C.J. Leslie key for NC State’s NCAA chances

Physically, C.J. Leslie doesn’t look much different than he did two years ago, before the start of his freshman basketball season at North Carolina State. 

He’s still 6-foot-9, lean and yet chiseled enough that he has definition. He still carries a stoic expression during games, which can sometimes be misinterpreted. But deep within, Leslie is a different person. No longer a petulant child, as some around the program used to describe him, Leslie is growing into a man.

And a humbled man with all-universe potential can be a scary proposition to deal with if you’re the other 11 Atlantic Coast Conference teams. That’s what the Wolfpack are banking on if they are to achieve the lofty goals set forth for the first N.C. State squad in 39 years picked by the media to win the ACC. 

That season, senior David Thompson and the Wolfpack were coming off the 1974 national championship that saw the Wolfpack end UCLA’s run of seven consecutive NCAA titles. This time around, State is coming off a resurgence of grand proportion: A 24-13 overall mark, including 9-7 in the ACC — its first winning mark in league play in six years — and a trip to the Sweet 16. 

Wolfpack basketball is back, and at the forefront of its success is Leslie. 

“That’s all good to hear, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t get better as a team,” said Leslie, whom the media pegged as the preseason Player of the Year last month. “And if we do that that everything will take care of itself.”

Leslie wasn’t so much about “we” when he first arrived. He struggled as a freshman adapting to the athleticism of ACC big men, and coupled with poor decision making, weak skills and a disposition that was downright rotten at times, Leslie was an enigma more than anything else. 

So when Mark Gottfried replaced Sidney Lowe in the spring of 2010, one of the first things he did was decide on how he would handle the then-rising sophomore. It remains a work in progress 20 months later, though Leslie has made major strides.

“Like my children have, he wanted to test us on everything,” said Gottfried, who still refers to Leslie as ‘Calvin.’ “If I drew a line right there he wanted to tip-toe across it and see how far he would go and what would happen, what the consequences were. It was one of those building trust, understanding what’s allowed, what’s not allowed. I think he’s come a long way; I really do.”

The process ebbed and flowed like the stock market at the peak of its unpredictability. Following a puzzling home loss to Georgia Tech last season, Leslie was aloof in practice the next day, Gottfried said. 

“(He was) kind of like, eh, big deal,” the coach recalled. “He wasn’t very responsive to me or our staff, so we tossed him out of there and said, ‘You need to get on out of here.’ ”

NC State won its next game at Wake Forest by 36 points even though Leslie failed to score in 17 minutes of action.

“After that, he started coming around a bit more,” Gottfried said.

The coach also said another turning point was when Leslie realized the value of practicing hard in every minute of every drill. It was yet another period of Leslie finally connecting the dots.

“He started to see the results in his game — his game got better,” Gottfried said. “He gets it much better than he did a year ago.”

Leslie used to shy away from speaking about his issues. He no longer has a problem with Gottfried calling him “Calvin,” and he doesn’t mind opening up about his roller coaster ride.

“It was definitely a learning phase in my life, the biggest learning phase in my life,” Leslie said. “But at this point I want to keep all of those same things I learned from my first two years. I understand things better. Coming in here as a freshman I really didn’t know too much. I understand things a lot better. I know how things are and I the way things are supposed to be done.”

Leslie is expected to have a monster season. He averaged 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game a year ago, and that’s with little consistency to his game until the latter portion of the season. But he also averaged 1.6 blocked shots and 1.1 steals, examples of his immense athletic ability and knack for creating an assortment of problems aside from the basics.

And on opening night of this season things went according to plan, Leslie scoring 11 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking three shots in a 97-59 win over Miami of Ohio.

NC State returns four starters overall. Joining Leslie are 6-6 senior sharpshooter Scott Wood, 6-8 bruiser Richard Howell, also a senior, and 6-5 junior point guard Lorenzo Brown. Add one of the top-five recruiting classes in the country, and NC State is well positioned to have a big season.

And if Leslie turns in the kind of campaign Gottfried envisions, the Wolfpack have a chance to make the media look good for their prediction.