European experience gives Leonard boost

Meyers Leonard of the Illinois men’s basketball team knows he is going to be an integral part of the team’s success next season.

With seven new players, six of whom are freshmen, the difference between making or breaking the coming season could depend on how much the 7-foot center improves this summer.

After participating in the FIBA U19 World Championship on the USA Basketball team, which finished in fifth, Leonard has a newfound sense of both confidence and focus.

He said he has paid more attention to everything on and off the court including, “sleep, eating, not staying up late and extra workouts.”

“When I step on the court now, it’s all about business,” Leonard said. “Last year at times I’d be frustrated, or I’d be tired; I wouldn’t know what my position on the team was, but now I feel I have a lot more confidence, and hopefully it will really show this year.”

One of the major things Leonard is taking away from his time in Europe is how physical the style of play is there. He said the perception that European players are “soft” is untrue and quickly discovered that when he had to match up against Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.

“I would say we’re pretty even keel as far as strength goes,” Leonard said. “It was nice to play against him, see his talents.

“Hopefully I have the same ability to do what he’s doing and get drafted, but most importantly, just bring that physicality back here and try to make a name on this university.”

Being more physical in the post could have its drawbacks, however. More aggression down low could lead to more fouls, which Leonard has struggled with in the past.

At times in the tournament he did find himself getting into foul trouble, but in the last three games Leonard made adjustments and finished averaging 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds.

“Once I got into the flow of the game, it helped me a lot,” Leonard said. “At the end I was playing well, getting a lot more minutes … I guess I was more in the flow of the game, more mentally there and just trying to help us win.”

For the next few weeks Leonard will play with his teammates at open gym, something he hasn’t gotten to do much of because of his trip. One of the players that has surprised him was fellow center and incoming freshman Nnanna Egwu.

“He’s a lot stronger than I thought he was,” Leonard said. “I thought he wasn’t very physical, but he is definitely physical, and he never stops running.”

In August, the whole Illinois team will travel overseas to compete against various European clubs. The trip will serve as another opportunity for Leonard and the rest of the Illini to improve, but Leonard hopes the food is better this time around.

“The food wasn’t always very good, but I dealt with it,” he said.