Klee: 'Welcome to the NBA' coming soon for Leonard

Klee: 'Welcome to the NBA' coming soon for Leonard

Roughly an hour before Meyers Leonard attended a benefit golf outing Thursday in Peoria, the former Illini was asked if he would actually play in the event — or simply appear.

"Oh, I'm playing," Leonard said by phone before teeing off to raise money for the Boys & Girls Club. "You better believe I'm playing. I'm definitely getting out there."

Don't worry about Leonard forgoing his youthful, fun-loving personality in light of his newfound NBA celebrity and million-dollar contract.

The 20-year-old is the same guy who danced the robot during pregame warmups and wears a floppy-eared trapper hat to the gym.

Illini guard D.J. Richardson once called it, "Meyers being Meyers."

The Portland Trail Blazers, who selected Leonard with the 11th overall pick in the NBA draft, got an early glance at his free spirit during a summer workout. After finishing a dunk, Leonard did his best Jordyn Wieber and performed a cartwheel on the court.

It's rare that a 7-foot man is capable of completing a cartwheel. It's more rare a 7-foot man would think to try one.

From a personality standpoint, the city of Portland would seem to be a proper fit for Leonard. It's a city blessed with free spirits and a fan base that embraces its Blazers. There's also a popular MLS franchise. But the Blazers are the show.

"I haven't really been able to see much of Portland yet. But from what I know and somewhat seen, it's a great place to live," Leonard said. "It's a little bit more my style, to be honest with you. It's a little more outdoorsy than maybe other places. I like that.

"I grew up with that. Not too big, nice people, great fans. Everyone kind of takes you in and makes you feel like you're at home."

Those close to Leonard were hopeful he would land with a team with big-man veterans who can guide him along a professional path.

All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge already has reached out to Leonard, informing the rookie when he should arrive in Portland for workouts. Leonard said he will return to Portland in early September.

"He (Aldridge) came to one of our summer league games in July, too," Leonard said.

The Blazers have a new coach, as well. Terry Stotts, who spent the past four seasons as the lead assistant with the Mavericks, was hired earlier this month.

"We met when I was in Vegas for a camp, got to know each other a little bit. He was actually one of the coaches at the camp," Leonard said. "He just talked about general stuff and got to know me better. One of his main things for me is to become a really, really good defender. That's one thing he's going to look for from me."

The Blazers certainly did their homework on Leonard, calling everyone from a former high school coach to family friends. There were two conversations — on draft day — with a former athletic trainer, to make certain his 250-pound frame has no hidden secrets.

Leonard averaged 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds with Portland's summer league outfit.

"Everything was pretty much as I expected, except it was a little more physical than I thought it would be," Leonard said. "For whatever reason, people don't think NBA guys play hard. But that couldn't be more untrue. It was a war every single day I was playing."

Leonard departed Friday for the NBA rookie transition program in New York. He will return to the UI campus for a few days next week. With a break between summer league and the start of training camp, Leonard also returned home to Robinson for a visit.

"It was good. It's always been the same," Leonard said. "It's just like when I decided to go to U of I. People always welcome me back. Obviously they were pretty excited this time."

Leonard opens his first NBA preseason against the Lakers in Ontario, Canada, on Oct. 10. The regular season opener also is against the Lakers — in Portland on Oct. 31.

"Me and Damian (Lillard, their other first-round pick) were talking about it," Leonard said. "He's going to be guarding Steve Nash and I'm going to be guarding Dwight Howard. Welcome to the NBA."

Howard, the All-Star center, probably won't play for the Lakers in the opener as he recovers from back surgery. But Leonard's professional schedule is only getting started.

***

Stephen Bardo usually is on the move.

If he's not calling a game or sharing insight as an ESPN analyst, the published author might be doing a speaking engagement, making a radio appearance or touring a college basketball practice. His latest move, however, was far more outside the box.

The former Illini recently participated in a seven-day tour of Israel. It was sponsored by the NBA Retired Players Association and took Bardo through all corners of the Holy Land, including three days in Jerusalem.

"The Wailing Wall was particularly moving for me. Being able to say a prayer on the Wailing Wall, that touched me," Bardo said. "There were actually men crying while they were on the Wailing Wall. Being in America, it's rare that we see somebody that takes that so personally, that it's a part of their being. We might even call them a zealot over here.

"But over there, it's just a way of life. What I loved was how people respect other peoples' views. That was probably the biggest thing for me — understanding where you are and what this place means, in terms of history."

Most important was the educational aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said. The players were hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but the touring players also were exposed to the Palestinian perspective via a high-level PLO negotiator.

"You'd be surprised with what they, the Israelis, live under. They've got 22 Arab nations that can't stand them," Bardo said. "And the country itself is so small. It's an amazing situation that they find themselves in. I gained so much respect for the organization (AIPAC) because of how they wanted to share all angles of the conflict.

"There's no easy solution or answer to it. It's so much more complex than we, as Americans, understand. The transparency they used (on the tour) let us to understand what they go through on a daily basis.

"I came over there with an open mind. And I left with an understanding of why both sides are fighting. You can study it for a lifetime and not understand how tough it is on a daily basis."

Bardo was joined on the tour by Flyin' Illini teammate Kenny Battle. The group also spent time with former Illini Tal Brody, whose status as an international basketball figure probably is underappreciated in Illini circles. Brody currently is the goodwill ambassador of Israel.

"He's a legendary figure over there — and not just in terms of basketball," Bardo said.

Bardo will return to his day job as an ESPN college basketball analyst for the 2012-13 season. He usually receives his schedule after Labor Day, and he expects to call games in the Big Ten (on Thursday nights), Big 12 and, perhaps, the SEC. His TV season will be preceded by a tour of roughly eight to 15 schools during fall workouts.

"Coach (John) Groce has been very aggressive in reaching out to former (Illinois) players and trying to get them in the fold of what he's trying to do," Bardo said.

***

In their final game on a tour of Italy last August, the Illini ran into their worst instance of questionable overseas officiating.

The opponent was a team called Fulgor Omegna. The Illini won in overtime but only after withstanding a questionable final possession for the Italian club. The clock showed four seconds but didn't start until well into Fulgor Omegna's possession, giving the hosts ample time for a would-be winning basket. And during the game, the referees said they couldn't understand the Illini coaches because they didn't speak English.

After the game, the refs had a full conversation in English.

But that innocent episode paled in comparison to what Bruce Weber's Kansas State squad encountered last week in Brazil. In one game, 78 free throws were attempted and four technical fouls were issued. Weber was ejected from the game, as were two members of the Brazilian side. K-State coaches considered pulling their players from the court and later contended the Brazilian outfit was attempting to injure the Wildcats.

It was the latest unfortunate encounter for a college team playing overseas. Georgetown last year was involved in an ugly brawl during a game in China. These incidents figure to shape how coaches approach overseas tours, which are allowed once every four years.

Purdue returned Saturday from its tour of Italy. The Boilers took almost the same tour as the Illini and had only positive reports from their Italian tour.

***

In its latest attempt to crack Chicago's encrypted recruiting code — at least when it comes to elite prospects — Illinois hired Paris Parham as an assistant.

The Chicago native and former Public League coach is obliged to work the scene and forge fruitful inroads. The battle for elite prospects is one the Illini usually lose.

Jabari Parker was the latest elite talent from the city to spurn the Illini. The celebrated 2013 prospect from Simeon excluded Illinois from a list of 10 prospective suitors.

Some of the Chicago products on the current Illini roster can't figure it out, either. What will it take to turn Illinois basketball into a destination for Chicago's top prospects?

"I don't know, to be honest. I don't know why they don't usually get those guys," said sophomore Myke Henry, a Chicago Orr product. "With the Public League, you hear about the bigger schools — the Ohio States and the Kentuckys. And then some guys want to go to the bigger schools. The select few — guys like me — want to stay. I'm guessing if you got a winning program, then kids will want to stay."

That was Mike Shaw's answer, too. The De La Salle product theorized more wins could equal more recruiting success — even though Illini history suggests winning doesn't result in landing the Anthony Davises and Derrick Roses of the city's basketball spectrum.

"Everybody's just going where they think is the best fit for them," Shaw said. "For me, growing up, I always wanted to play for Illinois. Truly, I think everyone in Chicago does. But you've got to go to the situation that's best for you. There's a plan for everybody.

"If you're anywhere and you're winning ballgames, people are going to come. A bunch of people (from Chicago) being down here (on the current roster) isn't going to do anything. You've got to win ballgames. We've got to open their eyes by winning ballgames."

***

After eight weeks of summer workouts, Groce has a better idea what he's working with in his first year as the coach at Illinois.

(It's worth noting, however, that teams were only allowed two hours of supervised practice weekly — roughly the equivalent of three-plus practices during the season.)

Groce said he appreciated the effort from the players. He also acknowledged he won't know the team's mental makeup until the games begin.

"What coaches worry about, especially when you're new, is how tough are we going to be? How tough are we going to play?" Groce said in his office at Ubben Basketball Complex. "When things are going well, can we handle that? When things are going bad — and they do for every team — how do we handle that? That's the toughness part.

"And how together are we going to be? There's a difference between liking each other and going to the movies together and being totally in sync and connected on the floor. That's totally different. That's what coaching is — to get them to embrace the team."

With those two hours per week, Groce had the option of using all of the time for team workouts with the entire roster on the court together. Instead, he used roughly half the time for individual skillwork — dribbling, passing, shooting, etc.

Effort plays often drew the coach's attention and applause.

"When a guy sacrifices his body on a great charge or a great screen or dives for a ball, that's a physical toughness play. We ought to be high-fiving that guy," Groce said. "That guy is sacrificing his body for you. That's the physical part.

"The mental part is something else. If you're D.J. Richardson and you've missed three shots in a row, why aren't you ready to shoot the fourth one? You let the three misses affect you. Don't mentally do that. That's your job — shoot the ball. I'm not going to tell you to stop shooting. Your job is to shoot it. So shoot it. That's what you do."

After the conclusion of summer school, most players left campus last week. The Illini are scheduled for a team meeting Aug. 26 — one day before the start of the fall semester.

Paul Klee covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. Email him at pklee@news-gazette.com.

 

Meyers Leonard was selected 11th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. Basketball writer Paul Klee looks ahead to his early lottery candidates for the 2013 NBA draft:

1. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
2. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
3. Cody Zeller, Indiana
4. LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State
5. Alex Poythress, Kentucky
6. Isaiah Austin, Baylor
7. James McAdoo, North Carolina
8. Adonis Thomas, Memphis
9. Ben McLemore, Kansas
10. C.J. Leslie, N.C. State
11. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
12. DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State
13. Archie Goodwin, Kentucky
14. Trey Burke, Michigan
15. Patric Young, Florida

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