CHAMPAIGN — We can all agree that the UI's Meyers Leonard is a mix of extraordinary talent and occasions of on-court immaturity.
But to an NBA team in Phoenix or New Orleans, he is potential unlimited. It doesn't matter if he gets outscored 17-5 by opposing centers, or if he takes a pillow and falls asleep on the free throw line. People smarter than me, in producing mock NBA drafts via pro scouts, have concluded that he is the nation's best center prospect (Kentucky's Anthony Davis is called a forward) and a highly valuable NBA commodity.
This isn't a question of whether he is sufficiently mature or emotionally ready for the real world. If he elects to turn pro, Leonard is worth millions ... right now ... or, in this case, 4 1/2 months from now (the NBA draft is June 28).
An Internet check of four mock drafts projects him at Nos. 10, 11, 14 and 16, this after he entered last summer as a virtual unknown. Repeat after me: "This isn't about what he is today." It's about what he can be. Look up "unlimited" in the dictionary and the attached picture is Leonard.
Feeling a draft
If the sophomore leaves and is drafted as high as No. 10, he would be guaranteed $2.3 million the first year and more than $7 million over the first three. If he goes No. 16, it would be $1.7 million. Barring injury, a consideration when you think of giants like Yao Ming and Greg Oden, he will make more money in the next 15 years than almost any upcoming UI graduate.
Weigh this against a happy-go-lucky youth who told ESPN's Dana O'Neil recently: "I want to be a kid as long as I can be. But there's a lot on my shoulders. My mom is in a lot of pain. My brother is overseas. All of these people, these fans, they want us to be good. People ask me if I'm going to the NBA. There's just a lot of stuff right now."
Consider what you'd do under the circumstances, if you were suddenly in position to help a mother who has been unable to work because of back pain stemming from a horseback injury. Yes, you might make more money by sticking around (the No. 1 draftee gets more than $16 million for three years), but imagine the temptation to help mom now. It's multiple millions in either case.
There is, of course, counter-pressure for him to stay. He is the UI's franchise player. At this stage, the Illini team can barely operate when he's not on the court (and sometimes when he is). He might have blocked Penn State's winning floater if he hadn't fouled out. He might have made a difference at Indiana and Michigan if personals hadn't reduced his time.
Illinois could emerge as a first-division club next season if he stayed and Ohio State sophomore Jared Sullinger departs along with seniors William Buford, Jordan Taylor, Robbie Hummel, John Shurna and Matt Gatens, among others.
No, Leonard isn't ready to step in tomorrow and make an impact at the NBA level. But if Las Vegas set odds on this event, it would be a major upset — even greater than defensive end Simeon Rice's decision to play here as a senior — if Leonard stays. On one hand, it's too early for him to go. On the other, it would be a bad business decision if he doesn't.
To the 4
Bruce Weber is snake-bit at the UI's power forward position.
In recent years he had Mike Davis who once led the Big Ten in rebounding and last year bypassed Demetri McCamey for Illini MVP honors.
The plan was to use Jereme Richmond at the 4, where his passing and shot-making skills would make him a productive point-forward.
But Richmond's career was sidetracked by disastrous personal decisions (he is presently on a court-imposed probation) after a bumpy freshman season.
So Weber turned in October to junior Tyler Griffey and, after 25 games of stops and starts, may be back where he started. Griffey basically played himself out of the rotation before flying off the bench with 18 points in an otherwise shaky performance (on defense) Sunday at Michigan. Griffey started the first 14 games this season but saw five minutes or less in six of the last 10, and didn't even get off the bench in two of them.
Along the way we learned that Nnanna Egwu and Mike Shaw were too inexperienced for the position. Redshirt sophomore Joe Bertrand ignited in the Missouri game, kicking off a string of 13 consecutive made field goals, a streak that was approached again with 11-for-12 shooting against Nebraska. But throughout his 11 straight starts, opposing defenses have begun to figure out Bertrand. His slump caused Weber to spend extensive practice time preparing freshman Myke Henry at the 4, only to discover in game situations that Henry is still too green to take advantage of his opportunities.
It's been a merry-go-round, like a tiger chasing its tail. And it all began with the erratic behavior of Richmond, the most highly touted recruit Weber has brought to campus ... and the biggest bust.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.