Leonard looks back before taking off for NBA
ROBINSON — Swinging by Robinson on Thursday night?
Stop by the Eagle Theater on Main Street, where they have plans to show the NBA draft on one of the big screens. There's also a draft party at Quail Creek Country Club and several around town at different homes.
It's a big week for Robinson, a town of about 6,000 that will get more than a mention during Thursday's draft on ESPN (6 p.m.). It will get a first-round pick in favorite son Meyers Leonard.
"Every day here in the office everyone has a different take on where Meyers is going to go in the draft," high school Principal Troy Hickey said.
The local radio station recorded an interview with Leonard last week.
"I think it's going to be even more of a big deal when the NBA season really starts and you're going to see Meyers on TV," former boys' basketball coach Bob Coffman said.
Thursday's edition of the Robinson Daily News included a Letter to the Editor from resident Michael Correll. The headline: "After NBA draft, we'll be famous for more than Heath."
"When traveling I used to tell people I was from Robinson and say 'it's where the Heath candy bar was made,' " Correll wrote, "But now I will say 'It's where Meyers Leonard is from.' "
And Meyers Leonard — RHS Class of 2010 — wouldn't have it any other way.
After weeks of predraft workouts and a looming million-dollar contract, the former Illini (and Maroon) hasn't lost sight of his roots.
Two years ago he was in the Robinson gymnasium, lining up with classmates for a graduation rehearsal. Two weeks ago he stood in the Celtics' locker room after the Celtics beat the Heat in Game 4 of a playoff series.
"I looked over and (Rajon) Rondo and Ray Allen were there," Leonard said by phone during a break in predraft workouts. "Then I saw KG and I was like, 'Wow.' "
Even now, Leonard is still more Robinson than Boston.
"It's a big deal for me that people know where I'm from. I really take pride in being a hometown kid, not only to represent Robinson but the whole state of Illinois," he said.
And his hometown surfaced often as Leonard made the rounds on the predraft circuit.
"The first question they normally ask is, 'Tell us about your family and where you grew up,' " Leonard said. "I tell them about where I grew up with my mom and my brother. My dad passed when I was 6. I go on about all of that.
"I tell them a little about the Silers (the family in Robinson that helped raise Leonard), of course. I tell them about Robinson, how it's a small community, a great place to grow up. I wouldn't have wanted to grow up anywhere else. Great people. I was very lucky to grow up there. People took me in as their own son. It's a place I take pride in, really."
Leading into Thursday's draft, Leonard's schedule has been packed full.
He participated in workouts at Portland (first-round picks at Nos. 6 and 11), Boston (21 and 22), New Orleans (1 and 10), Milwaukee (12), Phoenix (13), Houston (14 and 16), Dallas (17), Golden State (7 and 30) and with Toronto (8) in New York.
His final scheduled workout is Monday in Detroit (9). Other teams, including some that don't have a first-round pick but might be looking to trade up, have inquired about scheduling last-minute workouts. He also attended the NBA combine in Chicago, where he interviewed with roughly 15 teams.
"He probably was the star of Chicago," former Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Saturday. "You know how physically gifted he is. That comes out when you work out in that (setting)."
Teams performed exhaustive background checks on Leonard, calling everyone from Weber ("I talk to Bruce pretty much every day," Leonard said) to Coffman, the former boys' coach at Robinson ("They ask me what he was like in high school," Coffman said).
Some of those questions concerned a stigma that has trailed Leonard throughout his career. Several NBA scouts said there was a preconceived notion Leonard is immature and sometimes disinterested in the game.
It's why the interviews were so important in the predraft process — perhaps more so than the actual workouts on the court. Fair or not, he had to disprove any myths. Once the teams met him, that part was easy.
"Every team I've talked to has talked about how good he's been in interviews," Weber said.
"I've had some different NBA teams call me and ask me about him," Coffman said. "I tell them, 'People always say he's had an attitude.' And I say, 'You know what? He was a high school kid. I had 15 (on the team). He's no different than the other high school kids. Meyers is still that fun, excited, enthusiastic kid he was as a (Robinson) senior.'
"One thing that's been great for me is seeing him not letting people change who he is. He's Meyers. I love that about him."
It's no coincidence Leonard's draft stock improved as the interviews continued. Teams got to know the sharp 20-year-old and their doubts diminished.
"So many people say he's not very mature. I see him as being pretty mature," said Robinson's Brian Siler, a father figure for Leonard. "He needed a lot of guidance growing up. From when he was 9-10 years old, he was just all over the place.
"Meyers is just Meyers. He's got a great heart. And he always will. You see that when he's around kids. When you see people around children, you see they gravitate toward him. I think that says a lot about him."
When he formally revealed his intentions to enter the draft after two seasons at Illinois, Leonard said his goal was to become a lottery pick — Nos. 1 through 15.
He'll learn Thursday at the Prudential Center in New Jersey if that happens. Most draft projections — the earlier versions, at least — seemed to have a lesser opinion of Leonard than the NBA teams themselves.
At least to some NBA personnel, his stock hasn't been higher than it is now.
There seem to be several reasons for the apparent ascension. One, he received positive feedback from the interview process. Two, his measurements at the combine didn't hurt his cause. He was the tallest player at the combine (7-foot-1 1/4 in shoes), and scouts saw a frame that should be able to hold weight.
Where he lands is anyone's guess. One scout said he doesn't expect Leonard will drop below Houston at No. 14.
Even so, people close to Leonard are cautious to assume he will go in the lottery. But Leonard almost certainly will become the first player from Illinois to be selected in the first round since 2005 (No. 3 Deron Williams, No. 24 Luther Head).
"I've had two or three teams in the last few days call that don't even have first-round picks. That's what I try to explain with Meyers," Weber said. "A lot of things can fall your way or fall the other way. You've got to keep grinding it out and hope the right team feels good about you. And I think he's done a good job so far of doing what he can do."
The NBA extends a certain number of draft invitations for prospects considered to be lottery candidates. If he earns an invitation to Newark, Leonard said his table would include his mom (Tracie Leonard), brother (Bailey), Siler and Weber.
Leonard said he has favorable memories of his brief career at Illinois. He keeps in touch with some of his former teammates, speaks often with Weber and recently had dinner with former assistant Jerrance Howard and former teammate Crandall Head in Dallas.
"It was a good experience (at Illinois)," Leonard said. "I came in my freshman year pretty highly recruited. I loved the coaching staff and loved the guys on the team. I kind of went through the freshman grind and didn't play as much as I expected to, playing behind two senior bigs, who I respected. I really made a turn after that season.
"I knew I had a chance to be a starter and a leader. This past year, we had our ups and downs, there's no doubt about it. But the thing that remained constant is we had a great group of people. I loved every minute of it with them. Every step in life you learn lessons and become more mature. That was all part of it."
In light of the hectic predraft schedule, Leonard said his real challenge is to be prepared for a rookie season in the NBA.
"Once this is over I know my niche is to come to practice every day and work as hard as I can whenever I get my minutes," Leonard said. "Be a presence in the paint, use my athleticism. Then from there try to become more versatile.
"I think eventually I want to have a goal of being a starter. I think that's a definite possibility. Then maybe seven or eight years down the road become an All-Star. I realize this is going to take a lot of hard work. I'm committed to doing what it takes to make it happen."
Leonard said he has considered his first moves after signing an NBA contract.
"I've already started talking to a few people about my mom's health care," he said.
"I've always told Meyers, too, after this draft you're going to come back to Robinson and you're going to have a time at the high school and sign (autographs) and talk to students," Siler added. "He's got an opportunity to make a difference."
And Thursday's draft promises to put, at least, a small spotlight on his hometown.
"It's just unbelievable that somebody from Robinson is not only going to be in the NBA but be a possible lottery pick," Siler said.
"The young man has had a dream since he was about a sophomore or junior in high school," said Hickey, the principal. "I think that's what I admire most about him. It's not something that just happened. He's done everything he's needed to do to get where he's going to be on Thursday. It's going to be a great moment for the community and the high school and for him."