RALEIGH, N.C. — C.J. Leslie may finally be turning a new leaf.
As the most ridiculed basketball player along Tobacco Road the last two years, and with good reason, Leslie is showing signs of maturity, growth and even the instincts of a great player. Look no further than last Saturday’s rout of visiting St. Bonaventure as the latest and perhaps greatest example of his ascent.
The long-armed, 6-foot-9 super-talent recognized a Wolfpack need with senior forward Richard Howell in foul trouble, then showed the kind of controlled aggression that can make him a star on the collegiate level and a high draft pick in the NBA. Leslie totaled 33 points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots, a pair of assists and one steal.
As important, however, is that Leslie did this all within the framework of the Wolfpack’s philosophies. He didn’t set out to put on the C.J. Leslie Show like he has in the past. This was a mature 33 points. It was about scoring when the team needed based on what was there. It was about recognizing teammates. It was about having a feel for a game that can one day make him a lot of money. It was about being an All-American.
“I just saw I had to hustle and step up,” Leslie said. “Richard was in a little foul trouble.”
The thing is, Leslie didn’t launch his new-and-improved self once Howell went to the bench. This process began several games ago and dates back to a two-point performance in a blowout loss to Oklahoma State in November.
Leslie, who leads the Pack with 15 points and is second with 7.5 rebounds per outing, has been in double figures in the seven games since, grabbing eight or more rebounds in five of those contests. Yet, it really wasn’t until the Stanford game last week where Leslie appeared completely invested in the game during every minute he was on the floor.
Even in a victory over Norfolk State on Dec. 15, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried jumped all over Leslie during a timeout because he just wasn’t playing with focus or intensity. He appeared almost aloof and disinterested on the court in stretches. And that wasn’t the first time.
But Gottfried, whose most compelling and public effort at changing the culture in the N.C. State program since taking over nearly two years ago has been his handling of Leslie, whom he refers to as Calvin, the player’s actual first name, had to try something different.
The former Alabama coach has understandably treated Leslie different from other players. No special treatment, but let’s face it, Leslie is a unique case.
Watching him give effort for a few minutes reveals the reality that he can dominate a game almost any time he wants, yet that want is sometimes buried so deep inside that not even Gottfried’s efforts can extract it to the surface. With respect to the coach, it’s generally up to Leslie.
That’s why Leslie’s recognition of the team’s needs in the 88-79 win over Stanford and the rout of the Bonnies was and is so important.
Leslie didn’t force things against the Cardinal and played perhaps his best team game since arriving at N.C. State. He finished with 16 points and 6 rebounds, but he defended, was unselfish with the ball, even set a couple of real screens and communicated on defense.
And then Leslie showed last Saturday what he can do just about every night if his disposition matches the Wolfpack’s needs.
“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive,” he said after the St. Bonaventure game. “We have some important games coming up. We gave to be a little more serious. I’m not saying I wasn’t serious before, but it’s just time to buckle down and be ready to play.”
He knows. He understands. And if the last week is any indication, Leslie may finally get it. If so, that’s great news for the 23rd-ranked Wolfpack (9-2) and bad news for the rest of the ACC, including top-ranked Duke, which visits PNC Arena on Jan. 12.
A dialed-in Leslie with a healthy Wolfpack team can develop into one of the more dangerous teams in the nation. A Sweet 16 team a year ago, it could advance further this coming spring. And Leslie playing with a purpose is vital in N.C. State reaching those goals.