Leslie sets sights on state title
Elite 24 co-MVP is still pondering his college choices
C.J. Leslie called the shots this summer. He took an unconventional approach to the mayhem also known as the summer basketball circuit.
"It was a learning experience," said Leslie, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound senior forward.
When he wasn't playing with the Carolina Cobras, Leslie played in the North Carolina Pro-Am League. His teammates included current Tar Heels forward Ed Davis, Duke freshman Ryan Kelly and two-time NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse. The league proved invaluable for the budding superstar, who is ranked No. 9 in the ESPNU 100 and is a serious candidate for the McDonald's All American (Columbus, Ohio) and Jordan Brand (New York) postseason all-star games in 2010.
Mostly, though, he gained the wisdom and entrusted mentorship of Stackhouse.
"Stack is cool; I can talk to him about anything," Leslie said. "He's very humble and wants to genuinely help. He tells you how to handle certain situations and what to look out for during the recruiting.
"I'll text him and he calls right back. I'm very fortunate to have met him."
Leslie's summer concluded Aug. 21 in New York when he participated in the fourth Boost Mobile Elite 24 game. Rain forced this year's all-star contest out of Rucker Park, Harlem's famed outdoor court, and into the New York Gauchos' gymnasium.
Before a packed house of 1,800 in the Bronx, Leslie, who played for The Goat squad, didn't disappoint, contributing a double-double, with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in a 133-120 loss to the Skip To My Lou team.
Leslie and Baltimore native Josh Selby were named co-most valuable players for The Goat squad.
"Playing in that pro-am league must have improved my game; I loved playing in New York. It was big-time."
His Scouts Inc. evaluation is glowing:
"C.J is a bouncy athlete that has the tools to dominate on both ends of the floor. He can block and alter shots on the defensive end and can finish above the rim on offense or score with a nice jump hook. He's got great natural athletic ability."
Leslie, named Calvin Jr., currently is an elite face-up power forward, but will likely transition to a 3-man in college and pros.
Most talent evaluators believe his future at the next level is in the wings, where he must refine his ballhandling skills and hone a long-range jump shot.
In the Elite 24 game, Leslie was, well, Leslie.
He instantly took to the playground style, which features individual expression and loosely played defense.
He unleashed crowd-pleasing dunks, stalking in the stratosphere, gliding down the court, launching 3s and playing like every play mattered. "I like to go, really," he explained. "I like to rebound and run down the court. The transition game and up-tempo style of play really suit me."
But an early college commitment, pledged as a freshman while then attending Holly Springs High (Holly Springs, N.C.), didn't.
"I wanted to make sure I'm making the right decision," Leslie said. "It has to be the right fit."
Leslie decommitted from North Carolina State in March, reopening his recruiting process. Though he has "no clear-cut favorites," several ACC schools are under consideration, including Duke, Maryland and North Carolina. Memphis, Tennessee, Arizona State, Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky are also involved.
"I have no timetable [on a decision]," Leslie said.
He's unofficially visited North Carolina State, Oregon, North Carolina and Arizona State. Leslie said he's planning five official visits this fall, hoping to wrap up the selection process before Word of God opens its season in November.
As a junior, Leslie averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocked shots as the Word of God Holy Rams fell in the North Carolina Independent Class 1A state final. Leslie, a first-team all-state forward, scored a game-high 21 points but the Holy Rams were denied a third straight title when Florida State-bound guard Ian Miller of United Faith (Charlotte) drained a long 3-pointer at the buzzer in a 56-53 victory.
The controversial ending did not sit well with WOGA players and coaches, who felt the shot occurred after time expired.
Following the season, All-American WOGA guard John Wall signed with Kentucky and coach Levi Beckwith was replaced by Erasto Hatchett, who previously coached at Cannon School (Concord, N.C.) and played college ball at Johnson C. Smith.
"Change is good," Hatchett said. "We have talent here and for C.J., the sky's the limit."
The Holy Rams, who were 22-10 last season, will play a national schedule. The wiry Leslie; 6-4 Dezmine Wells, a high-major junior guard; and 6-3 Bishop Daniels form a strong returning nucleus.
This season Leslie's role expands to team leader.
"C.J. is an emotional leader; that's good," Hatchett said. "He might not be a vocal leader but he'll follow my lead and the players will follow his lead. Everyone will be on the same page. He knows his role is for the betterment of the team."
Leslie can hardly wait to tip off the season.
"It's my senior year; I'm going for the ring. A state championship is the goal."
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball, and boys' and girls' basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, for which he ran the Gatorade National Player of the Year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.