New Illinois Fighting Illini coach John Groce will not have star sophomore center Meyers Leonard when he transitions the program out of the Bruce Weber era next season. Leonard announced yesterday that he's leaving school early to enter the NBA Draft, where he's projected as a potential lottery pick. It's certainly a blow for the Illini, but it's hard to fault Leonard for making the decision to start earning a paycheck after re-reading Dana O'Neil's ESPN feature on the Illinois center from January. Read it, and you'll understand why Leonard really couldn't stand to play for free any longer with NBA millions staring him in the face.
Leonard has had a rough life. His father died in a "freak bicycle accident" when he was six years ago. His mother is bed-ridden thanks to chronic back pain. His oldest brother is a Marine in Afghanistan. Yeah, it's time Meyers Lenoard starts making some money.
Here's a selection from O'Neil's feature centering on Leonard's mother:
Once an athlete herself, a woman her son said would run more than 10 miles a day, she instead has been more or less housebound since James died. The one-two combination of an old horseback injury and disk surgery has left her with chronic and crippling back pain, delivering her a new double blow of cruelty -- she can't work because of the back pain but can't afford surgery because she can't work.
"She's been through a lot," Meyers said. Tracie declined an interview for this story. "She's a fighter, so she tries not to let me worry, but, every once in a while, she'll break down and tell me how bad it is. I know how hard it is for her. It's hard on all of us. It was different when I was in high school, when I could see her every day."
ESPN's Chad Ford had this to say about Leonard has a pro prospect:
"Big men rise the closer we get to the draft," Ford said. "Leonard is counting on it. He's got the size, athleticism, rebounding and shot blocking ability to succeed in the NBA. However, he's a project. He's pretty raw offensively and at times, he loses focus. But as one of the few true 7-footers in the draft, teams will be willing to gamble in the late lottery to mid first round."
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