Should Meyers Leonard Go Pro After This Season?Posted by Deepak Jayanti on February 16th, 2012
Uncertainty looms over Assembly Hall in Champaign nowadays as the Fighting Illini lost another game to Purdue on Wednesday night, their seventh loss out of eight games. Will the Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas get rid of Bruce Weber? Will the Illini make the NCAA tournament? These are legitimate questions on the minds of the Illini faithful but the biggest question is about their star center, Meyers Leonard’s future: will he come back for his junior season in Champaign? Let’s examine a few non-personal factors that might drive the sophomore’s decision regarding the NBA.
Why should he leave for the NBA?
- “You can’t teach 7’1″.” – NBA scouts love to use that cliché. Leonard has all the physical tools to play the center position at the next level. He has shown that he can add muscle over the off-season (added 30 lbs) and certainly has the intensity to hang with the big guys on a nightly basis in the NBA. Averaging eight boards per game isn’t too shabby in the Big Ten, which is known for the physical brand of play. Defensively, he has been a highlight reel during the season as he has swatted balls into the second row of the sidelines, including a game-winning block against Northwestern on the road. Most of the NBA draft boards, such as NBADraft.net have him slated as a potential lottery pick. The scouts will waste no time trying to convince him about going pro after the college season because they might have seen enough for somebody with his physical build. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has reached his ceiling in the college game, or maybe he did under the current coach.
- Bruce Weber will coach Illinois in 2013 – Bruce Weber is not a bad coach because he understands the talented sophomore and his significance to the Illini offense. Even though Leonard could improve on his scoring average from this season of 13.2 points per game, he might have hit the ceiling in Weber’s system. True centers that have the skills to play with the back to their basket don’t shine under Weber’s offensive philosophy. The motion offense under Weber has been designed around guards who can shoot the deep ball. Illinois has been at the bottom of the league for years in terms of free throws per game (only 32.5% in 2012) because most of the offensive plays revolve around screens for the shooters rather than an attacking brand of basketball. During their recent losing skid, Weber tries to commit to the big man over the first few minutes of the game but during the late minutes, most of the shots end up being away from the paint. Historically, centers that prefer to play in the post such as Shaun Pruitt have been frustrated in Weber’s system. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale rarely played with their backs to the basket or in the paint because they relied heavily upon the 15-footer from the baseline coming off the pick-and-roll plays. Leonard’s offensive game is more than a baseline jumper or a post move – he is a monster when he attacks the hoop off the picks but Weber has not and will not be able to utilize him better next season unless he adjusts his system. If Leonard comes back for a third year with an improved game, the skills need to be utilized efficiently by the coach otherwise his draft stock won’t improve after another year in college.
Why should he return to Champaign for another season?
- The draft class this year is stacked with big men – The NBA scouts love words such as length, wingspanm and size. (This sentence doesn’t make too much sense). Athletic centers will get drafted even if a team has no need for size on their depth chart. The draft class in April is stacked with talented young big men. There are at least five center/forwards that will get picked ahead of Leonard – Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Thomas Robinson, Jared Sullinger, and Perry Jones III. High school rankings pre-determine certain lottery picks such as Davis and Drummond. Even though Drummond’s season is not as successful as Davis’ in Kentucky, he is a lock in the lottery because of his pure athleticism. Thomas Robinson and Sullinger have earned their spots in the top 10 and Perry Jones did Baylor a favor by returning for his sophomore season. It is a risky move for Leonard to test the draft waters because he may slip out of the projected lottery pick due to a lack of spotlight at the national level. Other big men who are projected to get drafted around the 10-14 range include John Henson and Tyler Zeller of North Carolina – both of them have a chance to shine in the NCAA tournament and pass Leonard. Because Illinois is on the bubble and may get a 10 seed at best in March, he won’t have a chance to showcase his talents while his peers from the schools mentioned above have a very good shot to go deep in the postseason and lock up their draft status. If Leonard were to come back for his third season, he can stick out in the draft class especially if he leads his team to a Sweet 16 or a Big Ten title.
- Bruce Weber will not be coaching Illinois in 2013 – The 2012 Illini team is a hidden gem. Brandon Paul is an athletic shooting guard who can light up anybody on any given night – let’s remind ourselves of his 43-point game against Ohio State for the millionth time. Leonard would join an experienced team with three seniors and all returning starters. The Illinois Athletic Director, needs to carefully select a coach that can utilize the existing talent. All it might take is a coach who runs a simple offense via the post and relies on the athleticism of his players rather than their shooting abilities. The pieces are in place and they mesh well together, but for some reason Weber hasn’t been able to capitalize on the talent. Another experienced coach can easily turn this team into a contender next season.
- Improve his draft stock – Let’s not forget the obvious reason why he ought to come back for another season – he still has plenty of room for improvement. Despite averaging 2.1 blocks per game, he struggles to avoid simple fouls against better competition. Against Michigan in Ann Arbor, he picked up two quick fouls in the first half which resulted in only 27 minutes for the game and five points. Draymond Green and Adreian Payne of Michigan State got him in early foul trouble in Champaign so he was only on the court for 24 minutes. When he stays on the floor he is effective, but he can’t avoid early foul trouble, which leads to inconsistency in his production. Physical contact in the paint is not an issue for him, but that does not mean he has an efficient post move. Developing a simple hook shot will pay huge dividends which can shoot him up the draft boards. If his work ethic between freshman and sophomore seasons is any indication, another off-season of training will tremendously improve his game if he were to come back for another year.
Jay Bilas trademarked the word “upside” to describe players like Meyers Leonard. But upside is the correct word to describe him because he is just scratching the surface of his talent. Illini nation will revere the young man if he came back and took them back to a Big Ten title, something they have missed for the past six seasons.