Jones: Leslie’s early exit good for ‘Pack, too

RALEIGH, N.C. — The C.J. Leslie era is over at North Carolina State, although it’s hard to pinpoint when it began.

Leslie played in 99 games for the Wolfpack but only approached his talent base on a few occasions. When Leslie was at his best, in flashes, it was quite breathtaking.

At 6-foot-9 and 200 pounds, the long-armed and supremely athletic Leslie should have been a rebounding machine in college, but he wasn’t. He averaged 7.3 boards per contest for his career; but keep in mind, Leslie was at 7.2 as a freshman and 7.4 as a junior.

He was supposed to be a great scorer, an inside-outside player with enough of a handle to take the ball to the rack. Some observers described Leslie as Kevin Durant-like when in high school, but he wasn’t any of those things, either. Not even close.

Leslie averaged 13.7 points per game for his career, but he was at 11 as a freshman and 15.1 this season. Leslie’s blocks numbers stayed the same and his assist figures increased to only 1.5 per outing as a junior. The turnover rate exploded, though.

He wisely cut down from 28 3-point attempts as a freshman to six this season, but it just meant more awkward drives to the basket ending with a contorted Leslie making himself much smaller — eventually losing the ball, getting his shot blocked, or missing an ugly heave from within the lane. Leslie averaged three turnovers a game this past season.

Leslie has so much to work on regarding his game, but sometimes it’s just time to go.

“It’s one of those things where we felt like it was time to move on,” Leslie said in a press conference Monday morning.

A native of Holly Springs, NC, Leslie likely wasn’t going to improve any more while at NC State. Regardless of the other personnel changes that affect the Wolfpack, his exit is probably best for the program, too.

Leslie was equal parts asset and albatross with the Wolfpack. When he didn’t feel like giving maximum effort, which was way too often, he didn’t — and there was little coach Mark Gottfried could do about it, other than bench him. Leslie responded pretty well when it reached those moments, but Gottfried simply didn’t go that route enough.

Focus has always been an issue. For long stretches, Leslie often appeared as interested in the game as someone receiving a Novocain-free root canal.

Six points against Clemson? Six at frontline-challenged North Carolina? Five at Florida State and two versus Oklahoma State? In four other games, he had three or fewer rebounds. He failed to block a shot in 14 games. But he had three or more turnovers 17 times this season alone.

Gottfried said Leslie, who wore dark sweatpants and a sweatshirt to the press conference, is “misperceived by a lot of people.”

The coach also said he believes NBA teams will have a different impression of Leslie after meeting him.

“I have felt, over the last couple of years, at times, this guy right here has been misread at times,” Gottfried said. “So, I think all of that is going to be in his favor.”

But this is the same coach who spent the past two years referring to Leslie as “Calvin” while the rest of the universe, including his mother, who called him “C.J.” on Monday. Gottfried went the Calvin route trying to get the young athlete to change his mental approach and later motor. It worked at times, but Leslie never sustained playing with the purpose Gottfried had hoped for. In fact, at the most recent Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, senior forward Richard Howell called out Leslie by name, criticizing his focus and effort.

On Monday, Leslie described himself as “a great player here at NC State” who isn’t looking back. NC State was picked to win the ACC title, yet finished fifth and lost in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Leslie was the preseason conference Player of the Year but barely made third team All-ACC. But he has no regrets.

“I’m not really a regretful-type dude. . . .” he said. “I’m one of those guys who try not to look back and think about what shoulda coulda. You have to learn to take what you did and to live with it and move on.”

Gottfried said some NBA people have told him Leslie could be a first-round draft choice. The only thing keeping him out, and quite frankly, from the lottery, is his attitude, work ethic and the other peculiarities that have impacted his reputation.

“I do know there’s a lot of people in the NBA that like his future,” Gottfried said. And he’s right.

During an NC State game in February, one NBA scout said Leslie “has just about everything you want to see in an athlete, but those other things. . . . Not sure how many teams would be willing to take that on.”

It is no longer NC State’s problem; it is solely Leslie’s. He has to own up to it if there is a legitimate NBA future ahead. He has the natural gifts to play a long time in the league, but only he can make that happen.

Maybe at the next level, he will.