Meyers Leonard Continues Growth, Development

The recent Illini basketball team camp gave fans a chance to watch commitments and other top prospects display their skills. While there were a number of quality athletes present from three states, including several future superstars among the freshmen and sophomores, Robinson's upcoming senior center Meyers Leonard shone among the brightest.

Robinson is a sleepy town in southeastern Illinois. One would never suspect it might produce a future NBA basketball player, but if Illinois commitment Meyers Leonard continues to develop at his present pace, that may be his future.

Now listed at 7 foot tall, Leonard is much improved over his December Shootout performance at the Assembly Hall. He has the ball skills of a much smaller player, and he has innate athleticism and leaping ability to go with it. He is light on his feet, runs the floor well, and finishes with authority.

One expects seven footers to dunk with ease, so he proved something by winning the Illinois state slam dunk contest in March. Among his dunks was a through-the-legs effort that requires hang time to accomplish. He likes to pound the glass, and he scores frequently on putbacks.

Among his baskets at the team camp were a three pointer, a 17 foot pull-up jumper, a spin move that freed him for a layup, and a lefty floater in the paint. Equally impressive were the times he put the ball on the floor and, when he found his path blocked, had the presence of mind to find an open teammate with a perfect pass. And he is a strong presence on defense, blocking shots and positioning for rebounds.

Robinson coach Bob Coffman is thrilled to have one more year with Leonard. He has been maligned for not creating an offense that emphasizes his blossoming star, but he realizes that Leonard is a team player who wants to give his teammates and friends chances with the ball.

Encouraging a team game might not give Leonard the statistics typical of most top 30 players in the country, but it will make him especially good at the college level.

Leonard looked a little tired at times, and with good reason.

"I played four or five games yesterday, so I'm a little tired today."

He knows he still is slender and needs to gain strength to battle in the post. But that is not all the hard worker wants to improve.

"I want to work on gaining weight, getting a lot stronger. Some guys can get me because they're a little bit bigger. But my overall game, rebounding, defense, everything."

One of his opponents at the team camp was A.J. Hammons, a 6'-11" sophomore postman from Carmel, Indiana. Hammons has about 30 pounds on Leonard.

"He's pretty good. I don't know how old he is, but he's big. He's got a lot of weight on me. So I've got to get stronger."

Leonard played with a bandaged hand most of the day, the result of attacking the glass in his first game.

"I hurt my hand a couple weekends ago. It was healing up, and I hurt it again hitting it on the backboard trying to block a shot. It busted open again."

Leonard plays AAU ball with future teammates Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head, and Tracy Abrams, and he enjoys visiting and playing with other Illinois players, most of whom were in attendance for the camp.

"It's pretty neat that all these guys are here. I see most of them every weekend for AAU ball. It's always good times."

With assembled media emphasizing the future of Illini basketball, Leonard had no qualms about predicting a remarkable outcome.

"I'm looking for a National Championship. It's awesome down here every time I come."

National Championship? Isn't that a lot of pressure to put on your future teammates and yourself?

"There's not so much pressure, you just know what you've got to do. We're expecting to do that. That's why we're rated. Look at Jereme, Crandall, Tracy, everybody. D.J. (Richardson) and all them. The expectations are through the roof."

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