C.J. Leslie has been on NBA radars since his early days in high school. But there's a difference between just showing up and making a mark.
He was originally considered a likely one-and-done candidate as a freshman, entering North Carolina State as a freakishly athletic forward with long arms and some offensive skills to go with it.
But between on-court mental lapses and inconsistent play, Leslie built up a reputation that he'd have to prove was inaccurate.
As a junior, Leslie averaged 15.1 points and 7.4 rebounds for an underachieving team that got bounced in its first game of the NCAA tournament.
There's a lot to question about Leslie, but not his athleticism. At nearly 6'9'' and with an incredible 7'2'' wingspan, he's a high-flying forward who spends a good portion of his time above the rim (40.5'' max vertical). He's exceptionally coordinated, with the ability to catch alley-oops on the move or throw down put-back dunks off misses.
However, Leslie only weighs in at around 209 pounds, with arms and legs that resemble my mother's fettuccine. Despite the power-forward position being a natural fit, Leslie is simply too skinny to handle the physical workload it requires at the next level—at least not on a full-time basis.
Offensively, it affects his ability to score easy half-court baskets. Defensively, he struggles to defend the post, which will be a much tougher task once he reaches the next level.
The good news is that Leslie tested as the most agile athlete at the combine. He's got the foot speed to play the 3, but his skill set isn't there yet. Right now, his limited small-forward tools serve him best in the open floor. He's capable of getting out in transition with or without the ball in his hands and has a comfortable handle that allows him to start the break himself:
Offensive Strengths and Challenges
Because of his quickness, Leslie is a tough matchup in the post, where he has room to face his defender in isolation. At the college level, most big men lack Leslie's foot speed and lateral quickness. With room to operate, he uses a quick first step that allows him to beat his man and explode toward the rim.
At the NBA level, this is where Leslie will be most effective. He's not comfortable playing far from the basket, where small forwards are typically slotted to play. But out to 18 feet, Leslie is a dangerous face-up option because of his size, quickness and athleticism.
One of his challenges in the half court will be pulling up off the dribble. While his initial instinct is to get to the rim, it's just not always available. Stopping and popping would allow him to avoid the traffic and get a cleaner look.
Leslie prefers to face the basket because it plays to his strengths. His back-to-the-basket game plays to his weaknesses, where he lacks the strength to gain position and ultimately get off a good shot.
Having strictly a face-up game allows off-ball defenders to get in position to help. A back-to-the-basket game is tougher to contest, because the offensive player's body helps shield the attempt and allow for separation.
Unless Leslie is completely isolated with floor spacing around him, it's rare he'll have the opportunity for a high-percentage shot.
Another offensive weakness is his range. Leslie only made two three-pointers his junior year, and though he's tried to add a jumper to his repertoire, he just hasn't shown it's something he's comfortable with. As an NBA small forward, he won't get away with having to rely on beating defenders off the dribble. He needs to develop a jumper to increase his floor purpose, which will also force his defender to play up (making him vulnerable to getting beat off the bounce).
Another weakness of Leslie's is that his motor runs out too quickly. It's not that he doesn't try; he just isn't wired to go all out. It affects his ability to close out on defenders, fight through screens and recover.
NBA Outlook and Draft Analysis
Where should C.J. Leslie go in the 2013 NBA draft?
In three years at North Carolin State, Leslie has struggled to reestablish himself as the big-time prospect everyone thought he was in high school.
The fear with Leslie is that he'll face a problem in the NBA similar to the one that Hakim Warrick faced when he entered the league. Warrick, another skinny athlete with power-forward height, lacked the strength to score inside and the perimeter game of a small forward. He defined the term "tweener" since he got stuck in-between positions.
Still, Leslie's natural talent and athletic gifts are difficult to ignore. He's a high-risk, high-reward prospect who should be targeted by NBA teams drafting in the late first round and lower. Leslie should be gobbled up rather quickly if he starts slipping into Round 2.