Meyers Leonard Always An Illini In His Heart

The Fighting Illini basketball team lost more than a bunch of games and its coaching staff this season. It is also losing its potentially dominating center Meyers Leonard to the NBA draft. The big man met reporters Tuesday to discuss his situation and remind he will be a loyal Illini for life.

Meyers Leonard admits to mixed feelings about his decision to enter the NBA draft after just two seasons at Illinois.

"It was definitely a tough decision. I teetered back and forth. Some days I would say I'm definitely going, and other days I'd say I'm definitely staying. I had a few people that I trust and have gained the respect of help me with the decision. I thought it was the best decision for me, my family and my future. So I went ahead and declared for the draft."

Leonard long felt professional sports was in his future. Figuring out which one took a little longer.

"It's always been a dream of mine to play professional sports. When I was a really young kid, I thought I was going to play professional baseball. Obviously, that kind of went away with my growth in basketball. I'm very blessed to have an opportunity to play in the NBA."

His mother's health problems had much to do with his decision.

"My mom and I have always been very close. I talk to her on the phone twice a day at least. With her health situation, and just for her future and my future, I felt it was the best decision to leave."

He says the lure to stay another year at Illinois might have been stronger had former Illini head coach Bruce Weber and his staff not been fired, but in all honestly his bottom line would have remained the same.

"I questioned that on and off, just as I questioned if it would be the right decision for me to leave or not. Coach Weber, and Jerrance (Howard) especially, I was close with all of them. It was tough to see them leave. I was already thinking about leaving.

"If Coach Weber was here and still our coach, maybe I would've stayed. But I most definitely made the right decision for me and my family."

New Illinois coach John Groce was also involved in the process. He wants what is best for the young man, so he supported the decision. Leonard benefitted from the brief relationship.

"The day after he took the job, I met with him. We had a good hour long conversation. He was very open to me and willing to listen to what I had to say. He respected my decision. He said whatever decision I make, he's gonna accept that.

"Obviously, he would like the chance to have me back, but he's happy for me to pursue basketball at a high level. I have a lot of respect for him for respecting my decision. I'm sure he'll do a great job here, there's no doubt in my mind."

Leonard averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and nearly two blocks a game for the Illini this past season. But he has much more potential than statistics alone can measure. At 7'-1", 240 pounds, he has the frame to add considerable muscle. He has tremendous athleticism and can run the floor. He can shoot with either hand, move his feet laterally on defense and bang in the post.

At the same time, he is still young at heart and often does goofy things. And he needs a great deal of additional coaching on post moves and post defense. He knows his path will be difficult.

"With the NBA, it's the highest level of basketball you can play. A lot of people say 'no boys allowed.' It's gonna be a tough transition for me but definitely one I can handle. Just like going from high school to college was. I think I'll be well prepared.

"As far as my first year goes, even a lot of the top 10 picks don't get much time. I'm just going to find the best system for me, and my agent will definitely help me with that.

"I'm gonna continue to work as hard as possible to try to prove to them that I'm ready. I'm just going to respect the situation that I walk into and work as hard as possible.

What does he think will be his most difficult challenge?

"That's a difficult question. I would say just dealing with the transition itself. Dealing with a whole different aspect of time management. Continuing to get better, which I will, there's no doubt about it. I've always worked very hard and will continue to work very hard.

"But I'm jumping into a man's world at an early age of 20. I think I'll be able to transition well. I have the right people around me. It'll be tough at times, there's no doubt about that. But I think I'll be able to have a successful future."

Leonard appears unconcerned but hopeful where he will be picked in the upcoming NBA draft.

"I signed with Excel Sports. I'm going with Jeff Schwartz the basketball guy. I let my agent handle all that stuff. But as far as a personal goal, I want to prove myself and make myself a lottery pick."

He shared his upcoming plans.

"I'm finishing the semester, finishing out my classes because that's important to me. Education has always been important to me.

"After finals, I'm moving to Long Island. My guys are in New York, so I'll be working out, preparing myself for the draft. While I'm out there, I'll be flying to I'm assuming 6 to 8 different teams and working out for them. From there, we'll see what happens."

Wherever Leonard goes, his mother is sure to follow.

"I'm definitely taking my mom with me. We have some stuff in Robinson, but I can't leave her, with her health. She's been through a lot. She's always been there for me and given me everything she's had.

"My brother may or may not move to where I end up going. But he'll come out there a week or so a month to be with me and help her. I think our situation is good with what's gonna happen."

Will his mother live with him?

"More than likely, at least for the first year. After that, maybe I could find myself a different place. But as far as getting comfortable with the new city, and having her there for the first tough transition (is important). I'm going into the real world."

One way or the other, Leonard plans to represent his school in a positive way. He will always have an Illini heart.

"It was an incredible experience, there's no doubt about it. I'll be an Illini forever. It's like everyone says, Illini Nation is everywhere. I'm not going anywhere; physically I am, but I've had a great experience here."

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