the upcoming season.
"We're gonna bring a lot of energy, we're gonna play defense, we're gonna pick people up. We're gonna be an exciting team. We're gonna get out and run some, we're gonna have more guys playing this year. It'll be interesting, but I think we'll surprise some people."
That is no doubt true. But the real surprises would come if Leonard suddenly finds the true nature of his talent and lets it loose on the court. Then, the Illini could be outstanding.