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."