As summer ends, Leonard looks to the future
Getting a lot of press early is something that J.L. Mann (Greenville, S.C.) rising junior Damien Leonard is used to, but he still realizes that he has a ways to go before he gets to the next level.
That's one thing that keeps the 6-foot-4 shooting guard humble and open to any coach that's willing to talk to him.
"No favorites. No lists," he said succinctly of his recruiting at this stage.
However, several of the nation's top basketball programs are already after the premier Palmetto State wing prospect.
"South Carolina, Clemson, Memphis, Kansas, Miami, Virginia Tech, Florida, Villanova, Kentucky and Wake Forest" are the schools he rattled off that have offered and showed a lot of interest.
The home state Gamecocks are in hot pursuit, led by the recruiting efforts of coaches Darrin Horn and Mike Boynton Jr. According to Willis Holliday, Leonard's AAU coach and mentor, South Carolina has done a good job of recruiting the junior phenom and is in the thick of the race for his services at this early stage.
"South Carolina is in a good position. They were at just about every game (this summer), and that was impressive. It depends on which in-state school he wants, and it depends on what conference he wants to go to," Holliday told GamecockAnthem.com. "If he goes to the ACC, then it's Clemson. If it's the SEC, South Carolina is in the top 2 as well.
"If he goes to the SEC, then South Carolina is definitely in the hunt. They'll have to battle with Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky. We'll have to see how the SEC does with the new TV deal. It's SEC vs. ACC."
Holliday expounded on the job that USC's coaches have done in pursuing Leonard, noting that Boynton, a former player at South Carolina who relates to kids well, has made a very positive impression on him and his star pupil.
"You can't ask for a better guy to be on your staff than (Mike) Boynton. He's a plus. He's absolutely fair and honest," Holliday stated. "I was very impressed about the South Carolina staff going to all of Damien's games because Damien went a lot of places this summer. It was good to see a lot of familiar faces there when you looked up."
Even with all of the early attention he's receiving on the recruiting front, Leonard's not complacent, as he had a busy summer that he used to help fine-tune his game.
"This whole summer has been frustrating in some tournaments, and I knew I had to fight through it," Leonard said. "The later the summer got, the more competition I got. Especially at the Adidas Nations, that was the most competition I faced."
What was so frustrating? "Getting tired and all that," he explained.
Leonard had to learn to fight through the exhaustion and the trials and tribulation of the road. According to him, with all the events he was constantly competing in over the summer, he only had four or five days of rest at the most during the summer.
The hard work is paying off for him, though.
"I'm definitely getting better," he said. "(I learned) to handle pressure in close games."
Hard work and clutch play are two traits he hopes to take into his junior campaign, as Mann fell in the Class AAA state semifinals last year. Looking ahead to the upcoming year, the silky smooth perimeter player listed off several of his personal goals.
"Really, making all-state and all-region and player of the year and winning the state championship," Leonard said.
Another aspect Leonard says he's improved in since last year is his leadership ability, which he believes will lead to better communication on his team.
"I learned to be a better leader (this summer)," he said, "I'm communicating with my players more, letting them know what we're trying to reach and letting them know that we're trying to get to the same goal."
Leonard, who said Mann will return four starters from last year's state semifinal team, also took some things in stride for himself during his busy summer.
"(I learned) how much it takes to get to the next level. I think as long as I keep on track, I'll be able to do what I want to do."
Leonard noted his favorite events for the summer were the AAU Nationals in Orlando and Vegas the prior week with the Florida Rams.
Though he has no idea what school or even which conference he wants to play in, Leonard knows that the up-and-down style of the Rams is ideal for him in college. Running down the court and letting a guard find him to bury a 3-pointer from deep seemed to be where Scout's No. 22 player overall in the 2011 class thrived over the summer.
As for the next step in his recruitment, Leonard plans to take some unofficial visits to schools over the year.
"I want to get out to see more schools and really go to some of the college games to see what I like and see how they play," he said. "It makes recruiting easier."
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