The Illini basketball season has been over for about three months, and apparently in that time Meyers Leonard has matured.
The thing to do for Illini players is fix any issues they may have had while in college in the short time between school and the NBA draft. Demetri McCamey lost about 10 pounds after he finished school, and though it didn’t help him get drafted, losing that weight maybe could’ve helped him while in school. Don’t these guys realize that what they do while at Illinois demonstrates to the NBA scouts what they will be able to do after making the leap?
Soon after Bruce Weber was fired, Leonard announced that he would forgo his junior and senior years at Illinois and submit his name to the draft. The decision was in the air throughout the whole season, and many – including me – thought that he could use at least one more year in college.
Leonard made a dramatic improvement between his freshman and sophomore years for sure, but he could’ve taken things just a tad bit further. When he was on he was unstoppable. Against Coppin State he had 18 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks, and then in the next game against UNLV he had just 7 points, 6 rebounds and 0 blocks. After that, he headed to St. Louis and managed 19 points, a season-high 16 rebounds and 3 blocks against a very talented Missouri. In the end, the main issue was always that he needed to grow up. Case in point: Nebraska.
The Breathe Carolina song “I Won’t Black Out” will be lodged in my brain for a good few hours if I hear just a snippet. I used to like that song, but now I can’t hear it without thinking of Illinois being squashed by Nebraska in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers were at the bottom of the barrel on Feb. 18 and Illinois needed a road win to convince themselves – and everyone else – that they weren’t down for the count. Well that didn’t happen.
Down by more than 30 points in the 80-57 loss, it was a massacre. As we cut to commercial, the Breathe Carolina song played over images of mainly the Cornhuskers making impressive shots and dunks while Illinois looked defeated. It was the sporty version adaption, with the lyrics saying “I won’t back down,” and I hoped that the Illini would follow the words. But nope.
So now every time I hear that song I think of Leonard sitting on the bench crying. There was still plenty of time left on the clock, but when he came out of the game it was pretty much over, and he knew it. He collapsed into tears on the bench as Myke Henry awkwardly patted him on the back utterly confused as to what he should be doing.
Leonard was basically the face of the program last year, in addition to Brandon Paul, and that face was covered in tears. What’s even more frustrating, aside from the fact that the game wasn’t over and it was on live TV, was that things were far from over for Leonard. He had to know that he would be going to the NBA at some point, so in the grand scheme of things this game didn’t really matter to him.
I was tempted to post a video of Leonard’s tears, but this post isn’t about making fun of him. I was a swimmer in college and I can’t say that I never shed a tear after a crappy race, but I wasn’t on live TV, and I was at the bottom of the list at a Division III school. I didn’t have the same responsibility as Leonard. I love the passion he showed, just not the way he expressed it in that moment.
Okay, so the NBA Draft is just a few weeks away on June 28. Right now, Leonard is projected to be picked between 15-20th. I want nothing more than for him to find success and have a great career, because let’s face it that is great for Illinois. Kids are going to fall in love with Leonard and want to be an Illini; everyone wins. But, I can’t help but wonder what could’ve been had he stayed just one more year and grown and matured a little more. I can understand wanting to jump ship with the coaching change, but who knows how high his stock could’ve risen, and how much more he could’ve really grown. And of course where he could’ve taken the Illini.
He says he’s more mature now, but I just don’t get what would’ve happen in the last few months to actually make that happen. I suppose only time will tell, and I’ve got my fingers crossed for the guy.