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.
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.
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.