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Saturday, November 1, 2014

C.J. Leslie: A Story of Unmet Expectations

I spent the first 27 years of my life in upstate New York, in and around Albany, and would have been content to stay in the Empire State. But there are always opportunities that arise in your life that make sense to take advantage of, and my calling happened to come from the lovely capital of North Carolina (that’s Raleigh, for everyone that failed geography). I’ve been living here for almost 7 years now, which means I’ve experienced much of C.J. Leslie’s high school and college career — hard to avoid, considering I’m in the center of the college basketball universe. It is precisely this geographical proximity that I feel qualifies me to share with you a somewhat long winded summary of C.J. Leslie’s college basketball career. I added some pretty pictures to keep you from falling asleep.

First, let me describe the scene that exists in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. You have three major colleges within 30 minutes of one other, each with its own distinctly rabid rabid fan base: Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and N.C. State. College basketball is king, and really, how could it not be when the alternatives include the Charlotte Bobcats, Carolina Panthers and a hockey team in a city that only has a handful of days a year below freezing? (How do they even keep the ice frozen????) Over the last decade, Duke and UNC have been at or near the top of the NCAA basketball hierarchy, while NC State struggled to regain national relevance. C.J. Leslie, more than anyone else, was seen as the key to recapturing that past glory.

There’s only one problem: Seldom are such high expectations ever met.

It was at the Word of God Christian Academy that C.J. Leslie garnered an enormous amount of buzz, teaming with John Wall for a couple years to create some great highlight reel plays and becoming a McDonalds All-American. A year after losing Wall to Kentucky, NC State made amends by snatching Leslie from the evil clutches of John Calipari, and many a pig pickin’ were had in celebration throughout the Tar Heel State. As a side note, if you’ve never experienced a proper pig pickin’, you are truly missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Look! I can jump really high! Won't someone draft me?Leslie burst onto the scene in his first regular season game with the Wolfpack, scoring 21 efficient points with six rebounds and six blocks against the OVC powerhouse Tennessee Tech. Despite looking briefly like the greatest player ever, Leslie would struggle to maintain that level of play over the course of his first season. Meanwhile, the team couldn’t scrape together a winning season, leading to the firing of their much maligned coach, Sidney Lowe. In all, CJ had a solid — if unspectacular — freshman year in which he showed an ability to be a solid rebounder (15.8 TRB%) but a bit turnover prone (1.7 per game / 12.9 TOV%) and an inefficient scorer (.470 TS%, 27.1 USG%) with pitiful assist and steal numbers (7.1 AST% and 1.5 STL%). Still, Leslie showed all sorts of athletic gifts and stretches of dominance, leaving most State fans frustrated, but hopeful that it all amounted to freshman inconsistencies and poor coaching holding him back from greatness.

The following season would see Leslie come back with a bolstered offensive game, reflected by a much improved TS% of 55%. However, Leslie’s rebound rate dipped a bit, and his turnover rate increased. For the Wolfpack, the season was a strong one: they won 24 games and made the NCAA tournament Sweet 16, where they lost by just three to eventual tournament runner-up Kansas. Despite the team’s success, C.J. still had problems with game-to-game consistency, sometimes looking like the best player on the floor against solid competition, and then playing horrifically against the same team weeks later. Leslie would save his best for last, though, lighting up the ACC Conference Tournament, shooting almost 70% and averaging 17 and 11 over three games. He regressed a bit in the NCAA tournament, tallying a TS% just under 50% and grabbing only 5.7 rebs over 31 minutes per game. Still, many fans took it as a sign that Leslie was starting to mature and meet his great potential. The only question was whether he would come back for another year, or declare himself eligible for the NBA draft, where he was predicted to be a first round pick with a possibility of being chosen late in the lottery.

Maybe next time I should pass... Nah!Of course, C.J. would come back once again, to a team chosen as the preseason favorite to win the ACC (Leslie himself would be chosen as the ACC preseason player of the year). This should have been his opportunity to shine and show his game and maturity were improving. Sadly, it was not to be. While his productivity didn’t completely collapse, C.J. really showed no sign of improvement over the year before: his TS% stayed pretty much the same from the year before (0.50), but his rebounding regressed (14.3 to 13.0 TRB%) and turnovers increased (14.8 to 17.9 TOV%).

The jump in turnovers in particular earned the ire of State fans; it was obvious that C.J. was forcing the issue, and hurting the team in the process. On the heels of the promise they’d shown at the end of the previous season, the Wolfpack would underachieve, finishing 4th in the ACC and losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Fair or not, Leslie became the face of the Wolfpack’s woes, receiving harsh criticism from fans, media and even his coach. C.J. would declare for the draft following that season and — as we all know — go undrafted before being snagged by the Knicks as a free agent.

So what can the Knicks expect from C.J. Leslie if they keep him around (a pretty big if, at this point, given his less-than-stellar preseason play)? He’s shown the ability to be a solid rebounder and at least an average scorer. By not being expected to create offense for himself, hopefully turnovers won’t be as much of a problem as they were in college. He is an incredible athlete, but his size — 6’9″ and around 200 pounds — is going to create issues for his game in the NBA. He lacks an outside shot and seems to be too turnover prone to play the three spot, and lacks the bulk to play inside. It’s clear that to be a contributor in the NBA, C.J. will need to further develop either an outside game, or more likely, add significant bulk and develop a better post game to allow him to contribute at PF.

Still, by far the biggest concern surrounding Leslie is this: in three years of big time college ball, he didn’t show that much in the way of improvement. Unfortunately, that narrative has continued through Leslie’s stints in the summer league and preseason, the latter of which has found him relegated to the end of the bench even during garbage time. If the Knicks keep Leslie around, expect at least a year in the D-league, with a subsequent reevaluation at the end of the season.

C.J. Leslie left a lot of fans in Raleigh frustrated and wondering what might have been. Draft day flyer or not, I hope he doesn’t do the same in New York.

16 comments on “C.J. Leslie: A Story of Unmet Expectations

  1. johnno

    Nick C.: Reads like a tale of a guy that rested on his laurels, such as they were.

    Or a guy who was overhyped coming out of high school and maybe is not quite as talented as he was reputed to be. Having John Wall as a high school teammate can make a guy look better than he really is.

  2. Nick C.

    johnno: Or a guy who was overhyped coming out of high school and maybe is not quite as talented as he was reputed to be.Having John Wall as a high school teammate can make a guy look better than he really is.

    That too.

  3. Kevin Udwary Post author

    johnno: Or a guy who was overhyped coming out of high school and maybe is not quite as talented as he was reputed to be.Having John Wall as a high school teammate can make a guy look better than he really is.

    I think the hype coming out of high school was deserved. He really is an athletic freak and was about the same size then as he is now. That kind of player is always going to get a lot of attention.

  4. Nick C.

    Was he particularly refined or was he just athletic, Kevin? Could he shoot, post, dribble, exhibit defensive awareness …?

  5. thenamestsam

    Interesting piece on a guy I didn’t know much about. Just a reminder how many things need to go right for you to make it at this level. Even for a guy with a ton of talent just a couple of years without making much progress puts you behind the curve.

    A lot of people seemed to like him in summer league, but I just don’t see an NBA player here. With the way the league is going there’s just no way a guy with his limitations is going to find minutes as a 3. 10 years ago maybe, but in today’s NBA you’re more likely to see Shump or JR as a 3 than Leslie. So he needs to be a small-ball 4. If he can learn to consistently stroke the corner 3 I think he could maybe find a niche there, but he doesn’t look close to that at the moment.

  6. Kevin Udwary Post author

    Nick C.:
    Was he particularly refined or was he just athletic, Kevin? Could he shoot, post, dribble, exhibit defensive awareness …?

    I never saw anything other than highlight videos from his High School years, but coming out of high school he probably was a similar player he was freshman year at State, which was pretty much the player he was Junior year at State, which is why he was undrafted. From his time playing at State, it’s definitely his athleticism that stands out. He seems to have a good handle at first glance, but his turnovers are really a major issue. He was criticized a lot here for lacking aggressiveness on offense, as he was more likely to settle for a mid-range jumper than to attack the rim. He also had no post game to speak of. Kind of a Tim Thomas type player without 3pt range, but at least he didn’t shoot 3s anyways.

  7. Nick C.

    Thanks. I guess it isn’t every freakishly athletic but raw player like Olajuwon was in college that builds on that to actually be able to carve out a career.

  8. KnickfaninNJ

    Kevin,

    Very nice column. It sounds like he might benefit more from playing in Europe than in D-League. Copeland benefited a lot from playing in Europe. But I doubt we keep his rights if he ends up playing there.

  9. johnno

    KnickfaninNJ: Very nice column. It sounds like he might benefit more from playing in Europe than in D-League. Copeland benefited a lot from playing in Europe. But I doubt we keep his rights if he ends up playing there.

    If he plays in the D-League, I’m pretty sure the Knicks lose his rights unless they keep him on their 15 man roster, which would take up a spot that would otherwise go to someone like Diogu, Tyler, Murry, etc. I think that this is true even if he is playing on the Knicks’ D-League affiliate — in other words, if he’s not on the NBA 15 man roster, any other team could sign him off of the Knicks D-League roster at any time.

  10. alsep73

    johnno: If he plays in the D-League, I’m pretty sure the Knicks lose his rights unless they keep him on their 15 man roster, which would take up a spot that would otherwise go to someone like Diogu, Tyler, Murry, etc.I think that this is true even if he is playing on the Knicks’ D-League affiliate — in other words, if he’s not on the NBA 15 man roster, any other team could sign him off of the Knicks D-League roster at any time.

    That is not actually the case. Seth at P&T wrote about this recently. It turns out that with young players who haven’t yet been in the D-League (i.e., Leslie but not Tyler or Murry), if they pass through waivers and agree, you can assign them to your D-League affiliate as if they were still part of the organization. That way, no other team can just sign them away from the NBDL.

    Explained at greater length here:

    http://www.postingandtoasting.com/2013/10/18/4853122/updates-on-the-injured-and-the-non-guaranteed-from-knicks-practice-mike-woodson

  11. SeeWhyDee77

    Leslie reminds me a lot of Darius Miles. I think he can be a good combo forward off the bench if he can get up to 230-ish and not lose his explosion, hit the corner 3, and takes coaching well. He also seems to have plus defensive potential. Toure Murry is making it very hard to think of keeping Leslie..but if there was a way to do it I would. Sucks that Murry is playing so well because we have a lot of backcourt players in the regular rotation in Shump-Udrih-Felton-Prigioni-JR. Plus we still have JR so if Murry stays, it’s likely at the expense of Leslie. I can’t see the team saying no to a Tyler, Diogu, or Aldrich to keep Leslie. And it is looking more and more like Murry is going to make the roster. Hope teams are in the market for SG help..

  12. thenamestsam

    SeeWhyDee77:
    Leslie reminds me a lot of Darius Miles. I think he can be a good combo forward off the bench if he can get up to 230-ish and not lose his explosion, hit the corner 3, and takes coaching well. He also seems to have plus defensive potential. Toure Murry is making it very hard to think of keeping Leslie..but if there was a way to do it I would. Sucks that Murry is playing so well because we have a lot of backcourt players in the regular rotation in Shump-Udrih-Felton-Prigioni-JR. Plus we still have JR so if Murry stays, it’s likely at the expense of Leslie. I can’t see the team saying no to a Tyler, Diogu, or Aldrich to keep Leslie. And it is looking more and more like Murry is going to make the roster. Hope teams are in the market for SG help..

    He actually reminds me a lot of Darius Miles also, but the Darius Miles I remember definitely was not a solid combo forward off the bench. He was pretty much washed out of the NBA at 24. Great athlete who simply couldn’t shoot and wasn’t a good enough passer to impact spacing positively outside of stretching the floor.

    To me the NBA fringes are littered with athletic guys who have the potential to be decent bench players in the event that they can learn to hit the 3. In the absence of anything else to do with a roster spot it’s a fine way to use one, but it’s not like we’re letting a valuable asset go if lose him.

  13. johnno

    alsep73: That is not actually the case. Seth at P&T wrote about this recently. It turns out that with young players who haven’t yet been in the D-League (i.e., Leslie but not Tyler or Murry), if they pass through waivers and agree, you can assign them to your D-League affiliate as if they were still part of the organization. That way, no other team can just sign them away from the NBDL.

    Glad to learn that I’m wrong about this. If they waive him, I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of danger that he won’t clear waivers since no one drafted him and he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in summer league or preseason. I watched last night’s game and, right now, he is not an NBA player, despite his athleticism.

  14. Hubert

    Great piece, Kevin. I’m a lifelong NY’er who has family down in Raleigh and I really enjoy going there. Went to a few Wolfpack games last year, even though I typically despise college basketball (though really I spent more team seeking out BBQ!). Next time I’m down there it’ll be nice to know a Knicks fan to catch a game with.

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