Leslie's return big for NCSU

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 19, 2012

By Luke DeCock
Raleigh News and Observer
RALEIGH — It was only a little bit more than a year ago that C.J. Leslie attended the press conference introducing Mark Gottfried as N.C. State’s new basketball coach, the apex of the uncertainty surrounding the once-proud program.
This week Leslie held a press conference of his own, and it demonstrated not only the amazing progress Leslie has made in the past year, but N.C. State’s as well.
Sitting on a stool, at ease with his decision and the queries of the media, Leslie handled Wednesday’s press conference like a seasoned professional, not least when he talked about his main reason for coming back for his junior year at N.C. State.
“I just figured we started a good thing last year,” Leslie said. “We might as well finish it.”
A little more than a year ago, it was possible Leslie might not even come back for his sophomore year, let alone his junior year. So much has changed since then, and not just N.C. State’s run in the NCAA tournament. Leslie has embraced the program’s new direction; as much credit as the coaching staff has gotten for Leslie’s maturation, the 20-year-old deserves as much himself for making the most of it.
And now, his decision to return has changed the entire landscape of the ACC. N.C. State is not a prohibitive favorite to win the league, but with four starters returning and three superstar freshmen arriving, the Wolfpack is as talented and experienced as anyone.
Yes, there are still holes to be filled on N.C. State’s roster.
DeShawn Painter’s transfer leaves a major void at backup forward, and the Wolfpack missed out Tuesday on junior-college transfer Andrew Young. Top-100 recruit Amile Jefferson still has N.C. State on his list, but probably won’t want to play behind Leslie and Richard Howell.
The Wolfpack was thin at forward last year, and even if Jordan Vandenberg, who redshirted last season, can replace Painter, that’s still merely maintaining the status quo. Maybe Tyler Harris, who saw some emergency playing time late, or Thomas de Thaey will emerge, or Gottfried and assistant coach Bobby Lutz will snag a late recruit.
Still, that’s a relatively minor issue considering the talent arriving on N.C. State’s roster this fall. One of the three McDonald’s All-Americans coming, Raleigh Upper Room Christian Academy’s Rodney Purvis, may have pushed harder than anyone for Leslie to come back.
“He texted me every night,” Leslie said. “He was just saying he wanted to play with me and he hoped I would come back. That’s like my little brother. I love him. I really put a lot of thought into seeing him play.”
Joe Kotoch of probasketballdraft.com had Leslie rated as a late first-round or early second-round pick this year, but said scouts see Leslie’s top-20 ability, and he should benefit from a weaker draft class in 2013.
In a best-case scenario, Leslie could move into the lottery, Kotoch said; in a worst-case scenario, he might remain in the second round, but would still have the option of remaining for his senior year to boost his draft stock.
Leslie said he was confident he would have been in a good situation had he turned pro, but described coming back to N.C. State as “the best decision.”
It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine Leslie saying that when the program was in upheaval and he had yet to tap his own considerable talent. He acknowledged as much Wednesday.
“I was just going with the flow,” Leslie said.
Now he’s coming back to a program in ascension, a player on the rise, awake to the limitless possibilities before him.