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Team USA experience inflates Meyers Leonard’s confidence, ‘maturity’

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.”

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