More than a month before he was scheduled to step on the jet for Latvia, Meyers Leonard was second-guessing himself. The world was about to become even bigger for the 7-footer from the 7,000-person town of Robinson, Ill., and whether it was the thought of not talking to his widowed mother for two weeks or the thought of playing against the world’s best, Leonard told Illinois coach Bruce Weber he wasn’t quite ready for the U19 FIBA World Championships.
“That’s when I realized, it kind of clicked to me that I have to be good in order for us to be good next year,” Leonard said.
Leonard, an Illini sophomore, didn’t set the Worlds on fire, averaging 6.9 points and 5.2 rebounds. Neither did the Americans, taking fifth place after losing consecutive games to Croatia and Russia. But individually Leonard made the small leap many were hoping for during the final three games when he averaged 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.
“It was a big confidence boost, I have to be very honest,” said Leonard, who averaged 2.1 points as a freshman. “That was nice. To know that I’m up there, I just got to be relaxed but also be aggressive and just try to use my talents to the fullest.”
Leonard was put to the test against some of Europe’s best big men.
“Overseas, everyone has this misconception that they’re really soft,” Leonard said. “That’s not true at all. It’s almost like the Big Ten. It’s a battle every game.”
Jonas Valanciunas, the fifth overall selection in June’s NBA Draft and the tournament MVP, provided the biggest test.
“I would say we’re pretty even as far as strength goes,” Leonard said. “It was nice to play against him, see his talents and recognize that hopefully I have the same ability, do what he’s doing, get drafted. But most importantly, bring that physicality back here and make a name on this university.”
Leonard, a consensus top-30 recruit, came to Champaign with plenty of fanfare but played a limited role last season, partly a product of slower-than-predicted progress as he sat behind senior Mike Tisdale. Leonard had more fouls (50) than rebounds (41) in his 272 minutes on the floor. But with four starters, including Tisdale, to replace, Illinois needs Leonard – predicted by some experts as a potential first-round draft pick next year – to take a leap as high as his freakish vertical.
Part of that is physical: improving his offensive skillset around the basket and limiting his fouls. The other part is mental. Leonard calls it “maturity,” though he had a difficult time explaining it.
“On the court, off the court, everything,” said Leonard, who said he increased his strength and conditioning workouts during the summer. “Sleep, eating, not staying up late, extra workouts and just being focused when I’m in the gym. Stuff on the court now, it’s all about business. Last year sometimes, I’d be frustrated or I’d be tired or I wouldn’t know what my position on the team was. Now, I feel like I have a lot more confidence. Hopefully it’ll really show this year.”
When he met the media Wednesday, two days after arriving stateside, Leonard threw on his serious face – random seen from the fun-loving, small-town kid who has been on a wild ride since committing to Illinois in July 2008 During his media session, he passed up an opportunity to talk about European women and didn’t blame Team USA’s loss on the absence of some of the top sophomores in the country, including Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes.
Besides some talk of the less-than-pleasing Latvian cuisine, it was all about basketball for Leonard. Unlike his trip to eastern Europe, the 7-footer said he’s prepared to take the spotlight as a sophomore.
But he knows that’s just talk for now.
“Obviously, people here (in Champaign-Urbana) are very into basketball. There’s no doubt about it,” Leonard said. “They want to see it. They haven’t been able to yet. Maybe if someone would’ve watched me those last three games, they would realize that they think I’ve come a long way.”
Despite a lasting love and appreciation for his alma mater, Kiwane Garris has a small beef with Illinois.
The No. 2 all-time leading scorer in Illini basketball history still can’t believe his jersey is not among the 30 hanging from the Assembly Hall rafters.
“They felt that those were the best ones,” Garris said Tuesday on The Tay and J Show on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM. “I’m going to be truthful, I don’t agree because some of the things I’d done there. Sometimes you feel like when them jerseys are lifted and those names are called, and when you hear, ‘Kiwane Garris is like one of the best players in Illinois history’ and you don’t have his jersey up, it’s almost like a smack in the face. My wife, I think she wanted to kill whoever was on the committee. I told her, ‘Sometimes this happens.’”
Listen to the full interview here.
The 30 players who received banners met one of at least six criteria: national player of the year, member of the National Basketball Hall of Fame, U.S. Olympian, Big Ten Player of the Year, first- or second-team All-American or Illinois All-Century Team member.
Kind of a mixed bag of criteria, no?
Well, call the National Basketball Hall of Fame credential the Jerry Colangelo rule and the U.S. Olympian benchmark as the Deron Williams clause. The All-Century team status allowed Illini greats like Deon Thomas, Kenny Battle, Eddie Johnson and Nick Weatherspoon to raise banners.
But Garris met none of the criterion, despite scoring 1,948 points at Illinois and ranking fifth in the UI record books for assists (502). As a senior, he also received honorable mention All-America and first-team All-Big Ten honors. Playing in an unremarkable era of Illinois basketball – the Illini won just one NCAA Tournament game during Garris’ tenure from 1993 to 1997 – probably didn’t help his case.
Some basketball programs aren’t as inclusive as Illinois when hanging jerseys in the rafters. But each time Garris – who still travels to Champaign for a few games each year and may play in the Aug. 6 alumni game at the Assembly Hall – looks through the rafters, he doesn’t quite understand why his name and jersey are not waving among the other Illini greats.
“I’m still waiting,” said Garris, who has played in Italy for nine years. “I’ll be around until they decide on putting that jersey up, putting that 22 up there with my name on it.”
Garris also hit on other topics during his interview:
On the hardest part of playing in Europe…
“Being alone. You’re over there by yourself most of the time. They give you four free plane tickets for family and friends but most of the time that isn’t enough because you usually want at least two or three people to visit for at least two to three weeks. I think the most part is trying to adjust to the coach or trying to adjust to the language and just being there by yourself. But if you love basketball, then most of that stuff with the love of the game, it overcomes all that difficulty going over there.”
On Lou Henson’s retirement and playing for Lon Kruger …
“I think the transition, it was hard because Coach (Henson) was there for my first three years. Just being under a legendary coach like that, it was an honor. The transition was kind of crazy because the team, we weren’t really expecting that to be his final year. When we found out who the coach was (Kruger), we really didn’t know what to expect. But Coach Kruger came in and did a great job with the team. For coaches, it’s hard coming in and coaching someone else’s team. He came in with a good approach. All of us guys bought into it and played it good.
“It was tough one because it was a whole thing about Coach (Jimmy) Collins not getting the job and everybody was kind of disappointed about that because he’d been around so long and he’d done a great recruiting job. He’s the one that brought me in, so that was kind of painful too at the same time that transition going.”
On the current state of the Illini program…
“Trying to get guys in there to fit the Fighting Illini name. It’s hard recruiting these days because there’s so much stuff going on. You feel like you have a good group of guys and it’s always probably one bad apple out of the bench that probably messes the chemistry up. …Looking at them, I know they can win. It’s all about going in there and playing 100 percent with these guys.”