TERRE HAUTE — Robinson 7-footer Meyers Leonard is not going to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA some day, but his odds of reaching the league are pretty solid if his game continues to evolve as it has during high school.
Sure, the 225-pounder doesn’t have the NBA-ready, grown-man body that Greg Oden had when winning three Indiana 4A state titles for Lawrence North. But Leonard’s athleticism and outstanding passing skills separate him from most 7-footers and he has a nice shooting touch from mid-range and at the free-throw line.
Robinson (25-5) battles No. 1 Hales Franciscan (28-2) tonight in the Class 2A IHSA Final Four. Leonard rarely faces another post man his size, and tonight is no exception.
Franciscan features several athletic 6-4 types on a guard-dominated team.
Also, Class 2A in Illinois is typically very good. Peoria Manual, who plays tonight’s first matchup against Breese Central, won four state titles in the 1990s in the large-school division of the Illinois two-class system.
Olney coach Rob Flanagan, an Apollo Conference rival of Robinson’s, led Olney to the Class 2A Final Four two seasons ago behind 6-foot-11 Keen Thomann, who is having a strong career at Division II Missouri Southern. That’s two out of three years for a Final Four team from the Apollo Conference in the third year of the four-class system in Illinois. (And Marshall represented the region in 2A last year).
Flanagan watched Leonard make strides from year to year as he improved to the sixth best center prospect in the nation according to one recruiting service — and then the Maroons matured with their big man.
“It’s been a maturing process for all of them to fill into their roles,” Robinson coach Bob Coffman said.
The 7-foot Illinois recruit grew from 6-2 to 6-5 during his freshman season and played his sophomore year at 6-8.
“You could see Myers had a lot of growing into his body that year,” Flanagan said. “My 6-10 was a different player, not nearly as athletic and mobile, but a very good player.”
Last year, I watched as Leonard was held to 14 points in a victory over Paris. He had made big strides, though, since covering him as a sophomore in the Class 2A Regional, as he was learning to handle the attention he got on the court from defenses.
Back then, 6-foot guard Ben Jones was the best high school basketball player on the Robinson team — but Leonard had the most potential. The big man has tapped into that potential, but he’ll still have a lot of work ahead.
“If he has a good college career, he’ll play basketball overseas, in the NBA, I could easily see that for him,” Flanagan said. “He’s going to have a lot of work ahead of him. He’s going to have some rough days … The sky’s the limit.”
Leonard has shown improved strength and says he’s dedicated to continued progress in the weight room. And playing with a big-time AAU team, the Mac Irvin Fire, with other Illinois signees has to have helped his confidence.
“Good steady improvement,” Flanagan said. “Meyers has so many opportunities in the summer, based on the chances he got early [in high school]. People invite you to things just because of your size. It opened up a lot of doors for him. You can tell he’s been to some camps that taught him some high-level stuff.”
Flanagan likes the Maroons chances at state because they’re a complete team. But the 2A field is very good. Peoria Manual plays a Class 4A-type schedule every year, and Franciscan features several athletes with big-time potential and one Division I guard.
Leonard appears to have raised his game as his prep career is coming to a close. He plays with a lot of emotion, which can aid him and hurt him at times.
“I think in the last month, I think he’s done a much better job of keeping his head and staying focused,” Flanagan said. “He’s not the only one that loses his focus at 17, 18 [years old].”
With the attention Leonard gets as a Fighting Illini recruit and the big stage of Peoria, it will be interesting to see how he responds.
But I’m just as intrigued by the 6-footer for Robinson. Jones has an impressive mid-range game, rarely even shooting 3s. Perhaps hurting his chance with college coaches is his height or maybe recruiters see him as a beneficiary of the attention Leonard gets from defenses. Jones said he’s had interest from a junior college and some Division III programs.
Jones has scored over 1,600 points in his career, and he attacks the bucket like Harry Marshall does for Indiana State. If he improved his ball-handling at a junior college, he has potential as a Division I point guard. Or Division II level? I see a combo guard who can score and rebound and defend.
“Ben Jones is the Player of the Year in our conference,” Flanagan said. “He got my vote. He’s played since he was a freshman. Night in and night out, probably the best player in our conference. He’s an offensive rebounding magnet and he just knows how to put the basketball in the basket.”
Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at blogs.tribstar.com/craigpearson.