Leonard Transforms Problem Into Asset

The heralded Fighting Illini freshmen basketball class has reported to campus, and two of them are taking summer classes and working out with the rest of the team. While Jereme Richmond represents with the USA basketball team, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head work to regain their health. Leonard is nearly back to full strength.

Meyers Leonard hoped to participate in the USA 18 and Under basketball trials along with his teammate Jereme Richmond, but a stress fracture in his foot prevented that. He was frustrated by the turn of events but has alternative goals.

"Yeah, it definitely was. I heard the competition was pretty good out there, but I also heard I would have had a pretty good chance if I was out there. So it is pretty frustrating.

"But it is more important for me to play in Madison Square Garden for the University than go play for the USA. I would have liked to, but I'm more focused on my freshman year right now."

Leonard walks without a limp, but stress fractures require time to heal. He is adjusting to the situation.

"I didn't really have any pain when I was walking. It was when I worked out with the USA team that I discovered I had a stress fracture. But right now it's not hurting when I walk, it's just precautionary stuff.

"With big men and their feet, obviously I've got a lot more weight than a little guard would. They're being pretty cautious about it. I'm fine with that because I'm just trying to get back. It's been good that I've been able to focus on my upper body these past two months. So it's been good in some ways."

While he can't run or do strenuous leg lifting, he continues to work hard on his upper body. Long before he arrived on campus, Leonard was a dedicated weight lifter. His athletic body is showing the benefits of that work.

"I can lift right now, so obviously I'm trying to gain strength and put some weight on. I'm also trying to get healed. I'm seeing the doctor next week. I'm doing all right. I'm hoping to get cleared in the next week or two.

"I can do some lower body stuff, but it's pretty limited right now. I'm doing some form shooting, things like that. My freshman year is more important than anything else.

"My weight is going up. I'm around 237-238 right now. It's helping me in some ways, but with conditioning I probably lose five. So I'm about 230, which is not bad."

Leonard has also benefitted from the expertise provided by Illinois. A nutritionist is helping him put on quality weight while maintaining a healthy diet.

"I'm trying to get calories in, keep my weight steady. Eat healthy food so I can stay healthy while I can't do other things. I don't want to run my body into the ground."

While Leonard made frequent trips to campus while attending Robinson High School, he still had to make an adjustment to living away from home and taking college course work.

"Everything is going pretty good so far. It's always a new feeling moving to a different place, without my friends and my mom. Getting up for class by myself, getting into workouts and everything like that, it's been a smooth transition so far."

Making it a little easier was the experience provided by playing AAU basketball all over the country.

"It's not been too bad a transition. With the AAU season, I'd been gone for some weeks. I can still talk to my mom and everything."

Leonard is taking two summer classes to get acclimated to university academics and get a head start on the hours he will eventually need to graduate.

"Right now I'm taking Animal Science and Biotechnology, and Human Development."

It is too early to make predictions, but the U of I has long sought a 7'-0" athlete with the athleticism and body build Leonard possesses. If he can translate that to the court this winter, the Illini will benefit greatly.

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