CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Meyers Leonard feels the weight.
“I know I have to be good,” the 7-1 sophomore said. “Everyone knows I have to be good for us to be in contention for. . . whatever.”
This is a tall order, so to speak, for a young man who managed averages of 2.1 points and 1.2 rebounds in 8.2 minutes last season. He’ll face his first test when Illinois opens its season Friday night against Loyola (8 p.m, BTN.com).
On the other hand, Leonard comes equipped with a full Âtoolbox.
“He’s as talented, as physically gifted, as anybody in the country,” coach Bruce Weber said, “in the things he does as a 7-foot-1 guy–the way he runs, his footwork, his skills, his jumping ability.”
The fine print?
“He has to continue to mature,” Weber said. “Develop the toughness, the physicality.”
Another positive is that Leonard – a consensus top-50 pick from tiny Robinson, Ill., about two hours southeast of Champaign – has been trying to lose the sour taste of a frustrating freshman season.
“He was so humbled, he was lower than a snake belly,” said Weber, who had to convince Leonard to try out for the Team USA Under-19 team. “He said, ‘I’m not going. I’m not gonna make it.’ I said, ‘I’m on the committee. You have a good chance of making it.’ ”
Leonard made it, and averaged a confidence-restoring 6.9 points and 5.2 rebounds on a team that finished fifth at the World Championships in Latvia.
After saying Leonard backslid a bit on Illinois’ August trip to Italy, Weber expressed confidence his most important player is starting to get it.
“He realizes he has to grow up. That’s the biggest step,” the coach said. “He’s gone from everyone telling him he’s going to be a pro right away to saying, ‘I haven’t done a thing as a college player.’ He has to come every day and be productive.”
For Illinois, which must replace four productive seniors (Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole) plus troubled McDonald’s All-America Jereme Richmond, to be successful, Weber wants Leonard to deliver 10 points and 10 rebounds a game.
“He has to be a 10-10 guy,” the coach said. “If he can do that, he’s going to have a great year. And I think we’ll be very competitive.”
Leonard is one of Illinois’ many question marks. Junior guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul need to mature on the perimeter. Like Leonard, junior forward Tyler Griffey needs to go from nonentity to a starting role. Senior point guard Sam Maniscalco, a Bradley transfer, needs to overcome a problem ankle. And a bunch of young players need to find a way to contribute.
The good news is, the wrangling with Richmond and the motivational sparring with McCamey are gone. And this new group, which is talented, is saying the right things about rolling up its sleeves.
“We’ll do two things – we’ll play hard and we’ll listen to Coach,” Leonard said. “We’re young and we have a lot of new guys. But I think our chemistry and our ability to play hard and play together is going to be a big factor. I think we’ll surprise some people.”