Meyers Leonard: 'I'll be an Illini forever'

CHAMPAIGN — As he strolled alongside the fairways of Augusta National Golf Club last weekend, Meyers Leonard had a sort of realization.

His young life is coming full circle.

His father was a golf pro in Robinson. Jim Leonard passed away when Meyers was 6. His grandfather was an accomplished golfer, too.

"Going to the Masters was a special experience," said Leonard, who made the impromptu trip to Georgia with his girlfriend. "I actually talked to my mom about it. I could kind of tell she was starting to tear up. She said one of his (father's) ultimate goals was to take me and my brother to the Masters."

And Leonard's pursuit of his ultimate goal — to play in the NBA — was based on family, as well.

Leonard said he chose to enter the NBA draft after this, his sophomore year, so he can take care of his own. That includes his mom, Tracie, who suffers from chronic back pain.

The 7-foot-1 center has chosen an agent — Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports Management. He will forgo his final two seasons of eligibility at Illinois.

"I'll be an Illini forever," Leonard said. "It's like everyone says: 'Illini Nation is everywhere.' "

Leonard played a minor role as a freshman, averaging 8.2 minutes. But he averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 31.2 minutes and led the Big Ten in blocked shots as a sophomore.

He figures to make an even bigger leap when he's surrounded by the kind of NBA personnel whose sole job is to make certain his career is heading in the right direction. If a franchise is going to invest millions in the 20-year-old, it will surround him with the right trainers, nutritionists and coaches to get the most out of his potential.

Leonard has continued to go through individual workouts at Ubben Basketball Complex, mainly with first-year Illinois assistant Jamall Walker. In the week or so since John Groce's staff has been on campus,

Leonard has bonded with the new coaching staff. He's been in their offices often and spends mornings and afternoons working out at Ubben.

"He's going to do a great job here, there's no doubt in my mind," Leonard said of Groce.

"He's a part of the family," Groce said.

Leonard first thanked Bruce Weber and the former Illini staff for their impact on his career. Leonard said he received feedback from Weber and assistant Jerrance Howard, in particular, prior to making the decision to leave early. Weber was fired March 9, but Leonard's decision to enter the draft had been made long before that.

"I wouldn't say the coaching change had a big impact on my leaving," Leonard said.

Leonard will continue to work out at the Illini practice facility as he prepares for the June 28 draft. NBA personnel have said he projects as a first-round pick. He would be the first Illini to go in the first round since 2005 (Deron Williams, Luther Head).

"I want to try to prove myself and make myself a lottery pick," Leonard said.

He plans on finishing the spring semester at Illinois. If he leaves in good academic standing, the men's basketball program's APR score will suffer only a slight hit. And Leonard is in good academic standing. He was on pace to finish his coursework in three years if he had stayed at Illinois.

When the spring semester is over, Leonard plans to move to Long Island, N.Y., to prepare for the draft. He said he likely would work out for six to eight teams prior to draft day.

"I'm jumping into a man's world at the early age of 20. I think I'll be able to transition well," Leonard said. "I have the right people around me. There's no doubt about that, with my agent, the Silers (family friends in Robinson), my family and my close friends. It will be tough at times. But I think I'll be all right and I'll have a successful future."

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tunacommander wrote on April 11, 2012 at 10:04 am

The kid is an unpolished latter day version of Uwe Blab. He'll get his millions, then wash out in 2-3 years and play a couple more in Europe. Complete buffoon.

JDG613 wrote on April 11, 2012 at 11:04 am

I agree with your last sentence....but only if you were referring to yourself.

IlliniFanChi wrote on April 11, 2012 at 11:04 am

I don't see how anyone can fault Leonard for going pro. Anybody would jump at a sure chance to make millions, and Leonard is trying to take care of his family. Though the Illini did not win as many games in Leonard's two years as I would have like, I hope Leonard has great success in the NBA. (And if he washes out, I hope he makes enough money on his first contract so his family is set for life.)

jfrisina wrote on April 11, 2012 at 11:04 am

He's not as good as he thinks he is, but he has a lot of athletic ability

and he will eventually make it in pro ball.  He needed another year or

two at Illinois to develop in the post.  He needs to work on keeping

the ball up high when he receives it.   For a kid that says he has 27 moves

I never saw any that really worked well.

houstonillini84 wrote on April 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Great now we can dis on Leonard too. The lack of class shown by some of our fans is astounding. The guy improved greatly this year, and while he still needs improvement, why not improve when you are also getting paid millions.

It is just amazing to see fans turn on people. The last couple days it was Jerrance, now folks can hate on Leonard because he didnt do what some people wanted. Pathetic.

ptevonian wrote on April 11, 2012 at 4:04 pm

I'm always puzzled by comments like, "He needs to stay at Illinois and work on his game" or "he needs to stay so he can improve".  If that means, "improve so he can be a Top 5 pick" then I get it, because there's a lot more money for the #5 pick than for the #15 pick.  But if the goal is to actually get better as a player, how would he possibly improve more in college, with classwork and limits on his practice time, than as a professional who can work on his game and strength all day, every day, with a whole team of professionals helping?


Meyers isn't leaving because he thinks he's as good as he'll ever be, or because he he thinks he's ready to start for an NBA team.  He's leaving because his family really needs help, and he can help them.  It's not a strategic decision, it's a pressing need.