Meyers Leonard Enjoying Fruits Of Hard Work

Sometimes a great bargain pops up when you least expect it. In basketball parlance, on rare occasions a young man raised in a small town grows taller and more athletic than those around him and becomes a star. Larry Bird was from tiny French Lick, Indiana, as one example. Now comes Meyers Leonard from Robinson. He may not reach Bird's stature, but he is certainly making a name for himself.

Meyers Leonard has grown physically to 7'-0", 225 pounds. He has grown athletically to be one of the best high school big men in the country. And wonder of wonders, he always wanted to attend the University of Illinois. Illini fans are just beginning to realize how great a bargain that really is.

Imagine your surprise when you are watching a Class 2A Supersectional contest, and your center recruit leads a fast break and then leaps over the top of a defender to dunk the ball without charging. Illinois coach Bruce Weber was among those who watched Leonard perform that feat for Robinson High School against Decatur St. Teresa.

"I just kind of sat there in awe," Weber remembers. "It was funny because he got the ball against the press. They always use him as a press breaker. They throw it high to him and he turns. He was open and took one dribble, and then he took another. All of a sudden I said to myself, 'He's gonna dunk that thing.'

"That kid (defender) was just sitting there. That kid will be able to show that film to his grandkids and say he got dunked on. It was pretty impressive."

It was all in a day's work for Leonard. He won the Class 2A dunk championship last year, and he led his team to the 2A State Championship this season. He reflects back on his accomplishment.

"It's just a great feeling. Everybody's still talking about it at the school. I feel blessed I could lead my team to a state championship.

"I said from the beginning of the year we had the talent, but we were gonna have to come together as a team. We ended up with the championship, so I got one of my goals marked off."

Leonard was double and triple-teamed constantly, and his teammates never learned to make consistent entry passes to the post. But he scored when able, shot free throws at a high percentage, pulled down tons of rebounds, blocked shots and altered numerous others. He wanted to do more offensively, but the results are most important.

"I feel we could have come inside a little more. We had some injuries and turnovers. Regardless, we won and I was still able to rebound, run the floor and play defense."

Some questioned Robinson coach Bob Coffman last year because he insisted on a team game that didn't emphasize the developing Leonard. But his teammates gained confidence in their own games and were able to support and balance his efforts against the best teams. That patience was rewarded this season.

"Yeah, it definitely paid off. They stepped up, and that's why we won. We were actually down five of the games in the postseason at halftime. We decided we hadn't played our best basketball yet. Me, Ben Jones and Derek Hannahs in particular would take over because we knew what to do."

Everyone scrutinizes a big player, especially one as adept as Leonard. Some have criticized him for complaining to the officials on occasion and getting a little chippy at times. But from his perspective, he held his frustrations in fairly well most of the time.

"There was about two or three games where they were literally trying to hurt me, and other games where they would bring two or three guys off the bench just to foul me real hard. You just don't undercut somebody who's going up for a dunk. It's pretty unsafe, but I guess that's how they wanted to do it. Luckily, there were no injuries.

"It was pretty hard to keep my cool, but I think I did a decent job. It was tough to say the least, but I got through it and made something out of it."

Cutting the big kid down to size is a common tactic in high school, but he will play against people closer to his own size in college. That is where he can show the full range of his game.

"I've talked to the guys up there (Illinois), and they say it's sometimes harder to score in high school ball. I can score better against someone like Jared Sullinger (Ohio State recruit) when you go one on one. You get pushed around a lot, but I think it will be easier for me to get freed up.

"With guys like Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale around, and D.J. (Richardson), they can't just double team you or they leave them wide open. More than likely, you'll get wide open shots. It'll be a lot different. I think I'll be able to use my post moves a lot more and use my athleticism. Just being able to be freed up a little more, it will be a different type of game."

Of course, he knows he must continue to add strength and bulk to his slender frame.

"There's a big difference between high school ball and the Big 10 obviously. I know there's gonna be, maybe not a rude awakening, but it'll be a totally different game when I get up there. I know I'm gonna have to really get down and battle. Try to be me and play strong, just do my best."

Leonard has the shooting range out to the three point line. He has a large number of efficient post moves, a good shooting touch from midrange, ball handling skills and the ability to move his feet laterally on defense. He has long arms and excellent leaping ability for rebounds.

Passing is another of his strengths. If he is double teamed, he will find and hit the open man.

"Exactly. That's how high school can help me with the transition to the college game because I like to find the open guy. When I went to Amare (Stoudamire Camp), they rated me the number one big man passer. It'll be very interesting this year. I think we have a chance to be really good.

Leonard is also good at initiating fast breaks off defensive rebounds with his crisp outlet passing.

"Definitely. When I rebound, the first thing I'm gonna do is look to see if anybody's slipped out. I try to hit a guard at half court to get a break going or just get a push."

He can also make accurate full court passes with a baseball throw. He considered being a pitcher on his baseball team this spring.

"Yeah, I had some good passes over the course of the year. I can throw pretty far, but it just all comes from being a good passer."

Leonard was selected to compete for a spot for the USA 18 and under national team this June. Preparing for that superceded his interest in baseball.

"I was actually notified about a month ago that I was gonna go to San Antonio for the USA tryouts. That was pretty sweet. That's why I'm in the gym every day and working out every day, trying to get ready for that and the All-Star games. It's an opportunity to show myself on the national scene. That would be pretty sweet if I could represent the USA."

He knew about the selection, but he didn't realize only 21 players will be competing for 12 spots.

"There's only 21 guys going there? I didn't know that. Wow."

Future teammates Jereme Richmond and Tracy Abrams will join him. He's looking forward to it.

"Jereme and Tracy will also be going there. Wow, that'll be a good time. I know they always need big men, so that's why I'm gonna work as hard as possible, get better and display my skill set. Show them I'm gonna work hard and try to get on that team."

Leonard has had numerous accolades recently, and his future is extremely bright. But his life has not always gone that smoothly. He praised his mother at the Robinson pep rally following the championship run, with good reason.

"My dad passed away when I was six. It was just her, me and my brother. My brother is now in Afghanistan in the Marines. He left around Christmas time. With my brother leaving, I think my relationship with my mother got even stronger.

"This last season has been the only season she came to all my games in high school. She used to come to everything, but she has real bad back problems. She knew with me leaving, it was gonna be her last opportunity.

"Baskeball helped take her mind off my brother because his leaving was pretty hard on her. Getting the state championship was really good for her. Our relationship is really good.

"Being around her has been good. I know when I leave for college it's gonna be different. I think these times right now are really special between me and her."

Leonard's career will likely take him far. The sky is the limit for him. The Illini Nation will get a first hand view of his continued maturation as a basketball player and person. Hopefully his mother can be there to watch him as well.

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