Leslie Has To Lead

C.J. Leslie did just about everything right last week during his brief meeting with the media.

C.J. Leslie did just about everything right last week during his brief meeting with the media.

He spoke candidly about his decision to return for his sophomore season under new NC State head coach Mark Gottfried, the need for him to develop into a better all-around basketball player and the importance of becoming a leader in just his second year with the Wolfpack.

He smiled, appeared more comfortable than he has in months and finally looked and sounded like a division one college basketball player should.

Essentially, Leslie won the press conference, much like he did May 4, 2010 at Sammy's Tap & Grill when he signed his national letter of intent to come to NC State. On that day, Leslie talked about what Wolfpack fans could expect out of him and his freshmen running mates, Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown -- effort, wins and a renewed sense of passion for a program looking to rebuild a storied tradition.

"The only thing I can really say and commit myself to is coming out, playing hard and leaving it all on the floor," he said after being greeted by 400 fans on that warm May day just a few hundred yards from NC State's campus.

Anyone watching NC State basketball last season would be hard pressed to say, at least honestly, that those things happened. Leslie, Harrow and Brown had their moments, but the pre-season expectations, including being picked fourth in the ACC, ended up being exceptionally high. The team fell flat more often than not, missed the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year and Sidney Lowe paid the price with his job.

Looking back at his roller-coaster freshmen campaign, even Leslie admitted that things could have gone much better.

"Last year wasn't a bad season, but it could have been a lot better," he said. "We had ups and downs, it wasn't very consistent."

Leslie may very well have been the poster child for NC State's inconsistency during his freshman campaign. Following impressive performances against Syracuse and Youngstown State (a double-double against the Orange and season-high 19 rebounds against the Penguins) in mid-December, Leslie closed out the month with a 1 for 14 effort against Arizona in a game the Wolfpack could have won in Raleigh.

He scored in double figures in back-to-back games against UNC and Virginia Tech midway through the ACC schedule before being suspended for NC State's 76-52 loss to Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Perhaps that was the turning point for Leslie, who finished out 2010-2011 with five double figure scoring nights in NC State's eight games, including four straight games following his one-game suspension for a violation of team rules.

Heading into his second and potentially last season in Raleigh, Leslie won't have the luxury of making "freshman mistakes" anymore. For the Wolfpack to have any chance at improvement in Gottfried's first season, Leslie has to become the impact player everyone thought he was, and he has to do it fast.

In the end, Leslie bought what Gottfried was selling and thought better of entering his name in the NBA Draft. That discussion was one Leslie said he never had with NC State's new head man.

"The coach that we got obviously made a lot of impact in my decision," he said. "He told me about his offense and how he's going to run the system this year, everything sounds good. We never talked about the NBA Draft. We talked about what he can do for me if I came back for another year."

There is little doubt that Leslie has all the skills and athleticism necessary to be an impact player in the ACC. His crowd-pleasing explosiveness and ability to change games was on display several times in 2010-2011.

But it's all the other things -- effort, defensive awareness, a better understanding of good shots -- that Leslie will need to master in order to reach his exceptional potential. It's those things that will not only help Leslie improve individually but help the Wolfpack do they only thing that truly matters -- win basketball games. Wednesday's comments may have been the first sign that he plans on doing just that.

"I would say I have to step up and become a better leader," Leslie said. "We kind of have a young team too so it would be in my best interest to step up and be a leader."

In the grand scheme of things, it looks like Leslie's decision to return to NC State was easy. The long hours and sweat it will take to make him a game-changer for the Wolfpack will be the hard part.

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