Improving Leslie on a roll for Wolfpack
By AARON BEARD
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) C.J. Leslie is finally meeting the expectations that followed him as a touted recruit to North Carolina State.
At least some of the credit goes to first-year Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried and his staff.
Gottfried has shown the right touch in guiding the 6-foot-8 sophomore, who has developed into a consistent performer thriving on more than just raw athleticism. It's a big reason why N.C. State (24-12) is back in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the first time since 2005.
"I think that more than anything, he's a guy that just wanted to get better," Gottfried said Tuesday. "And I think he needed somebody to challenge him."
N.C. State, the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Regional, faces second-seeded Kansas on Friday night in St. Louis. Leslie and frontcourt mate Richard Howell will have a tough assignment with national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson, but Leslie hasn't shied from big matchups this year - particularly in the last month.
He's averaging about 15 points and seven rebounds this season, but those numbers have increased to around 18 and 10 in the past 10 games. Leslie had 14 points and eight rebounds in the NCAA third-round win against third-seeded Georgetown on Sunday.
He also seems to have formed a strong bond with Gottfried.
"It's one of those things that kind of just clicks as it goes," Leslie said. "It kind of just falls in place - piece by piece, little by little, time by time. It was just one of those things that it clicked when it clicked."
Senior C.J. Williams credited Leslie for spending extra time working on his game, but also said Gottfried has also been key.
"I think he just needed to see somebody that has won before," Williams said. "Coach sat down and talked with us each individually. I don't know what happened in their meeting, but Coach definitely proved to us he knows what he's talking about he knows how to win games. We've all bought into that."
Leslie was a McDonald's All-American out of Raleigh Word of God and the final addition to a prized recruiting class brought in by Sidney Lowe. The Leslie-headlined trio was supposed to help the Wolfpack reach the NCAA tournament for the first time under the former N.C. State point guard.
But Leslie was inconsistent as a freshman. He averaged about 11 points and seven rebounds, but struggled with his shot selection and at times seemed to rely most on his athleticism. And N.C. State missed the tournament a fifth straight year, leading to Lowe's resignation and Gottfried's arrival last spring.
From the start of his tenure, Gottfried has repeatedly called Leslie by his given name - Calvin - to drive home that it was time for a fresh start. Leslie said he thought it was a joke at first, then got the message.
Leslie missed the first three games after receiving improper benefits, but had 20 points in his first game against Vanderbilt. On Dec. 20, he took a length-of-the-court pass and scored the winning basket as time expired to win at St. Bonaventure.
Gottfried said Leslie has improved everything from his practice habits to his shot selection, which is a reason why Leslie's shooting has improved from 43 percent last year to 53 percent this year. He has taken just 13 3-pointers this season after firing up 28 as a freshman - with several of last year's tries coming when he seemed momentarily confused what to do and shot almost as an after-thought.
Gottfried said it took some time to figure out the best way to motivate a player with star talent.
"Until there's a level of trust, players sometimes they build a wall and it's hard to break that wall," Gottfried said. "I think after time and I think with Calvin hopefully, he does trust that we have his best interest. When you get to that point, now everything can go to another level: now I trust you, we trust one another."
One of the most obvious examples came in the home loss to rival North Carolina on Feb. 21. Gottfried burned an early timeout after a slow start, then animatedly focused on Leslie during the stoppage. Leslie appeared to try to walk away before Gottfried grabbed him by the arm and jerked him closer, then benched him.
But Leslie didn't sulk. And after about 90 seconds, Gottfried put Leslie right back in against two-time Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year John Henson. Leslie finished with a career-high 24 points and had 12 rebounds.
He hasn't stopped responding to those challenges, either.
"I didn't get it done the first year," Leslie said. "But you know, it came along toward the end. The second year is coming along pretty good."
Updated March 20, 2012